Monday, June 23, 2008

Moved to the new site

The Belmont Club has moved to Pajamas Media. Here the link to the new site.

Nothing follows.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Night To Forget

There was no premonition among those who bade their goodbyes that the ship's voyage was going to be it's last. The ocean was calm and no trouble was expected; so no one worried that there were too few lifeboats for all the passengers aboard ship. Few would have guessed that the ship was sailing towards a fatal collision that would mark the greatest peacetime sea disaster in history.

The vessel of course, was not the RMS Titanic, but the MV Dona Paz. The what? The MV Dona Paz. A ship whose loss on December 20, 1987 killed nearly three times as many as the famous Titanic.

One thousand five hundred and seventeen people died on that fateful Night to Remember on April 15, 1912. The events on that glamorous transatlantic greyhound, with its manifest of the rich and famous, have been memoralized in stage, print and film. But while the Dona Paz disaster eclipsed the Titanic by every measure of human tragedy practically no one remembers it . The four thousand three hundred and seventy five poor people who went to their deaths that night in the Tablas Straits, crammed into the rusty and asthmatic 2,215 ton ferry, were forgotten almost immediately.

A few contemporaneous accounts suggest what life was like aboard the Dona Paz that night. But just as the Titanic was a microcosm of Edwardian society, in all its contrasts, the final moments of the Dona Paz were a reflection of what Greg Bankoff called the Culture of Disaster, a mode of thinking in which physical causality is absent; where there is no relationsip between the prior and the subsequent; and where all occurrences arise from the operations of luck or the will of God. A contemporaneous Time Magazine article describes the atmosphere aboard the doomed ferry.

At about 10 o'clock on a moonless night, the grungy 2,215-ton ferry Dona Paz coursed through the choppy waters of the Tablas Strait, some 110 miles south of Manila. The people who crammed the decks on makeshift cots and slept three or four to a bed were scheduled to be in the capital by morning, and the air was filled with anticipation. Young women from the impoverished island of Samar talked excitedly about finding jobs as maids in Manila homes. Mothers and fathers tucked their children into bed and chatted about the relatives and the sights they would soon see.

As death in the form of a small tanker, the MT Vector, loaded with 8,800 barrels of gasoline, rushed at the Dona Paz from the opposite direction its crew was in a similarly fatalistic condition. A subsequent investigation showed that practically nobody was minding the store on either vessel as they collided with terrifying results. The New York Times reported:

The coast guard said today that its initial inquiry indicated that some of the officers of the ferry Dona Paz were watching television or drinking beer when she collided with an oil tanker, killing at least 1,600 people.

Later it was determined that far more than 1,600 died that night. The Dona Paz was packed full of passengers who had been admitted after the manifest had been closed. The crew of the tanker were not much better qualified. "An inquiry later revealed that the crew of the Vector was underqualified and that the boat's license had expired. ... the two survivors from MT Vector claimed that they were sleeping at the time of the incident." It was almost as if the crew on both ships simply pointed their vessels in the general direction of their destinations and left the subsequent management of affairs to Divine Providence. The entire ethos is summed up in the one indispensible Filipino phrase: bahala na, translated as "Let the future be. Fate will take care of it all."

The loss of the Titanic, operating on the Western mind, stimulated the establishment of the International Ice Patrol and mandatory capacities for lifeboats. Except for wartime disasters like the Lusitania and the Wilhelm Gustloff, Western sea travel became permanently safer after the lessons of the Titanic were fully absorbed. But because of the absence of cause and effect in much of Filipino culture, the loss of Dona Paz had no effect upon the subsequent safety of Philippine maritime travel.

The International Herald Tribune has a depressing list of disasters which followed the Dona Paz. Of ships sailing in disregard of typhooon warnings, catching fire for no apparent reason, overturning while packed with children, or just vanishing beneath the waves. One disaster which a friend of mine personally witnessed but which has left no record on the Internet, involved an interisland vessel that sank while already tied up to the pier. The gangplanks were being lowered but the passengers in their eagerness to disembark rushed to one side so quickly their combined weight overwhelmed the freeboard of the vessel and caused the sea to pour into the main deck, sending her to Davy Jones' locker within an arms length of the dock. And the cause of the sinking? That would be bad luck or the Will of God.

Today more than 800 people are missing as a ferry sank after it sailed into teeth of the worst typhoon of the season. The Scotsman reports:

Sulpicio Lines, the owner of the MV Princess of Stars, put the number of people missing to 845 after discovering an extra 100 passengers on the ship's manifest. Only 28 people were last night reported to have survived the disaster and they said many did not make it off the ship in time. ... "Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," a survivor identified only as Jesse told local radio. "There was just one announcement over the megaphone, about 30 minutes before the ship tilted to its side.

Everything about the disaster, from the shambolic nature of the ship's manifest, the negligence of the Coastguard, the indifference to the weather report, the casual way in which the order to abandon ship was given -- one wonders why they bothered at all -- is redolent of the culture of disaster. Although some might be forgiven for imagining that there might be some correlation between seamanship, material condition, Philippine Coast Guard corruption, weather and ship sinkings -- that one might lead to the other -- those thoughts are alien to the Philippine bureaucracy. What will be uppermost in their minds is how the party will go on; how the bribes should continue. Those are the eternal things. And as to the perils of sea, well, bahala na. All memory of the MV Princess of Stars disaster, like that of MV Dona Paz, will leave as little trace upon Philippine shipping practices as a thrown stone leaves upon the face of the waters. Eight hundred people, half the Titanic, gone. Just like that.


A reader recently returned from Iraq emails:

In his book, The Ends of the Earth, Robert Kaplan was traveling through Mexico and made the observation that basic maintenance -- paint, picking up the trash, etc -- is a sign of a belief in the future. I thought about that a lot in Iraq.

