Quotulatiousness

September 12, 2013

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky

Filed under: Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:44

Steve Chapman thinks Barack Obama is a very lucky man indeed:

In assessing the feasibility and probability of Russia’s proposal to secure Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, one overlooked factor should be paramount in our minds: Barack Obama is the luckiest politician on the face of the planet. If he were tied to a railroad track, the train would levitate and pass harmlessly over him. He’s always the windshield, never the bug.

In this instance, Obama got himself into a box that would flummox Harry Houdini. In a procession of careless comments, he said Assad had to go and that if he ever used chemical weapons against rebels, he would face “enormous consequences.”

When the Syrian dictator used them anyway, Obama was forced to prepare for a military strike that found scant public support. When he tried to gain the upper hand by asking for congressional authorization, he got an Arctically frigid reception.

So he faced two unpleasant possibilities: Congress would refuse, in which case he would look like a chump. Or it would agree, forcing him to carry out an attack that was likely to accomplish nothing except to wreck his approval rating.

But then along came the Russians to open an escape route. Acting in response to another unscripted remark, from Secretary of State John Kerry, they proposed to place Syria’s chemical gas arsenal under international control. The Syrians responded by not only admitting that they had such weapons, but offering to surrender them.

The proposal sounded implausible and impractical, but it had too many things going for it to be passed up. Most importantly, it serves the interests of every important party. It spares the Syrian regime a damaging attack by the United States. It spares the rebels being gassed again. It validates the great power status of Russia — and might even win Vladimir Putin a Nobel Peace Prize.

Not least, it saves Obama from looking like an appeaser, a warmonger or an incompetent. It even allows Kerry to portray the administration as unsurpassed in its diplomatic brilliance.

May 4, 2013

Israeli air attack on missile shipment in Syria

Filed under: Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:05

It’s almost anti-climactic to report that the Israeli defence ministry is confirming that an air strike was launched against Syria yesterday. The unexpected part of the news is that the attack was on a shipment of missiles, not a chemical weapons depot:

Israeli officials said the shipment was not of chemical arms, but of “game changing” weapons bound for the Lebanese militant group. The airstrike took place early on Friday, but did not say where it took place.

American officials earlier told the Associated Press of an airstrike. One report had suggested the strike was on a chemical weapons facility.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to take military action if chemical weapons or other arms were to reach Hizbollah.

Lebanon’s army said pairs of Israeli airplanes entered Lebanese airspace on three occasions overnight between Thursday and Friday.

The move will raise tensions in the Middle East and comes amid mounting pressure over the alleged use of chemical weapons by president Bashar Assad’s regime.

May 1, 2013

Syrian use of nerve gas

Filed under: Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:13

Strategy Page outlines what we think we know about the use of nerve gas in Syria:

In Syria the rebels have been accusing the government of using nerve gas shells and bombs. Israel is convinced this is so and the U.S. is inclined to agree with them. The known incidents occurred in the northern city of Aleppo where government forces are taking a beating. Syria insists that no nerve gas was used, but the nerve gas may have been ordered as a desperate measure to halt the advancing rebels, with instructions that “this never happened”. Israel insists it has definitive proof and apparently that is convincing many NATO members, including the United States. Moreover a Syrian general defected in late April and said he was ordered to use chemical weapons against rebels in the southwest recently, but fired shells with harmless chemicals instead. The general offered to reveal where he had buried the actual chemical shells.

Syrian nerve gas is stored at some fifty locations all over the country. A large number of troops are devoted to defending these stockpiles and some chemical weapons have been moved to avoid capture by the rebels. Officially Syria has no nerve gas, but the Assad government has recently made statements indicating that it is abandoning that fiction. Syria has maintained stocks of chemical weapons for decades as a last ditch weapon for any future war with Israel (which few Syrians believe could be won). Israel has prepared accordingly. Recently Syria announced that it never had any intention of using nerve gas against Israel. This all gets even stranger as Israel has recently advised the United States to stay out of Syria, even if nerve gas is being used. That’s apparently because Israel wants to take care of this problem itself, as its Israeli civilians who are likely to die if Syrian nerve gas is captured by Islamic terrorists (who still want to use nerve gas against Israel).

Photos of dead civilians the rebels claim were nerve gas victims do show signs of nerve gas in use (foaming at the mouth and contracted pupils). The only way to obtain conclusive evidence is for someone to bring out the bodies of victims (or blood samples) and soil samples from the area where the nerve gas was used. If the rebels want to prove their accusations of nerve gas use they just have to collect these samples and get them out of the country. Apparently that has been done, at least to the satisfaction of Israeli intelligence. The U.S. said it would intervene militarily if Syria used chemical weapons and demands conclusive proof (blood and soil samples) before deciding and acting. Now the U.S. has apparently been shown evidence of Syrian use of chemical and is debating what to do about it.

