Archive for February, 2003

The Lesson of Srebrenica

Sunday, February 23rd, 2003

One of the advantages of a free commercial society is that it tends to habituate people to monetary transactions independent of other concerns like religion and ethnicity. Of what concern is it to me how another prays or where he came from so long as that person is willing to buy from or sell to me. After a time, this attitude is internalized and tolerance grows. In societies where governments dole out many benefits and determine the winners and losers, people tend to aggregate in groups to garner power and protection. This latter condition afflicts the Balkans.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Balkans were a cauldron of competing ethnic and religious groups. The resulting instability was one of the causes of World War I. After World War II, Marshal Tito took brutal control of Yugoslavia and through repression managed to suppress ethnic and religious violence. However, Tito never created conditions that nurtured tolerance. After Tito died, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, all the old animosities in the Balkans could no longer be suppressed.

Srebrenica is a Muslim enclave in Bosnia that was threatened by the Serbians. In 1993, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a “safe area” where the Muslim religious minority could seek refuge. One condition of residence in the safe area was the Muslims had to relinquish their weapons. The commander of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Philippe Morillon assured the Muslim population that “I will never abandon you.” It is not clear how assured the Muslims were by this pledge, but in retrospect they should not have been.

At the beginning of July 1995, Serbian troops began shelling Srebrenica. When Muslims in Srebrenica asked for their weapons back from UNPROFOR to defend themselves. The request was denied.

Soon after, the Bosnian Serbs increased their shelling causing even more Muslim refugees to flee into Srebrenica. As they approached Srebrenica, the Serbians captured about 30 Dutch troops that were part of UNPROFOR. Wim Dijkema, a member of the Dutch force later reported, “We were shield, a living shield between the Serbs and the refugees. I heard there were two orders: one was to `defend them,’ and the second was `we won’t allow you to bring any Dutch in body bags back home.”’

In response to Serbian assaults, the local Dutch commander requested air support. According to the BBC, the request was first denied ostensibly because it was “submitted on the wrong form.” After a resubmitted request, Dutch fighter aircraft dropped bombs on Serbian positions. The Serbians forced the Dutch to stop bombing by threatening to kill captured Dutch troops.

The Serbian commander Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica and seized Muslim men from ages 12 to 77 for “interrogation.” After Dutch troops were released, the Dutch contingent left Srebrenica leaving their weapons behind. Shortly thereafter, 7,000 Muslim men were massacred in the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. Systematic Serbian attacks against Muslims did not end until the United States forces under the auspices of NATO used massive airpower and the threat of ground troops to force Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing of Muslim in Serbian controlled areas and end its occupation of Kosovo.

The lesson to be learned from the sad story of Srebrenica is not that the United Nations is indifferent to genocide. It is not that Dutch troops are cowardly or incompetent. It is that the United Nations is superior at process and bureaucracy, useful in dealings between nations with a respect for law. But as a consequence, the UN can be faltering and ineffective in the face of determined, unscrupulous, and immoral adversaries. It is that the good intentions of Dutch troops, any troops, without resolute and strong leadership, are a weak shield against the truly evil and vicious. This history should be remembered as the United Nations attempts to disarm Saddam Hussein, a universally acknowledge tyrant responsible for the death of thousands, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and adept at exploiting the bureaucratic machinations of international organizations and the natural and admirable reluctance of democracies to engage in war.

The Cause of French Intransigence

Monday, February 17th, 2003

French intransigence, especially with regard to cooperating with its friends, is certainly not a new phenomenon. In the late eighteenth century, immediately after American independence, the United States delegation worked tirelessly to reduce the trade barriers between the United States and France. Such an open market would have benefited both countries, but would have reduced the income for the French customs agents. Those special interests won out.

It certainly could not be argued that the American delegation was not sufficiently competent or persuasive. It was composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It is likely that Paris has not hosted such a high concentration of intellect and political wisdom since.

France’s immunity from conspicuous but inconvenient evidence is also not a new phenomenon. In characteristic anti-New World bigotry, France’s premier naturalist Georges de Buffon argued that plant and animal species in North America were inferior in size and robustness to their European counterparts. In defense of North America, Jefferson had a large moose killed and its remains sent to Paris to demonstrate the great size of American animals. Buffon was no more persuaded by the large carcass that Jefferson lay in front of him than the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin was persuaded by the massive body of evidence demonstrating Iraqi non-compliance with UN resolutions that US Secretary of State Colin Powell laid before the UN.

The French have a number of special interests that only partially explain its foreign policy with respect to Iraq. They stand to reap several billion dollar contracts when the sanctions against Iraq are dropped. They have, therefore, continually sought to undermine the last decade of sanctions in the hopes of monetary gain. However, monetary gain alone is not sufficient to explain French antipathy to military action against Iraq.

