Monday, October 30, 2017

A report on a meeting with Dr. Schwartz, aide to Sen. Ben Cardin, dealing with a war with North Korea, nuclear weapons and the Saudi assault on Yemen.

  On Wednesday, October 25 at 3 PM, a delegation organized by Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility met in Washington, D.C. with Dr. Lowell Schwartz, senior professional staff member to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, and Daniel Ricchetti, legislative aide to that committee.  They work for Senator Ben Cardin.

The delegation decided to present to the Cardin staffers six asks.  Dr. Gwen Dubois, of PSR, led the delegation and began after introductions to outline the horror and madness of using nuclear weapons. She then urged the staffers to inform Sen. Cardin to support the Markey legislation which was prepared prior to the election.  The purpose of the legislation is to remove from the president the authority to launch a first strike nuclear attack.  Such authority should be with the Congress.  Trump’s utterances has galvanized a movement to call for other senators to support S200.   

 Dick Ochs, a long-time peace and justice activist, sought Cardin’s support for the agreement with Iran to prevent the development of a nuclear weapons arsenal.  Max Obuszewski, with PSR, added that the senator should disavow any efforts such as the Corker-Cotton bill to contravene the agreement with Iran.

  Charlie Cooper called for serious diplomacy with North Korea, including negotiations without pre-conditions, an end to US - South Korea war games and the signing of a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War.  He emphasized that based on U.S. warmongering one can understand why the North Korean regime would want to possess a nuclear arsenal.

  Dr. Art Milholland, with PSR, condemned the refurbishing of the U.S. nuclear arsenal which begin under President Obama and continues today.  He explained that it will help convince military officials that they can use “smaller” nuclear weapons in combat.  For example, the B61 nuclear bomb has a variable nuclear yield, and a commander could dial the nuclear kilo-tonnage up or down.  This bomb makes it more likely a nuclear weapon would be used.
 Art also presented Dr. Schwartz with a copy of Dan Zak’s book “Almighty,” which is about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the disarmament action at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN by the Transform Now Plowshares.  He added that this is the best book he has read on this subject.
  Sr. Megan Rice of the Transform Now Plowshares said that $10 trillion has been spent on nuclear weapons since 1943. She believes nuclear weapons are illegal under international law, and she reminded all of us that 122 countries voted at the United Nations on July 7 to ban nuclear weapons.  On September 20, nations began to ratify the ban.  Sr. Megan urged Cardin to speak out to support the ban. Dr. Gwen who lobbied in New York for the ban said our legislators must get on board.

Finally, Jean Athey with Peace Action described the horrific nature of the attack on Yemen by Saudi Arabia with the assistance of the United States.  The group could not have a meeting with legislative aides without bringing up U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen. A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House to remove US forces from unauthorized hostilities in Yemen.  Ben Cardin should introduce companion legislation in the Senate. 

 Dr. Schwartz then proceeded to respond to our asks.  We met in a room next door to the room where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets, and after the meeting we did a photo op in the room.  On October 30 the Foreign Relations Committee will meet to discuss the Authorization to Use Military Force passed in 2001.  The senator recognizes that Congress has abdicated its role in deciding when the U.S. can wage war.  The president keeps accumulating more power. 

  Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the 2001 AUMF. Sen. Cardin wants a much more narrow AUMF to replace the current one. He may try to put in language limiting presidential authority to use force in North Korea.

   As for Markey, we received an unsatisfactory answer.  Regarding S. 200, procedural custom within the Foreign Relations Committee works against his co-sponsoring the bill. GOP dissatisfaction with Trump may create an opening for other related bills to be introduced on the topic of nuclear weapons. Cardin spoke at a gathering with former Sen. Nunn on October 24 about nuclear weapons. Schwartz indicated that there will be a flurry of bills introduced.  Yesterday, for example, right outside our meeting room, Sen. Corker spoke out against Trump. Dr. Schwartz said that while Chairperson Corker has made statements about Trump’s leadership style, he has not held the president accountable.

  While the president decertified the Iran JCPOA, he has not taken any punitive action toward Iran. Cardin doesn’t support trying to change the JCPOA. Senators Cotton and Corker have a bill to end the agreement with Iran, however it has yet to be introduced.

