After Iraq, it’s not just North Korea that wants a bomb

The big power denunciation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons test on Monday could not have been more sweeping. Barack Obama called the Hiroshima-scale ­underground explosion a “blatant violation of international law”, and pledged to “stand up” to North ­Korea – as if it were a military giant of the Pacific – while Korea’s former imperial master Japan branded the bomb a “clear crime”, and even its long-suffering ally China declared itself “resolutely opposed” to what had taken place.

The protests were met with ­further North Korean missile tests, as UN ­security council members plotted tighter sanctions and South Korea signed up to a US programme to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang had already said it would regard such a move as an act of war. So yesterday, nearly 60 years after the conflagration that made a charnel house of the Korean peninsula, North Korea said it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended it and warned that any attempt to search or seize its vessels would be met with a “powerful military strike”.

The hope must be that rhetorical inflation on both sides proves to be largely bluster, as in previous confrontations. Even the US doesn’t believe North Korea poses any threat of aggression against the south, home to nearly 30,000 American troops and covered by its nuclear umbrella. But the idea, much canvassed in recent days, that there is something irrational in North Korea’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is clearly absurd. This is, after all, a state that has been targeted for regime change by the US ever since the end of the cold war, included as one of the select group of three in George Bush’s axis of evil in 2002, and whose Clinton administration guarantee of “no hostile intent” was explicitly withdrawn by his successor. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In the original conception of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, non-proliferation and disarmament were clearly recognized as two sides of the same coin, but in subsequent years non-proliferation came to be seen as a realistic goal while disarmament was dismissed as the stuff of dreams.

What turns out to have been a fantasy was that the two goals could be decoupled. This suggests that the self-described realists are having a hard time grasping reality, or, that in some Hobbesian sense they feel comfortable with the idea of a fully nuclearized world.

In such a world, nuclear weapons will inevitably be used.

Is that the dividend of the end of the Cold War? That the supreme expression of state power can be put to use without destroying the world — merely a few hundred thousand people here or there?

The choice ultimately is not between a global system through which nuclear arms can be managed and one in which proliferation runs out of control; it is between one in which nuclear annihilation occasionally takes place and one in which such a risk has been eradicated.

Alone at the table

Kim Jong Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn’t look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea’s traditional language of blackmail.

The puzzle in Pyongyang is bad enough for Obama, but it’s just one part of a larger problem now facing Washington.

On a number of perilous fronts—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mideast—this most diplomatically oriented of American presidents, who came into office four months ago eager for “engagement,” has few responsible or dependable parties with whom he can negotiate. As a result, despite Obama’s best intentions, each of these foreign-policy problems is likely to grow much worse—possibly disastrously worse—before it gets any better. [continued…]

Tests point to spread of weapons trade

Signs of growth in North Korea’s nuclear program and the country’s increasing isolation are renewing fears about Pyongyang’s ability and need to smuggle weapons of mass destruction around the world, said U.S. and United Nations officials.

North Korea’s arms trade has focused on Iran and Syria, countries Washington views as state sponsors of terrorism, as well as Libya. Officials say North Korean arms have also been sold to nations allied with the U.S., such as Egypt and Pakistan, and to the military regime in Myanmar.

The concerns about North Korean weapons proliferation were heightened this week with Pyongyang’s underground test of a nuclear weapon and several short-range missile launches. Sales of short- and medium-range missile systems remain among North Korea’s largest export earners, part of an arms trade that generates $1.5 billion annually for Pyongyang, say North Korea analysts.

With the international community looking to punish the regime for the nuclear test, U.S. and U.N. officials say Pyongyang could try to increase exports of its nuclear and missile technologies as it gradually loses its ability to obtain hard currency from foreign aid and exports to markets such as Japan and South Korea. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — This should amount to stating the utterly obvious (but unfortunately doesn’t): if the chosen method for punishing unacceptable behavior turns out to promote unacceptable behavior, then it’s an ill-conceived form of punishment.

North Korea is attached to its isolation. Engagement isn’t a “reward” (as the neocons would have everyone believe); it should and can be the antidote for the regime’s pathological tendencies.

Leadership mystery amid North Korea’s nuclear work

In dealing with North Korea, American officials are reduced to studying two-month-old photographs of its reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il, to calculate how long he is likely to live. The new administration’s North Korea team includes a special emissary who works part time as an academic dean and a State Department official who has yet to be confirmed by Congress.

And as President Obama tries to find a way to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test and missile launchings, his senior aides acknowledge that every policy option employed by previous presidents over the past dozen years — whether hard or soft, political or economic — has been fruitless in stopping North Korea from building a nuclear weapon.

“As much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,” Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said of Mr. Obama and his advisers. “They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.” [continued…]

Obama in Netanyahu’s web

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, won the first round over President Barack Obama. That’s not good for American interests or for Israel’s long-term security.

All the overblown reciprocal compliments could not hide evident tensions — over Iran and Israel-Palestine and how the two are linked. In the end, Obama blinked.