Also, I've encountered phrases in two very different contexts now that both have the same flavor: that of divine intervention, or fate, or a negative sort of destiny.

The first is Japanese: "shikata ga nai", sometime abbreviated as "Sho ga nai" means literally, "there's no way of doing it" and actually means "oh, well, what can you do?" Essentially, that's the way the cookie crumbles, though it can refer to things in either the past or the future.

And in Arabic of course, we have "insha'allah". One of my translators would get frustrated with us, noting that when Americans would say this to Arabs, we really meant "we'll see" as a way of brushing them off, or putting off a decision, whereas when they said it to us, they really meant "god willing" or "if god wills it."

It's amazing that two cultures so different should both have expressions that could be used almost interchangeably for this purpose. One of the Staff Sergeants I worked with upon my arrival shocked me when, in conversation with locals, he would twist the phrase and insert his own name: "insha'william". I was worried he would offend. But after several months, I did it a couple of times too, when someone was questioning my own ability to do something.

It's all a way of wringing your hands, isn't it? "insha'allah" or "Sho ga nai." It flies against what I was taught as an infantry officer: no matter what, IMPOSE YOUR F***ING WILL.

I think that's the key difference in cultures of disaster -- for whatever reason there is a lack of a belief in a future, and an abrogation of the responsibility to change.

Philosophers would perhaps claim this to be the key innovation of the West: reason, and its handmaiden science, can improve life such that people inherently believe in progress.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Israel Alone

Two articles, one by Allison Kaplan Sommer and Lisa Goldman at Pajamas Media and the other by Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post, underscore the exorbitant price that Olmert is now willing to pay for a handful of international legitimacy. It's a telling reminder of just how well the campaign to marginalize what a French ambassador called a "shitty little country" has fared. To gain but a little diplomatic leverage Israel must now mortgage its future.

Caroline describes the unilateral concessions that Olmert has made to Hamas; concessions to deep that even the State Department and the UN are aghast.

Israel's decision to embrace Hamas is so outrageous that even the US State Department apparently hasn't had a chance to get its bearings. Reacting to the news on Wednesday, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said, "Saying you've got a loaded gun to my head but you're not going to fire today is far different from taking the gun down, locking it up, and saying you're not going to use it again." The agreement "hardly takes Hamas out of the terrorism business," Casey added.

The "cease-fire" with Hamas also has direct implications for Judea and Samaria. If Hamas holds its fire for six months, then Israel will be obliged to end its counter-terror operations in Judea and Samaria. That is, if Hamas keeps its powder dry until January, Israel will effectively enable it to assert its control over Judea and Samaria and so place Iran in control of the outskirts of Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Afula and Netanya.

If the US was aghast at the Olmert-Livni-Barak-Yishai government's capitulation to Hamas, UN officials are aghast at its second asset drop. This week the government conducted its second round of negotiations toward the surrender of the Golan Heights to Syria. Speaking of the surrender talks to a group of Israeli diplomats, Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, condemned the move, arguing just by holding the negotiations, "Israel has given Syria a huge gift, without thus far receiving anything in exchange."

Giving its enemies gifts without receiving recompense was exactly what Olmert hoped to achieve. The perverted logic behind this strategy is ably explained by Allison Kaplan Sommer.

No one knows exactly when the ceasefire will be violated - whether it is a matter of days, weeks, or months: when the first missile will crack the silence and represent the opening gun to what is expected to be a major military operation in Gaza. The pessimism is based on bitter experience - the Palestinian record on honoring ceasefire agreements is poor, to put it mildly.

So if no one believes it will last, why bother? The overriding reasoning of the Israeli leaders behind the agreement to it is to show that their side everything possible has done to avoid bloodshed - so that when the war in Gaza - which is viewed as inevitable, occurs - the world will know that Israel did all it could.

That, in all its pathetic absurdity, is all that Olmert hopes to purchase at the certain cost of Israeli blood: a baring of the neck to the dagger so that when the "inevitable, occurs - the world will know that Israel did all it could". It's what the Peace Lobby calls 'confidence building'. But the confidence it builds is entirely of the wrong sort. Caroline Glick describes the almost gloating tone in which these pitiful offerings have been received by countries as distant as Iran.

No doubt buoyed by the government's strategic incapacitation, Iran mockingly told the Europeans that it will be happy to consider their European-American offer to build Iran nuclear reactors and normalize relations with it - so long as it is understood that they will accept their largesse while continuing their uranium enrichment activities.

Ironically, even the Peace Lobby is probably convinced that Israel's abject concessions are only likely to increase the likelihood of war. In fact the entire point of its abjection is to eke out whatever sympathy the International Community may deign to give at the moment the thundering freight train of Mars hits Israel. And yet the fact that surrender will increase the perils of war cannot undo the Pavlovian reflex to grovel and grovel yet again.

But in this last, Olmert will have probably have miscalculated . He will get weakness and he will reap war, but Israel will get no sympathy. Sympathy in this hard world is another word for admiration; sympathy was what European diplomats felt when Israel's armies defeated the combined Arab armies in 1967. Then the shitty little country wasn't so shitty. Besides, they bought Mirage fighters from the French and that always counts for something. Today what retreat and capitulation will bring from the capitals of the Old World is contempt.

There is always the danger, when electing appeasers into office, of assuming that when they go too far and overstep, the public will rise up and regain their senses. But that is to forget that each concession they provide the foe increases the cost of recovery until finally sheer hopelessness overcomes indignation. The familiar drama of Britain's recovery from the blunders of Munich often makes us forget that had Britain not been rescued by the America and Hitler's foolish attack into Russia, not even their Finest Hour could have save them from the blessings of Peace In Our Time.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Ken Schram and the idiocy of Libyan leader Muhammer al-Quadafi.

