Sunday, May 18, 2008

Should America Talk to Her Enemies?

When deciding whether to do something, it's useful to see how similar acts have fared in the past. Consider:

  • Ronald Reagan talked to Gorbachev, the head of the 'evil empire,' also known as the Soviet Union. A few years later the Soviet Union collapsed and America won the Cold War.
  • The Bush administration talked to Muammar al-Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, a state sponsor of terrorism. Libya subsequently gave up their nuclear weapons program, turning over documents and hardware.
  • General Petraeus, American commander in Iraq, talked to the Sunni insurgents who were killing American soldiers. Many of these insurgents subsequently joined the Sunni Awakening, allied with America, and drove al Qaeda in Iraq to the brink of extinction.

With all of this success, why are the Republicans so upset that Barack Obama says he'll talk with America's enemies? To score political points, of course. They are trying to attach the label 'appeaser' to Obama. Appeasement was a spectacularly unsuccessful policy followed by Britain and France before World War II where they gave territory to Hitler's Germany in exchange for false promises of peace.

The Republicans mistakenly think appeasement refers to talking, which is false. The most hysterical example is an MSNBC Hardball discussion where conservative radio talk-show host Kevin James calls Obama an appeaser (see video). When questioned, it turned out James was completely ignorant of the history of appeasement and, in fact, didn't even know what the word meant. Specifically, he didn't know that Britain and France gave Hitler half of Czechoslovakia at a conference in Munich in 1938 -- the most famous actual case of appeasement.

If you want ignorant name-callers to run the country, Kevin James and his ilk are for you. If we allow them to define our political discourse, we will lose the war with al Qaeda, because you can't win tough wars with bullshit. If you want an extremely intelligent president who has real knowledge of the peoples we must bring to our side to win (1), vote for Barack Obama.

(1) "You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you must turn them," David Petraeus, the most successful American commander in Iraq.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is Space Weaponization Inevitable?

In the May fifth issue of Space News, Gopalaswamy and Ghoshroy ask "Is Space Weaponization Inevitable?" and provide a lot of evidence that space is becoming more weaponized but never really answer the question.

The answer is no. Space is and will be weaponized to the extent that we, the people of Earth, weaponize it. We can continue on our current path, lead by China and the Bush administration, towards space war, or the space powers can sit down, determine what is verifiable, ban it, and watch each other like hawks for violations.

Had we done this a few years ago, it is quite likely China would never have tested an ASAT, because ASAT tests are very easy to detect.

Further weaponization of space is not in America's interest. We depend on our satellites more than anyone else and they are extremely vulnerable for fundamental reasons. We successfully tested ASAT weapons decades ago and modified current systems for an ASAT role in six months. America would be much better off locking in something close to the status quo than a ASAT/space weapons arms race.

There is a deeper issue driving limits on weapons and warfare. Modern weapons, including today's nuclear bombs and tomorrow's biological and nanotechnological weapons, are an existential threat to humanity. Given enough time, soon or later someone is going to make a mistake and use them. We have a choice: retire war as a human institution or face extinction. I choose life.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iran's Nuclear Program

This was originally a letter to Space News, which was published in April.

Discussing Iran's nuclear and space launch capabilities Victor Zaborskiy, Space News 24 March 2008, writes "... security guarantees from the United State, possibly including a commitment to launch a strike against Iran if Teheran's attack against Israel is presumed immanent, " emphasis added.

This is a call for war with Iran based on an assessment by a security apparatus that couldn't tell the difference between an Iraq with or without WMD -- whilst conducting daily overflights. The chance of this same apparatus getting the intelligence right on Iran's intentions should be regarded as approaching zero. Zaborskiy is a calling for war with Iran whenever the president feels like it.

We know that Iran is developing space launch, and the only difference between a launcher and a missile is the software in the guidance computer. We know Iran is developing nuclear power, and the hardest problems of nuclear weapon development can be solved developing civilian nuclear power. It is quite likely that Iran will someday develop nuclear weapons. There are at least two potential reasons:

1. They wish to launch a nuclear attack on Israel or Europe. In either case, Iran would be obliterated within days by hundreds, if not thousands, of nuclear weapons launched by the victim and America. Maybe it's just me, but this seems unlikely. Supporting a few hundred suicide bombers is one thing, committing national suicide is another.

2. They wish to deter an attack by the United States. Why would they believe America would attack them? Well, the U.S. has been openly discussing an attack on Iran for years. At one point, there were discussions of nuclear attacks on Iran to destroy underground bunkers. That is, of course, just talk. Then there is history. America overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein 1980s war of aggression against Iran, a war which killed a million people. To be fair, Iran did imprison a hundred or so U.S. diplomats for in 1979-1980.

The second option seems, at least to me, a couple of orders of magnitude more likely. After all, the Iranian government has an obligation to prevent attacks on their territory and America has demonstrated a willingness to invade Iran's neighbors based on faulty intelligence (Iraq). Iran can't possibly match America's conventional military strength. Iran probably remembers that nuclear weapons successfully deterred America from invading Cuba and the more recent change in U.S. policy towards North Korea after a single, partially successful nuclear bomb test. A few dozen nuclear tipped missiles would almost certainly prevent an American attack.

This has profound implications for U.S. policy. We'd better get it right.

Iraq Casualty Figures?

The Bush administration claims that 'the surge,' a temporary increase in American troops in Iraq, has reduced violence substantially. The best evidence of this is monthly totals of Americans killed, which went down a great deal then increased recently (see here for data). This is the only really reliable figure, as all other monthly measures of violence are subject to a great deal of reporting error (i.e., are probably wrong).

The number of Americans killed per month is an imperfect measure because there are many things American commanders can do that affect the figure regardless of the level of Iraqi violence. The April 2008 Aerospace America, primary publication of the AIAA, America's primary professional association for aerospace workers, detailed one of them.

The article concerned problems with the US fighter aircraft fleet. The older fighters are wearing out, in part because of being used extensively in Iraq. On page 27 the article states: "Because of a concerted effort to avoid casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, strike missions have increased markedly." In other words, U.S. casualties are down, in part, not because of less Iraqi violence, but because aircraft strikes are used in place of ground action. That said, reducing American casualties is obviously a good thing.

Unfortunately, not only does this mean 'the surge' is less successful than advertised, it also means more 'collateral damage,' a term meaning killing the wrong people, because air strikes tend to be less accurate than foot soldiers. Killing the wrong people tends to make surviving relatives and friends distinctly more anti-American, which is how you lose counter-insurgency wars (see the U.S. Field Manual).

The lesson: when someone tells you their war is going well, look closely before you believe.