The president ceded to Israeli pressure for a timetable on any Iran talks, saying a “reassessment” should be possible by year’s end (Israel had pressed for an October deadline). Obama talked of the possibility of “much stronger international sanctions” against Iran, undermining his groundbreaking earlier overture that included a core truth: “This process will not be advanced by threats.”

Obama also allowed Netanyahu to compliment him for “leaving all options on the table” — the standard formula for a possible U.S. military strike against Iran — when he said nothing of the sort. The president did, however, use that tired phrase in a Newsweek interview this month — another mistake given the unthinkable consequences of a third U.S. war front in the Muslim world.

In return, what did Obama get? Not even acknowledgment from Netanyahu that Palestinian statehood, rather than some form of eternal limbo, is the notional goal of negotiations.

Score one for Netanyahu, who, in the words of one former American official who knows him well, “is the kind of guy who negotiates the time he will go to the bathroom.” [continued…]

Israel rebuffs U.S. call for total settlement freeze

Israel will press ahead with housing construction in its West Bank settlements despite a surprisingly blunt demand from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that all such building stop, an Israeli official said Thursday.

The Israeli position could set the stage for a showdown with the U.S. on the day President Barack Obama meets his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House. Abbas has said the freeze of the Israeli settlements will top his agenda in the talks.

Israel contests that new construction must take place to accommodate for expanding families inside the existing settlements, which the U.S. and much of the world consider an obstacle to peace because they are built on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

When asked to respond to Clinton’s call for a total settlement freeze, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue. Pressed on whether the phrase normal life meant some construction will take place in existing settlements, Regev said it did. [continued…]

Knesset okays initial bill to outlaw denial of ‘Jewish state’

The Knesset plenum gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to publicly deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison.

The measure was the latest of several introduced in the past week by right-wing lawmakers and denounced by critics as an assault on free speech, particularly for Israeli Arab citizens, most of whom are of Palestinian origin.

It would outlaw the publication of any “call to negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, where the content of such publication would have a reasonable possibility of causing an act of hatred, disdain or disloyalty” to Israel. [continued…]

Israelis get four-fifths of scarce West Bank water, says World Bank

A deepening drought in the Middle East is aggravating a dispute over water resources after the World Bank found that Israel is taking four times as much water as the Palestinians from a vital shared aquifer.

The region faces a fifth consecutive year of drought this summer, but the World Bank report found huge disparities in water use between Israelis and Palestinians, although both share the mountain aquifer that runs the length of the occupied West Bank. Palestinians have access to only a fifth of the water supply, while Israel, which controls the area, takes the rest, the bank said.

Israelis use 240 cubic metres of water a person each year, against 75 cubic metres for West Bank Palestinians and 125 for Gazans, the bank said. Increasingly, West Bank Palestinians must rely on water bought from the Israeli national water company, Mekorot. [continued…]

Israel destroying Gaza’s farmlands

On the morning of 4 May 2009, Israeli troops set fire to Palestinian crops along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) reported that 200,000 square meters of crops were destroyed, including wheat and barley ready for harvest, as well as vegetables, olive and pomegranate trees.

Local farmers report that the blaze carried over a four-kilometer stretch on the Palestinian side of the eastern border land. Ibrahim Hassan Safadi, 49, from one of the farming families whose crops were destroyed by the blaze, said that the fires were smoldering until early evening, despite efforts by the fire brigades to extinguish them.

Safadi says he was present when Israeli soldiers fired small bombs into his field, which soon after caught ablaze. He explained that “The Israeli soldiers fired from their jeeps, causing a fire to break out on the land. They burned the wheat, burned the pomegranate trees … The fire spread across the valley. We called the fire brigades. They came to the area and put out the fire. But in some places the fire started again.” According to Safadi, he lost 30,000 square meters to the blaze, including 300 pomegranate trees, 150 olive trees, and wheat. [continued…]

Iraq redux? Obama seeks funds for Pakistan super-embassy

The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.

The scale of the projects rivals the giant U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was completed last year after construction delays at a cost of $740 million. [continued…]

Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’

Photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which Barack Obama is attempting to censor include images of apparent rape and sexual abuse, it has emerged.

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube. [continued…]

In Iraq, assertive parliament emerges under new speaker

In a test of wills that could shape Iraq’s turbulent politics for years to come, the country’s parliament has moved decisively against a minister accused of corruption and has threatened to summon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to answer lawmakers’ questions.

The struggle over Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudani in recent days is more than just the typical debate between legislative and executive powers. The newly elected speaker of parliament, Ayad al-Samarraie, a Sunni Arab, is attempting to reshape the institution ahead of crucial elections scheduled for January, eight months before the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw most combat troops from Iraq.

“The government kept parliament weak for the past three years,” Wael Abdel Latif, an independent lawmaker, said Monday. “But now, with Samarraie in power, it’s becoming stronger, and it’s assuming its rightful place.” [continued…]

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