Source: Memri. Title of the video: Libyan Leader Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi: Obama Suffers Inferiority Complex That Might Make Him Behave "Whiter Than the White." He Should Be Proud of His African, Muslim Identity. Ben-Gurion Gave the Green Light for the Killing of JFK"

Wikipedia has a few choice quotations on the subject of postmodernism, the belief that truth is whatever we want it to be.

In 1994, Czech Republic President, Vaclav Havel gave a hopeful description of the postmodern world as one based on science, and yet paradoxically “where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”

Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler offer the following definition of postmodernism: “A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.”… Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture. Therefore, any system or statement that tries to communicate truth is a power play, an effort to dominate other cultures.”

In the introduction to his Treatise on Twelve Lights, Robert Struble, Jr. states: "The postmodernist worldview dismisses all forms of absolutism from eras past, especially Judeo-Christian faith and morals; yet the postmodernists idolize absolutely their new secular trinity of tolerance–diversity–choice."

Maybe there is no answer to the question: what is an idiot?

What has happened to us? After watching this brace of videos I went instinctively to my copy of Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, because I wanted to recapture a sense of what it was like to live in a world where light was precious. We love the shadow now, and indistinct form. Once we sought to see; and now we turn away.

When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had the degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms ... The great events of life -- birth, marriage, death -- by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery ...

Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise. The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout.

What light? What shout?

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thinking the unthinkable

One of the more embarrassing aspects of the Cold War, which we can acknowledge without undue shame in retrospect, was that the safety of both superpowers depended on collective punishment. The vast arsenals of nuclear warheads on both sides, especially in the early days of missile guidance, were aimed not at military bases or government centers. They were not aimed at the White House, the Capitol or the Kremlin. They were aimed at the cities in which millions of civilians lived. Another word for the sonorous term of "deterrence" was holding the enemy nation's population accountable for the actions of the leaders.

Elbridge A. Colby at the Hoover Institution Public Policy review revisits collective responsibility in the age of possible nuclear terror in his article, "Expanded Deterrence: Broadening the threat of retaliation". His thesis, as you might have guessed, is that to prevent deniable nuclear attacks it is necessary not to listen to denials.

The problem is arises from the fact that we cannot deter terrorists directly. Colby writes, "as many have pointed out, terrorists are hard — and sometimes impossible — to deter directly. Clearly, people willing to kill themselves in order to conduct terrorist attacks are unlikely to be deterred by direct threats."

Consequently he argues that there is no alternative but to hold terrorism's parent societies or cultures responsible for any acts they may fail to prevent. "This posture would strongly incentivize those with the capability to act to do so, since gross negligence or complicity would incur retaliation (not necessarily, it should be emphasized, violent in nature). And our demands would be reasonable, because all we would be asking for is active assistance in preventing catastrophic attacks from those who, despite their own involvement — active or passive — in such attacks, benefit from the restraint of our current, excessively narrow posture."

Many elements of a deterrent policy against terrorists are in place already. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that, implicitly, an expanded deterrence policy already exists. It is taken as a matter of course that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah are the object of a deterrent strategy by the United States. The U.S. government’s response to al Qaeda’s attacks, while stymied by insufficient focus and resources, exhibits the marks of a latter-stage deterrent strategy: They attacked us, thus they will be destroyed. Operation Enduring Freedom and elements of the Administration’s National Security Strategy moved towards a deterrent framework. The U.S. has already expanded notions of culpability in terrorism with its campaigns against material supporters of terror, financial backers, direct action, threats against state sponsors of terror, and so forth. Among Democrats, Senator Barack Obama endorsed a deterrence approach against terrorists in his August 1, 2007 speech, threatening to strike terrorists within Pakistan to retaliate for or prevent attacks. More recently, in a little noticed speech on February 8, 2008 that represented a major step forward for U.S. counterterrorism policy, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley announced that the U.S. had recently adopted “a new declaratory policy to help deter terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our friends, and allies.” This policy would threaten with retaliation “those states, organizations, or individuals who might enable or facilitate terrorists in obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.” But the policy, while deserving of applause, remains inchoate and unpublicized. The argument presented here attempts to develop further Hadley’s commendable but incomplete proposal.

Here I should interject that Barack Obama's deterrence approach is less than categorical. The Washington Post reported this exchange between Hillary Clinton and Obama on August 3, 2007 at around the same time Obama was enunciating his policy of deterrence.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew another distinction between herself and Sen. Barack Obama yesterday, refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden or other terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clinton's comments came in response to Obama's remarks earlier in the day that nuclear weapons are "not on the table" in dealing with ungoverned territories in the two countries, and they continued a steady tug of war among the Democratic presidential candidates over foreign policy.

"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance" in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Obama said. He then added that he would not use such weapons in situations "involving civilians."

"Let me scratch that," he said. "There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."

Obama (Ill.) was responding to a question by the Associated Press about whether there was any circumstance in which he would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat terrorism and bin Laden.

"There's been no discussion of using nuclear weapons, and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss," Obama said. When asked whether his answer also applied to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, he said it did.

By the afternoon, Clinton (N.Y.) had responded with an implicit rebuke. "Presidents should be careful at all times in discussing the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons," she said, adding that she would not answer hypothetical questions about the use of nuclear force.

But whether the Obama policy ball eventually stops on black or on red upon the spinning wheel of political fortune, Colby's point about an emerging doctrine of expanded deterrence is probably a valid one. Here is the bluntest and most direct expression of the concept. The words are from the Hoover paper, the emphasis is mine.

