Archives for January 2014

Is Syria becoming this generation’s equivalent of the Spanish Civil War?

NewsIn the 1930s, the war against fascism attracted the support of 35,000 foreign fighters who traveled to Spain from as many as 53 nations to join the International Brigades.

In the U.S. media, the foreigners drawn to Syria are generally branded as jihadists or terrorists and their motives assumed to be extreme or fanatical. That for many of them their motives might be comprehensible to others who are not Muslim, seems to require a leap of imagination outside the reach of Washington, the press or most news consumers on this side of the Atlantic.

Channel 4 News in the UK, however, has the editorial gumption to frame the following report in a way that none of their American counterparts would dare:

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Tom Perkins and ‘the creative one percent’

EditorialTom Perkins, who was one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, sees himself as belonging to America’s “creative one percent” — the one percent who are “the job creators.” He takes pride in the fact that Kleiner Perkins has “created pretty close to a million jobs.” He says the rich “get richer by creating opportunity for others.”

The idea that capitalists create jobs is central to the American view of the way economies work. It’s so axiomatic, hardly anyone seems to pause to consider whether it makes any sense.

Certainly, capitalists provide investments that make the creation of jobs possible, but this isn’t fundamentally different from walking into Best Buy and buying an iPhone.

In a store, the transaction is simple: make a payment and in return receive a product. There’s nothing creative in the action of the buyer. Money is used in order to be able to make use of the creativity of others. The buyers of iPhones do not create iPhones.

Likewise, investors are buying the fruit of the labor of others. Investors have the luxury of being able to afford to wait for a return on their capital and the willingness to risk seeing no return, but the only creative element in what they do is focused on their calculations about where to place their bets. Even then, it’s creative focus, irrespective of the innovative vehicle, is on the creation of wealth.

Capitalists don’t create workers and the jobs they claim they are creating are useless if no one with the required skills is available to fill them. It is workers themselves and educators and the society that supports them, that are the real engine of job creation. All the investor does is control the flow of money and cream off a hefty portion of the profit.

As for Perkins claim that if the rich are allowed to do what the rich do, which is get richer, then everyone else will get richer too, he’s just rehashing discredited free-market economics.

Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, lays out the reasons that growing inequality is not just a problem — it’s built into the structure of capitalism.

Thomas B. Edsall writes:

There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.

According to Piketty, those halcyon six decades were the result of two world wars and the Great Depression. The owners of capital – those at the top of the pyramid of wealth and income – absorbed a series of devastating blows. These included the loss of credibility and authority as markets crashed; physical destruction of capital throughout Europe in both World War I and World War II; the raising of tax rates, especially on high incomes, to finance the wars; high rates of inflation that eroded the assets of creditors; the nationalization of major industries in both England and France; and the appropriation of industries and property in post-colonial countries.

At the same time, the Great Depression produced the New Deal coalition in the United States, which empowered an insurgent labor movement. The postwar period saw huge gains in growth and productivity, the benefits of which were shared with workers who had strong backing from the trade union movement and from the dominant Democratic Party. Widespread support for liberal social and economic policy was so strong that even a Republican president who won easily twice, Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognized that an assault on the New Deal would be futile. In Eisenhower’s words, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again in our political history.”

The six decades between 1914 and 1973 stand out from the past and future, according to Piketty, because the rate of economic growth exceeded the after-tax rate of return on capital. Since then, the rate of growth of the economy has declined, while the return on capital is rising to its pre-World War I levels.

“If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy – this is Piketty’s key inequality relationship,” [Branko] Milanovic [an economist in the World Bank’s research department] writes in his review, it “generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years.” [Continue reading…]

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Nearly 1,900 killed in Syria since Geneva talks began

NewsThe Guardian reports: Nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria since the Geneva talks between the government and the opposition began just over a week ago, it was reported on Friday, as the UN mediator admitted there had been “no progress to speak of” so far.

The casualty figures were published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition group. It said at least 498 of the dead were civilians, 850 were fighters from mainstream or extremist rebel groups and 515 were on the government side. An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict erupted nearly three years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Syria promised to deliver 700 tons of CW by Feb 5; only 32 tons have arrived

NewsThe Los Angeles Times reports: The Obama administration on Thursday slammed Syria for failing to fulfill its pledges to surrender its most dangerous chemical weapons for destruction and voiced concern that the entire project could now be in jeopardy.