January 7, 2013

Paul Wells examines the (virtual) entrails

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:58

In Maclean’s, Paul Wells looks deeply into the hidden meanings of the Prime Minister’s rare interview utterances:

The Prime Minister’s year-end interviews are always worth close reading. Partly because he gives few interviews. Partly because those interviews, widely spaced, show how his thinking changes as circumstances do. This year the changes are stark.

The part I’ve just quoted came when Friesen asked Harper about the possibility that Bashar al-Assad might use chemical weapons against Syrian opponents of his regime.

Would NATO intervene? “Well, I don’t want to speculate.”

Is the use of what we used to call weapons of mass destruction a “red line,” as the Obama administration has called it? That was the question that got Harper talking about risks and caution. “What we can continue to do, as I say, is try to work with elements of the opposition and others to try to push that country to a better solution and try to avoid further escalation of this conflict.”

This is what being Prime Minister does to you. A decade ago, when conversation turned to the use of chemical or biological weapons and the theatre was Iraq, it was Jean Chrétien talking about risks and caution and Harper urging red lines. I dare hope we’ll never get to test the hypothetical in Syria, but it was not only when it came to Assad that this year’s Harper was notably less cocky than previous years’. Chastened, one might say, by a year when the world turned out to be more complex than advertised.

September 20, 2012

Potentially deadly legacies of war

Filed under: Environment, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 15:41

A long, fascinating, disturbing blog post at SciencePunk on unexploded munitions from both World War 1 and World War 2, still showing up unexpectedly:

The WMD was discovered, quite by chance, lying by the side of a Bridgeville road in late July by a Delaware state trooper on an unrelated callout. Jutting out of the ground, the 75mm shell was encrusted in barnacles and pitted with rust; barely recognisable as a munition at all. The trooper called in his find and a military team took the bomb to Dover Air Force Base for disposal. As with most conventional rounds, a small charge was placed on the side of the shell and detonated to trigger the vintage munition’s own explosive. But something went wrong, and the bomb failed to explode.

When the two staff sergeants and technician walked over to inspect the failed detonation, they found a strange black liquid seeping out of the cracked mortar. Given that the shell had been under the sea for the better part of fifty years, the men thought little of the foul-smelling substance until hours later, when their skin began to erupt in agonising blisters. All three were rushed to Kent General hospital, where two were released later after minor treatment. A third, more seriously injured serviceman was transported to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he remained in serious but stable condition with what were only described as “burns or blisters” in a statement issued by the Army later that week. A scientific team were sent to Dover to collect soil samples from the area. The results were clear: the shell had been filled with mustard gas. The United States’ forgotten weapons of mass destruction had returned to haunt it.

[. . .]

With three servicemen now lying in hospital, injured by a weapon of mass destruction, officials could no longer ignore the problem of the rogue munitions. On August 4, the U.S. Army announced a $6 million plan to locate and stem the source of the clamshell ordnance. The investigation was led by Robert Williams Jnr of the Army’s Corps of Engineers. It seemed like an impossible task – Williams couldn’t search every clamshell-topped road in the state, and even if he did, there’d be no guarantee he could complete the survey before one of the hidden weapons detonated. Worse still, nobody knew how the munitions were getting from the ocean into driveways, and how to stop more arriving. Then Williams was handed a gigantic stroke of luck: interviews with everyone who discovered ordnance in their driveways revealed that they had all purchased their clamshell mix from one hauler, Perry Butler. And Perry Butler had an exclusive contract to collect waste clamshells from one Milford clam processing plant: SeaWatch International.

As Delaware’s only clam processor, suspicion had already been placed on the Milford plant. In spite of initial claims that no ordnance had been found on site, when the U.S. Army turned their attention to the factory, it was already the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. On inspecting the facility, their suspicions were confirmed: twelve munitions were recovered onsite. Workers had picked the highly unstable ordnance off the conveyor lines and stored them in a bucket of water in the basement. The munitions that they did not spot had been first plunged into conditioning tanks with the live clams, passed through steam cookers, and then raked across an industrial shucker that violently shakes the cooked meat from the shells. From there, the ordnance was picked up by Perry Butler, hidden in containers of empty clamshells, who passed them through a grinder that pulverised the shells into gravel before selling the fill on to various downstate residents. That none of the munitions exploded at any point was nothing short of miraculous. That no chemical rounds had broken open or leaked, even more so. SeaWatch International was fined $9,000 by OSHA for endangering staff and only permitted to continue business with the installation of $15,000 metal detector. Just three days later, the buzzer sounded. Workers reported the discovery of a 75mm shell, identical to the one that had injured three servicemen at Dover.

The problem is much bigger than the incidents in Delaware, however, as all the combatant nations of WW1 dumped their unused chemical weapons into the sea … and not always safely (and that really deserves scare quotes: “safely”).