Reports suggest that al Qaeda is plotting WMD attacks against the West from its hideouts in the northwestern regions of Pakistan. The Pakistani Army has made halting, ineffective efforts to track them down. Many in the area are likely hiding or at least complicit in hiding members of al Qaeda. Yet, perversely, these individuals most likely either fear or sympathize more with al Qaeda than the faraway Americans and our apparently unintimidating sometime-allies in the Pakistani Army. How does it make sense that it is the American people rather than the relevant inhabitants of the frontier provinces of Pakistan who must bear the risk of an attack launched by al Qaeda elements sheltered in this very region?

Expanding deterrence would redress this imbalance. Instead of permitting individuals and entities engaged in protecting or abetting terrorists to be bystanders, this policy would force them to bear the risk of retaliation in the event of a catastrophic attack. This would strongly incentivize those potentially implicated either to take action on our behalf or at least not cooperate in hostile activities. The same logic would apply to those in the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and other elements in Pakistan who have protected and fostered al Qaeda.

In the event of a catastrophic al Qaeda attack against the U.S. homeland, the United States would, having set out this policy, therefore have the moral and strategic rationale to retaliate not only against al Qaeda members themselves, but also against those whose cooperation, material support, complicity, or gross negligence made the killing of thousands of Americans possible. Legitimate targets of American retaliation would now include supporters, facilitators, moneymen, back office workers, and onwards, as well as infrastructure, housing, food and other supplies, land, political control over territory, marks of prestige, and so forth. Depending upon need and the degree of culpability, American options would include detention, capture, confiscation, disabling, humiliation, pressuring, all the way up to (but not necessarily emphasizing or even including) military operations.

Colby argues, on classical grounds, that for such a deterrent to be effective it has to be credible. There has to be no doubt among allies (who may shelter under the American nuclear umbrella) and the enemy that America will carry out the threatened response. But leaving Obama aside, can anybody, in this politically correct world, really believe it will be carried out? Colby himself has doubts. "The credibility of a deterrent threat is vital to its success. Yet the threat to expand our retaliation beyond those directly responsible might strike our opponents and others as incredible."

The Hoover paper categorically rejects this policy as the threat of collective punishment, describing it instead as "a policy that carefully and reasonably expands the definition of guilt — it is not a policy that targets the innocent."

Readers of the Belmont Club will be familiar with posts which have dealt with the concepts discussed in the Hoover paper, such as The Ghost of AQ Khan, the Return of Danger and of course, the granddaddy of them all, the Three Conjectures. There are two problems in particular which are not closely examined by the Hoover paper. The first, which was raised by the Three Conjectures, is whether there is any stable stopping point if a WMD exchange is initiated. Implicit in the Hoover paper is the idea that terror -- and let's be frank here, Islamic terror -- can be restrained by its larger social milieu. That somehow threatening "supporters" and "marks of prestige" can put the damper on Osama Bin Laden and his ilk; or at least "incentivize" the grand muftis of whatever mosque to cool their hotheads. I hope that control exists, but I will argue that it is far from clear that it does.

The second problem is what course small, non-nuclear states should follow in a world of deniable nuclear weapons. Singapore for example, and Germany according to some, would be examples of countries which could be subjected to nuclear blackmail. If "expanded deterrence" is good for America, why should it not be good for Singapore, which the regional enemy of Islamic terrorism? And if America will have difficulty credibly threatening "expanded deterrence" in the event a US city is destroyed, how can any country credibly threaten that America would retaliate on its behalf against "supporters" and "marks of prestige" (in other words Muslim populations and Mecca) in the event Singapore or Berlin is reduced to ash? If the Vatican were destroyed, for example, who could be counted on to carry out the threat of "expanded deterrence"?

I have long argued that the advent of the terrorist nuclear weapon would present the policymakers with an unpalatable and almost noxious set of options. The menu is so unappetizing that I argued, in Three Conjectures, that it was time to pull out all the conventional stops to prevent being trapped in a dilemma where the only choices were watching one city after the other go up in nuclear car bombs or exercising "expanded deterrence". But if there is no stable stopping point; if the muftis or imams can't slam on the brakes, then "expanded deterrence" will proceed until it is maximally expanded. We don't want to go there. So while we have the chance to alter the destination, let's not go there.

But proliferation, I later realized, will change the nature of deterrence itself. If al-Qaeda can get nukes, why should it stop there? Why not Neo-Nazis? Why not small countries who are vulnerable to extortion? I have argued that once terrorists acquire the ability to engineer repeatable nuclear explosions then every country which can beg, borrow or steal a nuke will acquire them. For example, if Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Taiwan were persuaded a terrorist could attack them, they would not rely on an American umbrella to visit "expanded retaliation" on the usual suspects. No head of state could accept a reliance on actions which an ally might not even be able to carry out on its own behalf. They would therefore get their own nukes and use them accordingly.

I don't think expanded deterrence will actually be seriously considered until after an actual nuclear attack on some country. However, Elbridge A. Colby's discussion at Hoover is a useful first step in escaping from the prison of obsolete strategic concepts and thinking through the problems of maintaining the peace in the 21st century. Even if the clarity comes after the fact, a well considered framework developed now will be useful in restraining the panicked survivors of the Washington policy establishment as they peel the charred skin from their limbs and pick the glass shards from their eyes. Maybe the act of thinking about the unthinkable now will motivate them into conventional action now rather than wait for the very uncertain later.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Prince of Thieves

The Guardian featured an atmospheric piece on how the Prince of Marbella, Monzer al-Kassar, a man on the "Most Wanted" list of Iraq, lived. You could do worse.

The Observer tracked him down to his lavish, 15-suite residence, designed like a Renaissance palazzo overlooking Puerto Banus. Guards swing the gates open to allow guests into the estate, where there is a swimming pool built like a four-leaf clover. Three Spanish mastiffs prowl during the night to deter uninvited guests.