In a statement to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands, U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak accused Syria of “open-ended delaying” of the disarmament process in an attempt to renegotiate the deal it agreed to last fall.

The effort “has seriously languished and stalled,” Mikulak told the executive council of the group, which is overseeing the initiative with the United Nations. Syria’s “open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardize the carefully timed and coordinated multistate removal and destruction effort.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, at an appearance in Warsaw, also expressed concern.

“They need to fix this,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to surrender his chemical arsenal, one of the biggest in the world, to deflect President Obama’s threat to launch punitive missile strikes last summer in response to Syria’s alleged use of deadly nerve agents against civilians in suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Syria initially appeared to comply with its promises to give up its poison gases, and the White House hailed the deal as a major foreign-policy accomplishment. But veteran arms experts have predicted since the deal was signed in September that Assad would seek to test the world community’s resolve and might try to keep some parts of a huge stockpile.

Under a disarmament plan proposed by the Syrians, Damascus was to deliver 700 tons of its most dangerous chemicals by next Wednesday to the port of Latakia, where the material would be loaded onto ships and destroyed at sea. But officials say it has delivered only about 32 tons, in two shipments on Jan. 7 and Jan. 27. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Tigran Hamasyan — ‘What The Waves Brought’

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How American doctors are giving their patients cancer

OpinionRita F. Redberg, a cardiologist and Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a radiologist, write: Despite great strides in prevention and treatment, cancer rates remain stubbornly high and may soon surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Increasingly, we and many other experts believe that an important culprit may be our own medical practices: We are silently irradiating ourselves to death.

The use of medical imaging with high-dose radiation — CT scans in particular — has soared in the last 20 years. Our resulting exposure to medical radiation has increased more than sixfold between the 1980s and 2006, according to the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements. The radiation doses of CT scans (a series of X-ray images from multiple angles) are 100 to 1,000 times higher than conventional X-rays.

Of course, early diagnosis thanks to medical imaging can be lifesaving. But there is distressingly little evidence of better health outcomes associated with the current high rate of scans. There is, however, evidence of its harms.

The relationship between radiation and the development of cancer is well understood: A single CT scan exposes a patient to the amount of radiation that epidemiologic evidence shows can be cancer-causing. The risks have been demonstrated directly in two large clinical studies in Britain and Australia. In the British study, children exposed to multiple CT scans were found to be three times more likely to develop leukemia and brain cancer. In a 2011 report sponsored by Susan G. Komen, the Institute of Medicine concluded that radiation from medical imaging, and hormone therapy, the use of which has substantially declined in the last decade, were the leading environmental causes of breast cancer, and advised that women reduce their exposure to unnecessary CT scans.

CTs, once rare, are now routine. One in 10 Americans undergo a CT scan every year, and many of them get more than one. This growth is a result of multiple factors, including a desire for early diagnoses, higher quality imaging technology, direct-to-consumer advertising and the financial interests of doctors and imaging centers. CT scanners cost millions of dollars; having made that investment, purchasers are strongly incentivized to use them.

While it is difficult to know how many cancers will result from medical imaging, a 2009 study from the National Cancer Institute estimates that CT scans conducted in 2007 will cause a projected 29,000 excess cancer cases and 14,500 excess deaths over the lifetime of those exposed. Given the many scans performed over the last several years, a reasonable estimate of excess lifetime cancers would be in the hundreds of thousands. According to our calculations, unless we change our current practices, 3 percent to 5 percent of all future cancers may result from exposure to medical imaging. [Continue reading…]

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DNI Clapper caught lying again?

NewsThe Associated Press reports: The top U.S. intelligence chief, James Clapper, said this week that the loss of state secrets as a result of leaks by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden was the worst in American history. Clapper backed up his assertion with dire forecasts about emboldened enemies abroad, but some historians and researchers said the U.S. has struggled with even more devastating intelligence breakdowns over the past century.

Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has said Snowden’s disclosures and the resulting media coverage are giving away blueprints for surveillance programs. “Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods and tradecraft,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

At the start of that hearing, Clapper staked a claim he had not previously made in public. Snowden’s leaks, he said, were “the most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.”

Historians and researchers said Clapper’s remark ignores the most devastating intelligence loss of the 20th century — the theft of America’s top-secret atomic bomb design by Soviet spies. Others say a trio of Americans who spied for Russia in the 1980s and 1990s — Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and John Walker — caused immense intelligence damage that led to the loss of vital secrets and the deaths of American informants. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian government demolishing whole neighbourhoods to punish residents

NewsThe Guardian reports: The Syrian government has demolished thousands of buildings, in some cases entire neighbourhoods, in parts of Damascus and Hama, as part of a collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas, Human Rights Watch has found.