It may also be the case that evidence of French non-compliance with sanctions against Iraq during the last dozen years will come to light in a post-war Iraq. This factor is also insufficient to explain French duplicity in this matter. The revelation of French cynical exploitation of the Iraqi market would surprise no one, and certainly not the French public.

Recent French actions reflect a much deeper and fundamental national psychosis. At one time, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte ruled Europe and an empire that extended to Egypt. Ever since the French have harbored delusions of national grandeur. They have not come to grips with the fact that since the Franco-Prussian War, they have been a nation in relative decline with respect to the rest of the world. Humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in World War II did not awake the French from this stupor, but perhaps made the fantasy of French importance even more alluring. Unfortunately for the French, from an economic and military standpoint, they can no longer be considered one of the great nations of the world.

The French have nurtured aspirations of grandeur and insufferable arrogance into a foreign policy by playing other real world powers against each other. During the Cold War, safely behind the physical buffer of German civilians, American troops and their independent nuclear deterrent, they tried to act as arbiter between the West and the Soviet block. They were not willing to devote the economic resources necessary to be a true super power but they were willing to interfere whenever possible to satisfy their swollen sense of significance.

The French are not blocking UN action against Iraq because they are concerned about unilateralism or about the use of force in general. The French regularly deploy forces in parts of former French African colonies and test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere with nary a concern about international legalisms. The French concern is that the United States, by virtue of its economy and military, is becoming a uni-polar power.

France is trying to organize a French-led Europe as a counter weight of world power and France’s current tactics are a meant as a direct challenge to American power. If it has to weaken the UN and NATO in the process it will do so. Iraq may develop weapons of mass destruction, but America is the true threat, a reminder of French decline.

The irony is that other European governments are equally concerned about French political dominance of the European Union. At one point, the French opposed the unification of Germany fearing that the resulting economic power of the enlarged state would dilute French influence. Now that Germany has decided to hide their economic problems by indulging in anti-Americanism, French political dominance in Europe is largely unchallenged. However, the governments of eight countries including Spain, Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom indicated their support for the United States in a joint statement published in the Wall Street Journal. Part of the support was a real recognition that “the transatlantic bond [with the United States] is a guarantee of freedom” and partly as a way to assert their political independence from France.

Perhaps the world will be a lot simpler when France grows up. Everyday they allow Iraq to believe they can divide and delay decreases the likelihood that Iraq will comply with UN resolution 1441. The French actions virtually guarantee there will be no peaceful resolution. It also guarantees that US victory will come at the highest possible cost.


Sunday, February 9th, 2003

Last week in front of the United Nations Security Council, US Secretary of State Colin Powell outlined Iraq’s non-compliance with all the relevant UN disarmament resolutions, particularly Resolution 1441, passed unanimously last fall. The speech was persuasive in part because of the deliberateness and dryness of the delivery. The lack of emotion created an aura of objectivity that ultimately supplemented Powell’s already formidable credibility.

Nonetheless, there is no amount of evidence that the mind of man cannot connive to ignore. The pre-prepared dismissive response by the French made clear that they were immune to any evidence presented in Powell’s presentation. But this behavior was consistent with the fact that the French no longer subscribe to the findings explicitly listed in Resolution 1441, they signed a few short months ago. Duplicity is common, indeed normative, in diplomacy, but the recent French verbal summersaults raises dishonesty to an art form.

To add to the irony, French and German intransigence allows the Iraq regime to maintain the illusion that it can delay and obfuscate to dissipate the current crisis, while maintaining its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. If the French and the Germans insisted upon Iraq compliance and made clear that it supported the grievous consequences that would follow non-compliance, Iraq would be more likely to be compelled into compliance. French and German actions are almost certainly guarantee military action against Iraq.

However, what is more curious are the people who were swayed by Powell. Washington Post pundit Mary McGrory recently penned a column entitled, “I’m Persuaded.” Though she hasn’t signed on for military action, she finally conceded that, “I heard enough to know that Saddam Hussein with his stockpiles of nerve gas and death-dealing chemicals, is more of a menace than I thought … Powell convinced me that it might be the only way to stop the fiend, and that if we go, there is reason.”

Now I am certain that McGrory is an intelligent, thoughtful, and honest pundit, but what did Powell convince her of that was not already plain, that was not already stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1441? Powell may have fleshed out details with newer and more explicit evidence, but it only served to cement the certainty dispassionate observers should have already acquired. Surely, we have all known throughout the 1990s that Hussein had formidable stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; even former President Bill Clinton told us so. If Hussein did not have such weapons, why would he endure economic sanctions that cost him tens of billons of dollars in oil revenues? All he had to do was explicitly list his weapons programs and stockpiles and allow the UN inspectors to certify their destruction to radically increase his country’s, and thus his own, income. Indeed, the potential income the he relinquished is a measure of the value Hussein places on these despicable weapons. Why would he need these anti-population weapons if his only intention were to live in peace with his neighbors?