Inside the palace, a grand piano is showcased at the bottom of a marble staircase under a domed skylight. In the grand salon, silk flowers are arranged in a giant Chinese vase in front of a marble fireplace. Statues of servants holding lamps stand before the massive drapes, and on the wall are murals of African servants in turbans, carrying platters of fruit.

Not bad for a man associated with the Achille Laura shipjacking, whose walls are adorned with photographs of him shaking hands with Uday Hussein, members of the Somali Aideed clan, Abu Abbas, up on hashish smuggling charges in the UK, mentioned in connection with Iran-Contra, said to have sold anti-ship missiles to Teheran, and with supposed side businesses supplying terror groups in Latin America and Iran-backed militias. While some might to object to his choice of friends, Monzer al-Kassar is cheerfully broadminded.

Kassar admits that a lifetime in the arms business has led to a variety of acquaintances: 'I met interesting people: good people, bad people. How do I know who's good and who's bad? This is a matter of opinion ... The bad people for you may be the good people for me.'

Who's good and who's bad? If you weren't good to Monzer it was definitely bad for you. The PBS blog tells this droll story of what happened when mere policemen tried to put the collar on the Prince of Marbella.

In 1992, Spain arrested Al Kassar on charges of piracy and providing the arms to the Abu Abbas-led PLF terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and murdered American Leon Klinghoffer. Western intelligence agencies concluded that Al Kassar flew Abbas to safety aboard one of his private planes after the hijackers surrendered. One prosecution witness, Ahmed Al Assadi, while spending time in Vercelli prison for participating in the hijacking, changed his story and refused to go to Spain to identify Al Kassar as the person who supplied the hijackers' weapons. After Al Kassar's arrest, another accuser, Ismail Jalid, fell to his death from a fifth-story window in Marbella, Spain, in what the coroner called "an alcoholic coma." During the 1995 trial, in a highly publicized standoff with police, a third witness's children were kidnapped by Colombian drug traffickers shortly before he testified. The witness blamed Al Kassar, who denied involvement and stated, "I have nothing to do with the kidnapping and I hope that it is over as soon as possible. Children are sacred for Arabs. No one, not even your worst enemy, deserves this." Al Kassar was later acquitted of all charges.

The really interesting thing about the underworld life is how often coincidences routinely happen. How many people do you know who will stagger up from an alcoholic coma and pitch themselves out of five story windows? Fortunately for most of us civilians, there are people who don't believe in coincidences. And a lot of them apparently work at the DEA, who asked themselves, now what kind of person would Monzer al-Kasser hang out with? The answer they came up with was 'the kind of people looking to buy uranium'.

Among the more explosive revelations from the laptops of the late FARC leader Raul Reyes is the allegation that the FARC was trafficking in radioactive materials and according to Colombia’s Vice President was planning to build a “dirty bomb.”

That meant FARC had money to burn, and Monzer was going after some of it. After all, castles in Spain don't come cheap and a man's got to make a living.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s press release, international arms-trafficker extraordinaire Victor Bout was arrested for plotting to sell weapons to the FARC – not knowing that the reputed FARC representatives were in fact working for the DEA. Only nine months ago another notorious international arms dealer, Monzer al-Kasser was arrested for conspiring to sell weapons (and trainers) to the FARC, when in fact the FARC buyers were in fact DEA operatives. For al-Kasser, who has been linked to the Palestine Liberation Front (the group responsible for the Achille Lauro hijacking) as well as leading Baathist figures from Syria and Iraq, it was more than just business. He offered to raise an army to assist the FARC. Al-Kasser seems to have had a passion for his work.

The details of Monzer's tender to FARC make interesting reading. A DEA release is a tale of ships, missiles and mercenaries.

During their consensually recorded meetings, Kassar, Ghazi, and Moreno-Godoy provided the CSs with, among other things: (1) a schematic of the vessel to be used to transport the weapons; (2) specifications for the SAMs they agreed to sell to the FARC; and (3) bank accounts in Spain and Lebanon that were ultimately used to conceal more than $400,000 from DEA undercover accounts that the CSs represented, and Kassar, Ghazi, and Moreno-Godoy believed, were FARC drug proceeds for the weapons deal. During their meetings with the CSs, Kassar, Ghazi, and Moreno-Godoy reviewed Nicaraguan end-user certificates that were used to make the weapons deal appear legitimate. Kassar also promised to provide the FARC with ton-quantities of C4 explosives, as well as expert trainers from Lebanon to teach the FARC how to effectively use C4 and improvised explosive devices (commonly referred to as "IEDs"). In addition, Kassar offered to send a thousand men to fight with the FARC against United States military officers in Colombia.

He offered to supply Strela 2M MANPADs that could be used against US helicopter assets operating in support, presumably, of the Colombian government. FARC is a major insurgency and controls or influences an area larger than some European countries. The DEA documents suggest it was planning some major fireworks. Even so, what developments pushed FARC into planning its buildup just now? Was it fantasy or a serious plan? Had they acquired major new allies internationally or in the region? When Monzer and Bout's trial opens, the public may get to find out.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Just why exactly did Barack Obama suddenly become concerned with providing security for Iraqi reconstruction in April, 2004? I look at the question at Pajamas Media. Here's Obama in April, 2004.

What exactly happened at around that time that might be of interest?

Here's what I think, and try to document in the Pajamas Media article.

The shifts in Barack Obama’s policy toward Iraq show a remarkable correlation with the rise and fall of Tony Rezko’s business prospects in the Chamchamal Power Plant. As the story of the Rezko syndicate is exposed in his Chicago trial, the subject of its Iraqi commercial interests will come under a brighter light. Barack Obama has already said of his convicted ex-fundraiser, “this is not the Tony Rezko I used to know.”