Satellite imagery taken over both cities has revealed seven areas where neighbourhoods have either been largely destroyed or totally demolished. None of the destruction was caused during combat. Rather, the buildings have been systemically destroyed using bulldozers and explosives placed by troops who first ordered residents to leave, then supervised the demolitions.

A report released on Thursday morning says the Syrian regime claims that the demolitions were part of an urban planning programme that aimed to remove illegally constructed buildings. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, Vice reports: Last September, an 18-month-old girl named Rana starved to death in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya. Her mother, Um Bilal, had watched helplessly for months as her child grew thinner and thinner, unable to do anything to ease her suffering. She holds the international community and the Syrian regime equally responsible for her child’s death. “The whole world watches the crimes of this regime that murdered my child and does nothing,” she said.

Under siege by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad since November of 2012, Mouadamiya is subject to regular and completely indiscriminate bombardment with heavy artillery, mortars, and massive barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft. After more than a year of this, the town boasts almost no intact buildings and is getting extremely short on places to bury its dead. Despite all that has been thrown at it though, the people of Mouadamiya have, so far, refused to surrender their town.

Of all those who’ve suffered in Syria’s bloody civil war, Mouadamiya has experienced some of the most calamitous bad luck. Much of this is down to geography; it’s situated between Mezzeh Military air base to the east, the regime’s Republican Guard to the west and the elite fourth armored division (which is run by Assad’s brother and chief enforcer, Maher) to the south. This makes the town exceedingly easy to surround and choke off. Consequently, when the regime got bored of trying to retake the town from the various rebel battalions controlling it by direct assault and instead resorted to siege, the result was starvation.

The Syrian regime is employing similar tactics against other rebel-held Damascus suburbs and has been for close to a year now. Having tried and failed to take back these strategically vital areas for 15 months and having used everything in their arsenal—from tanks to fighter jets to a massive sarin gas attack on the 21st of August of last year—they are now resorting to simply starving their opponents to surrender or death. [Continue reading…]

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With Assad regime in stronger position, chemical weapons disarmament stalls

AnalysisThe Institute for the Study of War has released a new report: The Assad regime’s military position is stronger in January 2014 than it was a year ago and remains committed to fighting for Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Nonetheless, the conflict remains at a military and political deadlock.

In the spring of 2013 the regime lacked the necessary manpower to conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts against rebel groups that were quickly making gains throughout the north, south, and Damascus countryside. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had sustained more losses than it could replenish. It relied on air assets to resupply besieged troops in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it lacked overland logistical lines connecting those outposts. The regime had contracted its military footprint to Damascus and Homs in order to its secure supply lines while rebels contested Homs, the lynchpin of the regime’s logistics system that connected Damascus to Aleppo and to the coast.

The Syrian regime has since been resuscitated by infusions of men and materiel from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia and from the formalization of pro-regime militias under the National Defense Forces. This report will lay out the changes in the regime’s strategy and conduct of the campaign that allowed it to regain some of its strength. It will also lay out how opposition movements have attempted to conduct multiple, sometimes competing campaigns of their own against the regime. [See the complete report.]

Reuters reports: Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia, totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1,300 tonnes of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports: In his battle against an al-Qaeda-led insurgency in western Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s is providing arms and funds to unnatural bedfellows – Sunni tribesmen who complain of being neglected by his Shiite-dominated government.

The government has trucked weapons and approved millions of dollars in payments to tribesmen in Anbar province in a bid to win their help ousting al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this month. The United States is also speeding up its supply of small arms to Iraq, urging them to pass them on to tribesmen.

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Tony Blair backs Egypt’s military and criticises Brotherhood

NewsThe Guardian reports: Tony Blair has given staunch backing to Egypt’s government following a meeting on Wednesday with its army leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

In a television interview on Thursday morning, Britain’s former prime minister said Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had stolen Egypt’s revolution, and the army who deposed him last July had put the country back on the path to democracy.

“This is what I say to my colleagues in the west,” said Blair, visiting Egypt as a representative of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia in their attempts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Egyptian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were charging 20 journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network with conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of “a civil war that raises alarms about the state’s collapse.”