It is impossible to conduct a controlled experiment, but it is reasonable to speculate that if George Bush had read the exact presentation that Powell delivered, word-for-word, photograph-for-photograph, McGrory would not have been persuaded. McGrory was not swayed by the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and perpetual duplicity, sufficient evidence has been available for quite some time. She was persuaded because at some very intuitive level she trusts Powell more than Bush. She was not persuaded by Powell’s evidence or eloquence, but by his judgment and perhaps simply his persona.

But why should this be the case? Has Bush had a habit of mendacity? Right or wrong, does anyone seriously believe that Bush is not acting on what he at least perceives to be the best interests of the country? As intelligent and honorable as Powell is, his judgment about Iraq has not been flawless. He counseled an early cessation of hostilities during the Gulf War. A short continuation of the war might have destroyed the Republican Guard and fatally destabilized Hussein’s regime. This was not a moral failing on Powell’s part, just an honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. Over the last year, Powell’s position has shifted far closer to those of the hawk’s in the Bush Administration, then they to his. Powell is the one that has been persuaded and now he persuades McGrory.

No, McGrory has fallen victim to the cartoon of Bush as either a buffoon or bloodthirsty cowboy willing to capriciously risk American forces, only restrained by the adult supervision of Powell. The iron bars of her own misconceptions imprison her. Thus, Powell’s real value is to pry open the minds of those caulked and sealed shut against the Administration. In her column, McGrory has revealed far more about her own refusal to evaluate Iraq’s threat than about Powell’s persuasiveness.

The Challenge Ahead

Sunday, February 2nd, 2003

“In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, `Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’ The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” — President George Bush, February 1, 2003.

Not many people appreciate how close the Apollo 11 landing on the moon came to a national catastrophe in 1969. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were nearing the lunar surface, they were having difficulty finding an appropriate landing spot. The astronauts were running low on fuel. If they could not find a suitable place to land, they would have to eject the lower half of the lunar landing module and ignite the engines of the upper portion. This upper portion would return them to lunar orbit. There they could rendezvous with the lunar command module and return to the Earth without ever landing on the moon. Intent on landing on the surface, Armstrong and Aldrin continue to search for a place, pushing the envelope of safety. When they finally landed on the surface, they only had seconds of fuel remaining.

If the lunar module had run out a fuel causing the it to crash on the surface, it is hard to imagine the enormous sense of tragedy the nation would have suffered, the bitter recriminations that would have followed, and the deadly sense of inadequacy that would have suffocated future exploration. In the contentious 1960s, the man’s attempt to reach the moon was one of the few national endeavors that united rather than divided. All this might have been lost, if the lunar module had a few seconds less fuel.

The odds finally caught up with the space program in 1986, when an O-ring in a solid rocket booster was a little too brittle on a cold morning. If full view of television cameras, the shuttle Challenger exploded killing all on board. The event was a particular shock because it shattered the illusion of invincibility that the American manned space program had acquired.

As this is written, the space shuttle Columbia has just disintegrated over the middle of Texas, fifteen minutes from landing in Florida. No one can know with certainty what went wrong. There will not be the same recriminations that would have occurred if Apollo 11 had failed. Chastened by the Challenger accident, the public will be very saddened, but not disillusioned. NASA is no longer considered invincible.

There have been over 100 shuttle launches. The broad public no longer shares the joy of discovery and accomplishment, but does feel the burdens of sadness when things go very wrong. One real danger is that the public will no longer want to finance manned spaceflight, perhaps fearful of the inevitable future tragedy. Indeed, interest has already withered. Over the last decade, NASA’s budget has declined and its programs starved. At present, it represents, only 0.7% of the entire federal budget. The public pointedly did not respond to the Challenger accident with an invigorated manned space program. The Challenger and Columbia astronauts certainly have given their “last full measure devotion” to meet the challenges of space exploration. The public certainly has not matched the effort of these explorers with sufficient support.

The shuttle Columbia was built in the late 1970s and first flew in April 1981. By his time, a second-generation shuttle, a shuttle design that could incorporate the experience of the first shuttle system, should be coming online. There is no such system for want of funding. This lack of financial support is the inevitable consequence of a public that is no longer intrigued in spaceflight and there is precious little political leadership to nurture such interest. There is no shortage of brave and energetic explorers willing to take the risks. NASA regularly turns away many highly qualified astronaut candidates. The only real way to do honor to the fallen astronauts is to support an invigorated NASA. We did not meet this challenge with the loss of Challenger. It remains to be seen what our collective response to the loss of Columbia will be.