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A Clash of Messianisms: now let me get this straight

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- slightly tongue-in-cheek, intrigued at a rhetorical level, not sure who here, if anyone, necessarily believes the words they speak ]
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Okay, let’s see now.

  • In December 2009, Israeli PM Netanyahu said, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.” 
  • In April 2012, former Israeli Shin Bet intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, said “I don’t believe in either the prime minister (Netanyahu) or the defense minister (Barak). I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings…” 
  • In October 2013, Israeli PM Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly, “In our time the Biblical prophecies are being realized.” 
  • In January 2014, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is quoted as calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic”.
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    I told you messianism was a big deal. Now will you listen?

    At the very least, it’s heating up the rhetoric of the the quest for peace…

    So how many “wide-eyed believers” have gotten hold of “the reins of power and the weapons of mass death” at last count?

    **

    I coulda made at least two DoubleQuotes out of that little lot.

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Fukushima: which is worse for you, radiation or paranoia?

Monday, January 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- frankly, I'm more concerned about the spiritually and socially corrosive impact of fear, myself ]
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I know, technically radiation and paranoia are incommensurables. But still…

Blog-friend Cheryl Rofer posted today at Nuclear Diner, pointing out the fallacies in some recent reports about Fukushima, spreading like wildfire on the web:

I particularly like the “Fukushima melt-through point” in one of the illustrations in that apparently original source, reproduced here. That’s referring to the China Syndrome, in which the melted reactor core melts down through the earth. But once it gets to the center, does it keep climbing, against gravity, to that “melt-through point”?

How much outrageous or stupid stuff does it take to discredit a source? For me, the misuse of the tsunami map and the belief that a core could melt clear through the earth, against gravity, are quite enough.

Boom!

I recommend Chery’s whole piece, both to read and to circulate. And she includes a number of other more specific sources worth takeing a look at, including:

  • Radiation Basics
  • True facts about Ocean Radiation and the Fukushima Disaster
  • Is the sea floor littered with dead animals due to radiation? No.
  • Three Reasons Why Fukushima Radiation Has Nothing to Do with Starfish Wasting Syndrome
  • **

    So: which does more harm to us in the long run, radiation – or paranoia?

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    The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

    Monday, October 7th, 2013

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

    Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

    If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000′s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70′s and 80′s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

    Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

    This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

    More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

    Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

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    Obama mentions Khamenei “nuclear fatwa”

    Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- I believe this is the first time a US President -- perhaps even a senior US official -- has affirmed the existence of Ayatollah's Khamanei's previously disputed so-called "nuclear fatwa" ]
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    Here, from the Washington Post‘s full transcript of President Obama‘s address to the UN General Assembly, is the relevant section — I’ve emphasized his reference to the fatwa in red:

    Since I took office, I’ve made it clear in letters to the supreme leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully — although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    Meanwhile, the supreme leader has issued a fatwah against the development of nuclear weapons. And President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic republic will never develop a nuclear weapon. So these statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement. We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.

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    Further reading:

    I believe we tend to underestimate the significance of religious and apocalyptic influences in international affairs, since the development of Iranian nuclear weaponry is a potential casus belli, and since the use of nuclear weapons has a distinctly apocalyptic aura, I’ve tried to take an interest — here’s my lengthy overview of “religion and nukes” in religion and myth worldwide, from 2008.

  • I catalogued my own understandings about the fatwa here on Zenpundit in a 2011 post, Striking Iran — response to Cheryl. I lack access to both Iranian language and classified sources, however, so that post represented a best effort to corral what I could find, but kis far from definitive.

  • Cheryl Rofer has also been following this discussion with interest, and her two posts for Nuclear Diner, The Fatwa Against Nuclear Weapons of January this year and The Nuclear Fatwa of March present her latest understandings — Cheryl, please correct me if you have written anything more recent or more comprehensive.

  • Selfscholar claims to be a “portal for unique, pertinent research on law and human rights in the Middle East”. I cannot speak to the particular interests, influences, credentials or biases of those who posts there, but the materials on our topic, that I have found there — in English but with extensive citations of original texts — will surely provide any researcher who possesses the appropriate language skills with many further pointers to track down… My starting point would be a search of the site for the keywords “nuclear fatwa”. The most recent post there would be Radioactive Fatwas: The Growing Islamist Legitimization of Nuclear Weapons from the 17th of this month. And Go, Learn About Atoms: Iranian Discourse on Nuclear Weapons, 1962-Present, at 32 pp. and posted in June 2013, would appear to offer a detailed historical presentation.

  • **

    And for further context:

  • Yesterday’s Financial Times brought us a piece by Najmeh Bozorgmehr titled Words of seventh-century imam signal Iran’s change of approach, which begins:

    The Iranian regime’s sudden focus on a seventh-century Shia imam may be the strongest indicator yet that Tehran is serious about negotiating on its nuclear programme. Imam Hassan, grandchild of the Prophet Mohammed and the second of 12 Shia imams, is famous for negotiating a peace treaty with those opposed to the principle that only descendants of the prophet could rule over Muslims. In Shia texts, his actions are defended as a compromise for the greater good of the religion, rather than a defeat.

    When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top decision maker, called last week for “heroic flexibility” in talks over the nuclear programme, he was echoing the title of a religious text about Imam Hassan that he translated decades ago: Imam Hassan’s Peace: the Most Glorious Heroic Flexibility in History. The comment boosted hopes in Iran and the west of a possible nuclear deal, even though the ayatollah added that any flexibility was simply a tactic, presumably to deal with a difficult period and head off more economic sanctions or the possible threat of military confrontation with Israel or the US.

  • **

    I’d particularly welcome a post or comment from Selfscholar responding to Pres. Obama’s remarks today, and informed commentary on the Selfscholar site from those with appropriate skills to set it in religious, political, and scholarly context — as well as the usual fine interplay of views in the ZP comments section.

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    Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

    Monday, September 23rd, 2013

    Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

    I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

    by Cheryl Rofer

    Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

    Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

    He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

    Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

    Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

    The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

    Note that potentially. again on page 10:

    Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

    Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

    And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

    So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

    It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

    He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

    • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
    • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
    • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
    • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

    He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

    He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

    The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

    But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

    Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

    The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

    Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

    But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

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