The charges are the latest turn in a widening clampdown on public dissent by the military-backed government that ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood six months ago. The government has outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, jailed its leaders and killed more than a thousand of its supporters in the streets. Foreign Ministry and state information service officials say that they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may now be a crime. [Continue reading…]

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Israel needs to learn some manners

OpinionAvi Shlaim writes: On Jan. 14, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, told the daily Yediot Aharonot, “Secretary of State John Kerry — who arrived here determined, who operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism — can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Even by Israeli standards, Mr. Yaalon’s comments were rather rude. Mr. Kerry’s crime was to try to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began last July and to stipulate a nine-month deadline. This is the kind of talk that gives chutzpah a bad name.

The episode also reveals a great deal about the nature of the much-vaunted special relationship between the United States and Israel. It suggests that this relationship is a one-way street, with America doing all the diplomatic heavy lifting while Israel limits its role to obstruction and whining — repaying Uncle Sam’s generosity with ingratitude and scorn.

Israeli leaders have always underlined the vital importance of self-reliance when it comes to Israel’s security. But the simple truth is that Israel wouldn’t be able to survive for very long without American support. Since 1949, America’s economic aid to Israel amounts to a staggering $118 billion and America continues to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $3 billion annually. America is also Israel’s main arms supplier and the official guarantor of its “quantitative military edge” over all its Arab neighbors.

In the diplomatic arena, Israel relies on America to shield it from the consequences of its habitual violations of international law. The International Court of Justice pronounced the so-called “security barrier” that Israel is building on the West Bank to be illegal. All of Israel’s civilian settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, but Israel continues to expand them. [Continue reading…]

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Why the apocalypse is in America’s DNA

FeatureStefany Anne Golberg writes: Harold Camping expected a spectacular death. He thought he would see horses and towering flames. Instead Harold Camping fell down at home last month at the age of 92 and never got up again.

Judgment Day is upon us, the radio evangelist proclaimed a few years ago, setting May 21, 2011 as the date. All across America, billboards became Camping advertisements for Apocalypse. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS Mercy” was one suggestion, “Joy to the World” claimed another. All across the nation, there were Americans who laughed, and those who readied themselves. Camping’s believers stopped paying their credit cards, quit their jobs, said farewell to friends. Some spent their life’s savings in preparation for the End — some spent it on the Rapture campaign itself.

When Judgment Day did not come, Camping tried to assuage believers. “Please forgive me, America!” a new billboard read. “I was terribly wrong about … May 21, 2011. There is forgiveness in those who trust in Jesus Christ.” Then he said that he had gotten the timing wrong and that the End would, in fact, happen in October. But October passed the same as ever and then Harold Camping had a stroke. By that time, accounts of thousands who had mistakenly given up their Earthly existence came pouring through the news. “Yet though we were wrong,” wrote Camping in a letter to his Family Radio Family, “God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way.” Look at the millions and billions of people who heard the message of Christ’s imminent return, Harold Camping wrote. And he would still come, Camping assured us.

Reporters and Average Joes expressed outrage at Camping’s Rapture campaign. Camping’s followers were treated in the media as ridiculous and occasionally as tragic, Camping as a fraud and a heretic. The whole thing is an anomaly, the American media told the world, America is not like this.

But America is like this, and it always has been. [Continue reading…]

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Why I hate coming home to America

OpinionHost/producer for HuffPost Live, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, writes: It’s not easy coming back home to America when your name is Ahmed.

I want to look forward to returning home from a trip abroad, but thanks to my name or as the TSA officer put it — my “profile” — I’ve come to dread it.

The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival. It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.

On Sunday night, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, I was detained for two hours upon arrival. In October, I was held for almost four, returning home after a 14-hour trip to Turkey where I moderated a UN conference on peace in the Middle East. For what it’s worth, I breezed through security in Istanbul.

In Davos — where I interviewed some of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful and highest-profile people — the running joke among our production team, and many of the other participants was how unusually friendly and hospitable the thousands of police officers, special forces, and security guards were. My team passed through security checkpoint after checkpoint at each of the various venues with respect and dignity.

Why then, you might be wondering, am I detained every time I set foot on U.S. soil? As it is always abstractly and bluntly explained to me: My “name” and “my profile” are simply a “match.”