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The return of danger

A reader sends some additional thoughts on the consequences of nuclear proliferation, a subject discussed in an earlier post, especially in comments. He writes: "Mark Helprin considered the risk of a nuclear attack on Germany and how it would strain NATO in a recent article at the Claremont Review. Germany is of course a key ally of the US, but one of the few large prosperous countries that is not nuclear." Helprin described the vulnerability of rich, poorly defended European countries in these words:

Germany must fascinate the jihadists, too—not for displacing America as the prime target, but as the richest target least defended. Though it will never happen, they believe that Islam will conquer the world, and so they try. Unlike the U.S., Europe is not removed from them by an ocean, and in it are 50 million of their co-religionists among whom they can disappear and find support. ...

But more importantly, the variations in European attitudes and capabilities vis-à-vis responding to terrorism or nuclear blackmail are what make Germany such an attractive target. Unlike the U.S., France, and Britain, Germany is a major country with no independent expeditionary capability and no nuclear weapons, making it ideal for a terrorist nuclear strike or Iranian extortion if Iran is able to continue a very transparent nuclear policy to its logical conclusion. Though it is conceivable that after the shock of losing Washington or Chicago, the U.S.—or Britain after Birmingham, France after Lyons—would, even without an address certain, release a retaliatory strike, it is very unlikely that, even with an address certain, any nuclear power would launch in behalf of another nation, NATO ally or not, absent an explicit arrangement such as the dual-key structure during the Cold War.

Looking at Germany, then, Iran sees a country with nothing to counter the pressure of merely an implied nuclear threat. Jihadists see the linchpin of Europe, easy of access and inadvertently hospitable to operations, that will hardly punish those who fall into its hands, and that can neither accomplish on its own a flexible expeditionary response against a hostile base or sponsor, nor reply in kind to a nuclear strike. Thus the German government should be especially nervous about cargos trucked overland from the east.

Perhaps one of the most tragic outcomes of the soft approach towards rogue states is that it may unwittingly speed up the complete collapse of the nonproliferation regime and usher in its consequence, the re-armament of Europe. If Helperin is correct predicting that radical Islam's first targets will be the rich, undefended and politically correct societies of Europe, then one might ask how those societies will eventually respond to an existential challenge.

It is too early in the game to predict anything. But the diplomatic consequences of a breakdown in nonproliferation make an interesting subject for scholarly examination.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

The Monzer's Ball Meets the Transporter

Victor Bout and Monzer al-Kassar: household names, if not in the land of the living, then among the houses of the soon to be dead: the victims of the world's Merchants of Death. Victor Bout was a notorious Russian arms dealer, doing business all over the world, who was arrested in a DEA sting operation in Thailand, where he remains. The Americans want him tried in New York. The Russians don't. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Bout was arrested in a sting operation initiated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration a few hours after he arrived in Bangkok. The agency says he came to Thailand to negotiate the sale of Igla surface-to-air missiles to two undercover agents posing as officers from the Colombian narco-rebel movement known as FARC.

Bout claims he's an innocent man who used to be a fan of the United States. "I used to admire the Americans, I looked up to them. But today I despise the Americans, and so does the entire world. They think they can do whatever they want anywhere." But he's still politically correct kind of guy. The Herald continues: "Bout presents himself as just an ordinary, conscientious businessman. During the interview he said his only businesses were an airport maintenance company and a farm in the Caucasus, where he rears goats to make cheese for restaurants in Moscow. He was a vegetarian and concerned about the disappearance of rainforests in Africa, he said."

Bout also denied that he was ever involved in illegal arms trafficking. "I used to run an air transport company. Perhaps there were guns on board, but I was only a transporter. If I was guilty of smuggling guns, then any taxi driver in Bangkok would have to be arrested if he has had a drug trafficker or arms merchant as a passenger."

As Bout was fuming in his Thai cell, another distinguished figure from the shadow world was disembarking in New York city in the custody of -- the DEA. "from a clear blue sky, an ordinary A-Star helicopter touched down at a helipad on Pier 6. ... A white-haired man, in shackles, emerged from the cabin and was led across the tarmac to a waiting black Cadillac Escalade ... The city has its secrets, many of them openly on display, and this was one of them: an international arms dealer arriving in New York, having just been extradited by the government of Spain. His name is Monzer al-Kassar, and he had recently come off a flight from Europe, followed by a 40-minute helicopter jaunt from Westchester County Airport. He looked haggard, and was perhaps wearing the clothes that he had slept in. He did not look pleased."

The Jerusalem Post writes that Monzer al-Kassar was the man who supplied weapons to terrorists and criminals the world over:

Monzer al-Kassar is not a name most Israelis would identify as one of its terrorist enemies. He has neither planned nor participated in such attacks, nor is he a member of any of the groups that has carried them out. But Kassar has in fact played a key role in some of the worst atrocities committed against Israeli and Jewish civilians, and his links to one Arab regime in particular - that of his native country, Syria - deserve special scrutiny at a moment when Jerusalem is just about to begin potentially historic negotiations with its government.

Earlier this year, he was arrested by Spanish authorities after allegedly offering to sell weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency posing as representatives of Colombia's FARC guerrilla group. On Friday he was extradited from Madrid to New York City, where he is scheduled to face trial on charges that also include conspiracy and money-laundering.

Like Bout, Monzer al-Kasser claims he was nothing if not a nice guy. He lived so munificently in Spain that he was called the "Prince of Marbella". Maybe one day someone will write a book about how the darkest black of night sometimes lurks amidst sunny beaches, vegetarian dishes and beautiful goat's cheese.

But the gathering of these two shadowy figures in New York City raises some interesting lines of speculation. Among the questions which immediately come to mind are: why Bout and Monzer, guilty of a string of crimes as long as your arm, happened to go down in connection with a MANPAD missile sale involving Columbia's FARC? Is there a connection between Monzer's sudden loss of official protection and the mooted peace deal between Israel and Syria? Is the DEA handling this affair because other agencies might have a conflict of interest in any trial involving Bout and Monzer? What political candidate(s) may be embarassed by revelations about FARC and connections to Lebanon or Syria?

