Wikileaks, apologies and spies

Posted December 20, 2010 on 9:10 pm | In the category Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

In the last episode created by Henning Mankell for the iconic sleuth of the post-Soviet world, Kurt Wallander is sent out on his most surprising trail of discovery.. (No, we won’t tell you how we know there will be no sequels this time – learn to read Swedish or be patient and wait for the translation.) In the complicated unravelling of the plot behind the plot that culminated in the grounding of a Soviet submarine right in front of Sweden’s supposedly most secure naval base (It was discovered by a mink farmer out for a walk), the presumed Russian spy turns out to have been a spy for the United States. Anyone who has been in Sweden’s top-secret military information office (my brother and I walked in by mistake while looking for a washroom) will have noticed that on the top-secret maps pinned to the walls, all the theoretical invasion threats were indicated by arrows coming from the east. Neutral, non-Nato Sweden apparently had no fears about threats from the west or the south.

So what kind of fantasy trip was Mankell on with this story of an American threat? Nutty Swedish paranoia, no doubt, the US didn’t spy on its supposed allies, not to mention its real NATO allies like the dastardly Russians would be expected to do, would they? Well, recent events in the Foreign Affairs office of Germany’s hapless foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle suggest the opposite. Wikileaks has provided ample reason for the governments of supposedly friendly nations to raise alarm flags on all fronts with regard to the arrogance of leaders of a country that is not exactly prospering at the moment. The German-speaking countries – Germany, Switzerland and Austria – are not going to forget what these gunslingers said to each other about them though they will deny being overly offended. And the US ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, will have to be recalled for the actions of his office overstep the line of what is acceptable for an embassy enjoying the privilege of a foreign government on somebody else’s turf. For, as is now known, the US embassy was receiving information from in-camera meetings of the German Foreign Office through an informant who was sitting at the table, or rather behind it, listening carefully and taking notes that he then passed on to someone at the US Embassy. The German government seems to be avoiding calling the informer, Westerwelle’s chief of staff Helmut Metzner a spy (“Spion”), preferring “Informer” (Informant) because they are still not certain who it was who put him up to this, or if he was, rather incredibly, simply acting on his own. Whatever the truth on that turns out to be, the Germans will certainly never again say a word in confidence to US ambassador Murphy, who accepted this supposedly secret information without informing the Germans of the offence. Spiegel Magazine headlines the articles on the Wikileaks and spy scandal disclosures “Time for Apologies”. For Germans the whole miserable story reminds them all too easily of the tale of Gunter Guillaume, right hand man of Prime Minister Willy Brandt, who was a spy for the DDR and ended Brandt’s rule. It’s certainly not quite the same, but it’s also not that different and it will bring an icy period in German-US relations unless the Obama government does some intelligent fence-mending, something they have not proven very good at up till now.

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The North Korea Conundrum

Posted December 16, 2010 on 10:48 am | In the category North Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

We have it. The smoking gun. The evidence. The potential weapon of mass destruction we have been looking for as our pretext of invading Iraq. There’s just one problem – it’s in North Korea. –Jon Stewart

American media and politicians too often seem to share a commitment to forget some of the past and skip some of the possible consequences of policies when discussing an issue as serious and difficult as North Korea.  And the fact that the N. Korea issue is almost always described in narrow American terms adds to the difficulty of building support for addressing North Korea in any way but the tried and failed ways of the past.

For years America has been waiting for the N. Korean regime to collapse but it hangs on, starving its people, harassing its neighbors to the South and currying favor with nations like Iran seeking their weapons technology.  And while sanctions have done some damage they have not to date influenced significant positive change and there is no evidence that more sanctions will do much more. The six-party talks, with six countries holding six separate sets of interests, are similarly unlikely to produce positive change.

In this environment analysts on the right view attempts at diplomacy as “rewarding” N. Korea’s bad behavior and seriously discuss military options available to the U.S. While these options vary from analyst to analyst they all downplay the risk to the ten million inhabitants of Seoul. It is not comforting to read some of these analyses when a common thread is that as long as the risk is mostly to millions of South Koreans and only 15000 or so Americans military adventure is worth considering. 22 million S. Koreans live within 40 miles of Seoul, which is 35 miles from the N. Korean border.  N. Korea has over 500 long-range artillery tubes along the border and an army of over a million. The devastation of a military action would be incalculable. The fact that some would seriously consider initiating military action after our costly, deadly and largely counter-productive Iraq fiasco is bizarre, but scary.