Like all Americans (and every human being for that matter), I want to be safe. But I can’t help but question the efficacy of our national security policy, including the practice of detaining U.S. citizens because something (never specifically explained) about a name or person’s identity is said to match that of someone somewhere in the world who is deemed to pose a threat to America. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. spied on negotiators at 2009 climate summit

NewsHuffington Post reports: The National Security Agency monitored the communications of other governments ahead of and during the 2009 United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, according to the latest document from whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The document, with portions marked “top secret,” indicates that the NSA was monitoring the communications of other countries ahead of the conference, and intended to continue doing so throughout the meeting. Posted on an internal NSA website on Dec. 7, 2009, the first day of the Copenhagen summit, it states that “analysts here at NSA, as well as our Second Party partners, will continue to provide policymakers with unique, timely, and valuable insights into key countries’ preparations and goals for the conference, as well as the deliberations within countries on climate change policies and negotiation strategies.” [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, Reuters reports: Berlin and Washington are still “far apart” in their views on the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance of Germany but they remain close allies, Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament on Wednesday.

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Too much to remember?

AnalysisBenedict Carey writes: People of a certain age (and we know who we are) don’t spend much leisure time reviewing the research into cognitive performance and aging. The story is grim, for one thing: Memory’s speed and accuracy begin to slip around age 25 and keep on slipping.

The story is familiar, too, for anyone who is over 50 and, having finally learned to live fully in the moment, discovers it’s a senior moment. The finding that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in all of psychology.

Over the years, some scientists have questioned this dotage curve. But these challenges have had an ornery-old-person slant: that the tests were biased toward the young, for example. Or that older people have learned not to care about clearly trivial things, like memory tests. Or that an older mind must organize information differently from one attached to some 22-year-old who records his every Ultimate Frisbee move on Instagram.

Now comes a new kind of challenge to the evidence of a cognitive decline, from a decidedly digital quarter: data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, a team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases.

Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging “deficits” largely disappeared.

“What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally bought into the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults,” the lead author, Michael Ramscar, said by email. But the simulations, he added, “fit so well to human data that it slowly forced me to entertain this idea that I didn’t need to invoke decline at all.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: Dhafer Youssef — ‘Les Ondes Orientales’

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Investigations expose the Pentagon’s systemic problem with abusive commanders

NewsThe Washington Post reports: There are miserable bosses, and then there are toxic military commanders.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt was unquestionably among the latter in the view of some staff members under his thumb. A profane screamer, he ran through six executive officers and aide-de-camps in a year. He retired this month after an Air Force inquiry concluded that he was “cruel and oppressive” and mistreated subordinates.

More than a dozen people who worked with Brig. Gen. Scott F. “Rock” Donahue, a retired commander with the Army Corps of Engineers, reported him as a verbally abusive taskmaster. One was so desperate to escape from division headquarters in San Francisco that he asked for a transfer to Iraq. An Army investigation cited the general for “exhibiting paranoia” and making officers cry.

Troops who served under Army Brig. Gen. Eugene Mascolo of the Connecticut National Guard, described him as “dictatorial,” “unglued” and a master of “profanity-fused outbursts.” An Army investigation found widespread evidence of “verbal mistreatment.” He received a written reprimand but remains in the National Guard.

U.S. military commanders are not trained to be soft or touchy-feely. But over the past two years, the Pentagon has been forced to conduct a striking number of inspector-general investigations of generals and admirals accused of emotionally brutal behavior, according to military documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The affliction of abusive leadership has even infected some civilian leaders at the Pentagon, raising questions about the Defense Department’s ability to detect and root out flaws in its command culture.

Inspector-general files show, for example, that Army officers described the working atmosphere under Joyce E. Morrow, a powerful civilian official at Army headquarters, as “toxic,” corrosive” and “like you were in a prisoner of war camp.” Officers complained of menial servitude and said they were forced to fetch Morrow’s iced tea, which she would refuse to drink if it was not served in a cup with a lid and a straw, but no ice.

Most military commanders are upstanding and well-respected by their troops. Many are hailed as heroes, particularly after more than a dozen years of war. But in recent months, the armed forces have been shaken by an embarrassing number of generals and admirals who have gotten into trouble for gambling, drinking and sleeping around, among other ethical lapses.

Some current and former officers say those cases are symptomatic of a more damaging problem: a system that promotes and tolerates too many lousy leaders. [Continue reading…]

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Almost everything in Dr. Strangelove was true

AnalysisEric Schlosser writes: This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe” — a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet — opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth — and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?

With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. [Continue reading…]

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