The DEA and DOJ description of charges against Monzer make interesting reading. And so does the DOJ sheet against Bout. Here's my guess. The US wants both Monzer and Bout down for offenses not limited to the FARC manpad missile sale. But making the FARC missile sale the actual offense of record means that the discovery will go to places nobody minds visiting, except certain politicians who are now frantically checking so see whether they are in any shape, way or form connected with FARC, Syria and Lebanon.

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Site Moves

The Belmont Club will be moving on Monday, June 23 to Pajamas Express, a development which I hope will have several advantages. First, readers will be a little closer, in terms of clicks, to some of the most distinguished names on the blogosphere: Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Miniter, Roger Kimball, Bill Bradley, Ron Rosenbaum, Phillis Chester, Flemming Rose, Claudia Rosett, Michael Ledeen and Ron Silver. Equally compelling for me was the chance at having more control over the site, something that is a little hard to do with Blogger, and the opportunity to use the plug-ins and features available in Wordpress.

I know some firewalls exclude Blogger sites, so access for some readers may improve. The Blogger RSS feeds have also been the subject of some complaint. With the change in platform, those difficulties may be solved.

Inevitably there will some inconvenience associated with the move. There's the hassle of moving bookmarks. I'll provide a link at the top of the old page for those who can't be bothered. It's not without its headaches for me, having grown familiar with the Blogger interface, and it's like an old shoe you don't want to put away. The little widgets, the linkroll, traffic counter, blogroll, etc all have to be recast. But ultimately the move will be worth the effort.

All the archives will remain where they are. However, on the day of the move I'll lock down this site to disable the posting of additional comments, otherwise the trolls and spammers will move into the comments section.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

You don't know me

Rezko and Odinga are important persons in their own right, but it is their connection to Barack Obama that has the press interested. First, Kenyan PM Raila Odinga is not going to meet with Obama when he visits the US. "Mr Odinga has said he is a cousin of Mr Obama’s, although the senator’s representatives deny that the two men are related. The Kenyan-American presidential candidate may wish to avoid meeting with the PM due to concerns that such contact would be used to stoke rumours intended to wound Senator Obama politically. ... Right-wing extremists have been circulating baseless claims on the Internet that Senator Obama is closely allied with Prime Minister Odinga, who is described by the Obama-haters as both an Islamist and a socialist.".

Over in Chicago, Tony Rezko says prosecutors pressured him to talk about Barack Obama. The prosecutors deny it. "In a letter to a judge publicized last week, political fund-raiser Tony Rezko said 'overzealous' prosecutors pressured him to tell them "the wrong things" about presidential hopeful Barack Obama."

The actual text of the letter, which Rezko wrote while seeking bail before his conviction is at this link. In it Rezko denies he is a criminal, portraying himself instead as the epitome of a loyal American. He said:

I am simply an honest, humble immigrant who believes in the American dream. ... I am a die-hard Bears fan ... The White Sox are my baseball team because they are my son's team. Until recently, I was also a season ticket-holder for the Bulls.

But Rezko's apple pie had strange and persistent Middle Eastern spices. The Sun-Times wrote: "Rezko was indicted in October 2006 while on a trip to Syria, and he had returned to face the case. He remained free on bail until Jan. 28, after prosecutors raised an alarm with the judge that Rezko had received a $3.5 million wire transfer from Lebanon. [Judge] St. Eve jailed him until April, when family and friends put up $8.5 million to secure his release."

The $3.5 million was sent by Nahdmi Auchi of all people. The Sun-Times continues.

Rezko opened his letter by apologizing to St. Eve for not informing her of the $3.5 million, which had come to Rezko through Beirut from General Mediterranean Holding SA, a company led by Auchi. He said he took the money in because he was under "tremendous pressure" to pay his legal bills.

Even the $8.5 million bond raised by his Chicago friends had a connection with Iraq. It included $1.9 million put up by Rezko's old classmate and onetime fugitive Aiham Alsammarae. Alsammarae was a former "Iraqi Electricity Minister ... who in 2006 fled from Iraqi prison. Alsammarae's $1.9 million equity in his Oak Brook home and two other properties made up more than one-third of the $8 million in properties postes to ensure Rezko's bond. Rezko was ... arrested Jan. 28 after failing to disclose an overseas wire transfer."

In the letter explaining why he did not disclose the wire transfer, Rezko said he had been told by his attorneys that since the money from Auchi was a "loan" he had no obligation to disclose it to the judge. At any rate his heart was as pure as only a Bears fan could be. "However, your Honor, the thought of making plans to leave the country never crossed my mind." Rezko portrayed himself as just an innocent immigrant who was being pressured by unscrupulous prosecutors to say bad things about honest and decent men.

Your Honor, the prosecutors have been overzealous in pursuing a crime that never happened. They are pressuringme to tell them the "wrong" things that I supposedly know about Governor Blagojevich and Senator Obama. I have never been party to any wrongdoing that involved the Governor or the Senator. I will never fabricate lies about anyone else for selfish purposes. I will take what comes my way, but I will never hurt innocent people. I am not Levine, Loren, Mahru, or Winter. I am simply an honest, humble immigrant who believes in the American dream.

The Sun-Times thinks the letter, written before Rezko's conviction, was his way of saying that he didn't want to make a deal. But now that Rezko is facing a long stretch in jail, he may regret his decision.

The letter sent a clear signal that Rezko was not interested in making a deal. But Rezko's situation changed dramatically after his June 4 conviction. He not only landed right back in jail, but faces significant prison time. Beyond that, Rezko still faces two other criminal trials. If Rezko were to have a future change of heart, the note he sent could end up backfiring on him, legal observers say.