The history of U.S. – N. Korean engagement does not provide much hope for the future. Agreements have emerged from time to time only to be broken by the North Koreans and/or treated to a kind of passive aggressive approach by the U.S.  KEDO, (The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) was the last such major effort and it failed largely because the N. Koreans reneged on their part of the agreement. At the same time, the U.S.‘s commitment was less then total, largely due to a lack of trust and the influence of domestic politics in the U.S. which led to KEDO becoming a kind of orphan in American foreign policy.

The diplomatic option is a very tough pill to swallow. The N. Koreans have behaved outrageously and it is difficult – perhaps not possible – for Americans to accept that as difficult as it is, it may remain the United States’ best possibility to influence the regime. Those who would force the issue towards military action risk a far worse mistake than even the Iraq War. Former CIA official, National Security Advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush, and U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 Donald Gregg in the Washington Post in 2006 summed up a realistic view of U.S. diplomatic attention as a “reward”:

“Why won’t the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with [North Korea], as the Brits (and eventually the US) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country’s good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behavior of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hizballah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends — a huge mistake.”

Gregg’s words provide a sensible backdrop as the Obama administration continues to wrestle with its choices in dealing with a rogue nation. Attack or talk?

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Whatever happened to nuclear power plants?

Posted December 1, 2010 on 3:19 am | In the category Canada, Environment, Europe, U.S. Domestic Policy | by Mackenzie Brothers

They haven’t been much in the headlines of late. The deadly explosion at Tschernobyl happened almost twenty-five years and the blame can easily be put on an antiquated design and negligent maintenance typical of the old Soviet Union. Nothing like that could happen in technically advanced western Europe or North America, could it. Or rather could it? There are countries in those areas that have waffled for so long about whether they can live with nuclear power on their territory that the very plants that they were waffling over have become ancient in nuclear power-plant time, and should be deactivated before they begin to seriously threaten the environment with shaky turbines and leaky pipes and containers. Instead as governments change and attitudes towards nuclear power change with the economic difficulties facing power-short lands anywhere, official positions change with regard to the fate of the old used-up plants. A country like France, which is very dependant on nuclear power plants, has of course a large number of engineers and designers who have had steady employment and lots of experience and know how to build them. But what about the nuclear plant planners in countries like Germany, the USA or Canada, which have not built any new plants for decades, and are now faced with the dilemma of returning to the largely unpopular idea of getting back in the nuclear race? With few experienced experts around to build new plants wouldn’t it make sense to refurbish the old ones.
For a lot of nuclear engineers the answer to that is a clear ‘no’. It is much cheaper, of course, to try to spiff up an old Volvo model than to design and build a new one. But the a “best before” date makes that way of saving money no longer either reasonable or safe with regard to nuclear power plants, and those engineers are hoping that the Swedish government figures that out before it is too late. For of all western countries it is rich Sweden that seems most willing to run the biggest risks by taking the cheap spiff-up solution to its nuclear dilemma. A couple of decades the Swedes voted to show their moral backbone by announcing that all Swedish nuclear power plants would be closed down within a couple of decades from then. Namely now. But governments change in democracies and that original stance by the Social Democrats in defence of safety and the environment has been reversed by the now-ruling conservatives, who maintain (probably with some justification) that Swedish industry cannot run without nuclear power. So thirty to forty-year-old nuclear power plants in Sweden some of which have already had dangerous breakdowns, but have never been decommissioned as they were supposed to have been years ago, are now supposed to be reused after modernization. (Canada has some similar plans.) For many nuclear engineers this is a recipe for disaster since these plants were never designed to be overhauled like this. Many think Sweden will be trying to put a Porsche engine into an old truck and that an accident is just waiting to happen. At least they haven’t yet asked Volvo to provide the engineers for this.

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