With the close of the First World War, both defeated and victorious nations of the world were left holding thousands of tonnes of lethal chemical weaponry and no one to launch them at. The weapons were dangerous to transport and difficult to store. And nobody really knew how to neutralize their contents. So it’s easy to see how dumping the weapons in the deep ocean, out of harm’s way, was seen as a sensible solution. Entire ships were loaded with munitions, chemical and conventional alike, and sailed out to sea where the cargo was thrown overboard. As part of the CHASE program (“Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em), entire ships filled with weapons and unwanted hardware were scuttled, some detonating on their way to the seabed. For many decades, countries cast their surplus chemical weapons into ocean water and forgot about them. Over a quarter million tonnes of British bombs filled with mustard and phosgene gas and the nerve agent Tabun lie in the waters around the UK, concentrated off the west coast of Scotland. Somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 tonnes of German, Soviet, US and British chemical agent lies in the shallow Baltic Sea. The USA has also admitted to dumping toxic materiel off the coastlines of other nations rather than risk carrying the volatile cargo home. The James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies lists 127 known dumpsites across the world, it’s likely even more exist.

February 15, 2011

Defector’s lies may have been the key to convincing White House to invade Iraq

Filed under: Europe, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:05

The Guardian has a fascinating story about Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, an Iraqi whose made-up tales of bioweapons may have tipped the scales on the decision to attack Saddam Hussein’s regime:

The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war.

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

“Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right,” he said. “They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.”

The admission comes just after the eighth anniversary of Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations in which the then-US secretary of state relied heavily on lies that Janabi had told the German secret service, the BND. It also follows the release of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s memoirs, in which he admitted Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction programme.

Update: Ace points out that the Guardian is trying to push the idea that “Curveball” was a proven liar long before western intelligence agencies depended on his information:

The Guardian, in reporting this, is of course invested in proving that Curveball had “already” been “proven a liar” when Colin Powell referenced mobile WMD trucks in his United Nations speech. Their evidence? Well, Curveball claimed that the son of an Iraqi official in the Military Industries Commission was abroad for the purposes of procuring WMD. That official said that Curveball was lying. Case closed, the Guardian claims triumphantly.

What? One source says Iraq had mobile weapons lab and the man in the Military Industries Commission accused of facilitating WMD procurement says Oh no we don’t and the Guardian thinks that the case has been proven and this should have been oh so obvious to the world’s intelligence services?

While knocking Western intelligence for being credulous and not understanding that people might have motive to lie they credulously accept the word of a high military/industrial official in Saddam’s regime as the definitive statement on the matter.

Um, doesn’t he have a motive to lie, too?

If the Guardian and the left generally wants to demonstrate it’s more wordly, savvy, and wise than the dummy-dumb-dumbs in the intelligence bureaus, shouldn’t their conclusion be something far more modest like “The evidence was conflicting and scant, and should have given decision-makers pause” rather than “Oh gee, Saddam’s accused of something but one of his Top Henchmen says Nuh-uhhh so obviously the case for war was a lie”?

March 15, 2010

Latest Iraq war drama bombs at box office

Filed under: Media, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:00

Hard though it may be to believe, American film-goers still don’t seem to want to watch anti-American movies:

In Team America: World Police, the first Hollywood-financed movie inspired by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its attendant political controversy, South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone dispatched a squad of U.S. guerrillas — all in marionette form — to take down an Axis of Evil dictator and, in the process, slaughter the real villains of the piece: a bunch of self-important celebrities who had publicly opposed the U.S. policy. One of these stars is Matt Damon, who’s portrayed as such an idiot that all his dialogue consists of his grinning stupidly and saying, “Matt Damon!” The puppet Damon ends up dead, his head snapped by a Team America hero.

The real Matt Damon didn’t fare much better as the star of the new Green Zone: he went looking for the truth about Iraq’s WMDs, and got blown up by the IED of public indifference. The box-office curse of movies about the U.S. Mess-o-potamian escapade remained unbroken, as Damon became the latest star — after George Clooney, Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, not to mention the South Park guys — whose attempts to address the blood and blunders in our Mideast wars tanked with the mass audience.

Green Zone, reteaming Damon with Paul Greengrass, his director in the last two, very popular Jason Bourne films, earned just $14.5 million in its first three days at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. That’s way below industry predictions (in the low to middle $20 millions) and less than a quarter of the $62 million amassed this weekend by the defending champ, Alice in Wonderland, which has leapt like a White Rabbit past the $200 million mark in just 10 days.

Full disclosure: haven’t seen it, almost certainly won’t see it. I’m not much of a movie fan, especially the type of movie with heavy-handed “message” overtones. Even though I’m well-read in military history, I rarely watch war movies (I suspect I have a touch of “extreme empathy“, honestly).

Update: Frank J. thinks it’s not all bad:

I’m sure Green Zone will make up the money in the merchandising like the McDonald’s Happy Meals tie ins.

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