The Chicago Sun-Times is probably right in thinking Rezko was signaling that he wasn't going to make a deal. But the Sun-Times may be wrong to assume the signal was being sent to the prosecutor. As the Sun-Times itself notes, the prosecutors claim they never approached Rezko on the subject. So who was the signal in the letter meant for? Maybe Rezko was signaling To Whom it May Concern on the Outside. The world of Tony Rezko has gotten very small. An Illinois jail is a very confined place for anyone who plans on snitching on powerful allies. Nor is there any safety in fleeing to Lebanon or Syria if he crosses Auchi. Dollars to donuts says Auchi has even more friends in those parts than Tony Rezko. So at all events Rezko has to be the stand up man. It would have been nice if the Judge hadn't found out about the money Auchi sent; the money Rezko wasn't going to use to skip. Then he could have been free and in the good graces of his friends. Maybe. All in all, given the complications of the situation maybe the best Tony Rezko can hope for is life imprisonment in jail. It's possible that there's nothing Fitzgerald can threaten Rezko with that would remotely compare with the downside of making a deal. Which is probably why the prosecutors have denied asking Rezko to turn in any associates.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The ghost of AQ Khan

Fox has an interesting story about the state of nuclear weapons technology proliferation.

A draft report released by a former U.N. weapons inspector found that the international smuggling ring that supplied nuclear designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea also obtained the blueprints for an advanced nuclear warhead, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

David Albright, a well-known nuclear weapons expert, said that designs for a nuclear device small enough to fit on a ballistic missile were found on computers belonging to the now-defunct smuggling ring of rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Swiss authorities, under the direction of the IAEA reportedly destroyed the computer contents, said the Post. But Albright — who is known for exposing the location of Iran's secret nuclear facilities — warns the electronic blue-prints, made up of hundreds of pages of documents, could easily be copied and shared with a number of countries, according to the newspaper.

"These advanced nuclear weapons designs may have long ago been sold off to some of the most treacherous regimes in the world," Albright wrote in his report, which was obtained by the newspaper.

I think any reasonable person can deduce several very probable things from this information. First, that a number of regimes, including but not limited to, Iran, Libya, and North Korea, are interested in developing nuclear weapons outside of the non-proliferation regime. Second, that nuclear weapons design information is already available to them, and possibly to any private party with the money to purchase it.

It is less probable, but certainly reasonable to conclude that because elements of the Pakistani government have been involved in AQ Khan's activity, it is by no means impossible that al-Qaeda has the weapons design information.

It is therefore possible that the only thing standing between the world and a rogue nuclear weapon or weapons are industrial and engineering difficulties. That is, the stockpiling of fissile material the development of the weapons components (such as fuses) themselves and the refinement of delivery systems. The existence of an advanced design means that a delivery system could be fairly small. A small cargo aircraft, a large executive jet or a pallet on a 747 freighter.

Since all the industrial and engineering difficulties are probably going to be solved over the course of several decades there is a real probability of a future nuclear September 11. Like the original September 11, it may feature multiple simultaneous attacks. Perhaps upon the original cities, perhaps upon a dozen or more.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The dark frontier

Pakistan claims 11 of its paramilitary forces were killed on its border with Pakistan by US forces. US forces thought they were fighting the Taliban. There is not necessarily a contradiction between the two statements. Bill Roggio writes, "The Pakistani government maintains the US military struck a paramilitary outpost in Mohmand. A Pakistani military spokesman "condemned this completely unprovoked and cowardly act on the post and regretted the loss of precious lives of our soldiers."

A video clip describing the Pakistani outrage over the attack on what it considers to be its soldiery is shown below.

However, the US military released a video which clearly shows a number of individuals firing upon coalition forces until they were all killed by four precision guided weapons. Any reasonable commander on the ground would assume the forces depicted in the video clip below were hostile.

Bill Roggio highlights the possibility that Pakistan has already lost or is losing control of its border and observes, "as the security situation along the border further destabilizes, US and Afghan forces will be forced to strike along the border to prevent infiltration of Pakistani Taliban forces."

The situation poses a number of strategic dilemmas for the US. US-led forces may have to assume the security responsibility for an area that Pakistan has effectively abandoned to the Taliban while simultaneously being pummeled by the "outrage" of same Pakistani politicians who abdicated it in the first place. In the worst case Pakistan will demand all the dignities of sovereignty over an area for which they will assume no meaningful control. At the same time, the US must respond to this situation without wholly alienating Pakistan through which the bulk of US supplies pass. Afghanistan will be effectively lost if the supply lines are irrevocably closed.

It's a scenario tailored-made for extortion. Efforts will probably be made to encourage Pakistan to resume control over the area through such inducements as training, largesse and foreign aid. But the internal problems of Pakistan itself will make all such efforts as effective as pushing on a rope. The strategic goal of ensuring al-Qaeda and similar organizations have no safe haven in the area is inextricably linked to the political health of Pakistan. While Pakistan remains broken it cannot effectively control its territory; and border problems will only get worse. A fractured Pakistan will ipso facto mean that radical Islamic organizations will always have a safe haven within its formal borders.

Finding a way to stabilize Pakistan is of overriding importance. Afghanistan can be lost on the Pakistani border, but Pakistan itself cannot be saved on the Northwest Frontier. That can only happen through political improvements in its heartland. If Pakistan unravels or permanently loses part of its territory it may eventually set in train a series of events that will destabilize the subcontinent, with incalculable consequences not only for the region but for Central Asia and even the UK.

The return of Benazir Bhutto was a failed attempt to find a magic bullet with which to slay Pakistan's political monsters. Whether they can still be stopped is an open question.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.

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