In regards to North Korea, Cardin is speaking out for diplomacy, and has written an article in Foreign Affairs calling for a “Surge in Diplomacy.”  It seems both North Korea and the USA want pre-conditions before engaging in negotiations. Again we were told that Cardin wants serous negotiations, but only if the rhetoric is chilled. 

  Dr. Schwartz and Sen. Cardin took a trip to South Korea. President Moon wants engagement with the North and doesn’t want U. S. nuclear weapons in S. Korea. They found the North Koreans have their own intransigent pre-conditions for negotiations – namely to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear power. Dr. Schwartz feels the N. Korean government is not interested in suspending its nuclear program if the US and S. Korea suspend military exercises.

 Max pointed out an opposition member of parliament in South Korea will hold a press conference on October 26 urging the US to re-install nuclear weapons in South Korea.  However, Schwartz pointed out that the new president of South Korea is opposed, and the Trump administration is not interested in placing nuclear weapons in South Korea.
  Dr. Terry Fitzgerald, an addictions specialist,  said that we must be careful of nomenclature.  Saying “Iran deal” connotes something derogatory. A deal is something done on a car lot.  This is a treaty, not a deal.  “Modernization” of nuclear weaponry is a lie.  It is really about increasing the destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

  Dick indicated that there is no Congressional support for the nuclear weapons ban.  In 2018, the Democrats should take the high road and promote the ban.  Schwartz will bring this to Cardin’s attention.  None of the nuclear countries were involved in the UN vote, thus another process is necessary.

 The senator is opposed to nuclear weapons, and believes the best approach is to negotiate with Russia. Process is important to the liberal senator from Maryland, but current tensions with Russia have caused a pause in reducing arsenals.

Art added that he has a “new admiration” that Sen. Cardin can change his mind.  We reminded the staffers that PSR is part of ICAN, which just won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a Roman Catholic woman priest, felt Cardin was a senator with a conscience and hoped he will listen to us by promoting life-giving legislation.  Mary Elieisar, a retired lawyer, also participated in the dialogue. Schwartz affirmed that we were welcome to stay in touch.  We then entered the Foreign Relations Committee room for a photo op.

Gwen sent a thank you email to Dr. Schwartz.  This was his response:

“Thanks very much for your note.  I was very happy to meet with the group and pass on our concerns/views to Senator.

“I’m always honored to be associated with my Great Aunt, [Bella Abzug] whose picture hangs in my office.  However, I would note (like my father who also worked in the Senate) she thought even in my youth I was too much a creature of the establishment.         

“Regards, Lowell Schwartz”

 Charlie read the Foreign Affairs article by Sen. Cardin and sent an email in response.  We are awaiting a response.

“Dear Dr. Schwartz:

“We read Sen. Cardin’s article in Foreign Policy as you recommended, and we are puzzled by this passage:
“The initial objective of such a diplomatic surge would be to begin a process where Pyongyang starts by verifiably halting its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. If North Korea does so, the United States and our allies can consider confidence-building measures to address tensions on the Korean peninsula.
“To us, this sounds like the pre-condition for talks that we are deeply concerned about: North Korea must verifiably halt weapons and missile testing before talks start. Are we reading this correctly?

“What would “confidence-building measures” include? Would Sen. Cardin support suspending military exercises or starting negotiations for a peace treaty?

“Again, thank you very much for your time and for your response to our crucial  request for information.

“Charlie Cooper

“P. S. We were heartened to hear the CNN interview with Sen. Cardin in which he said he supports the Markey bill on First Use.”

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to 

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

U.S. Troops are Conducting Secret Missions All Over Africa

Published on Portside (

U.S. Troops are Conducting Secret Missions All Over Africa

October 28, 2017

Nick Turse

Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Vice News

U.S. troops are now conducting 3,500 exercises, programs, and engagements per year, an average of nearly 10 missions per day, on the African continent, according to the U.S. military’s top commander for Africa, General Thomas Waldhauser. The latest numbers, which the Pentagon confirmed to VICE News, represent a dramatic increase in U.S. military activity throughout Africa in the past decade, and the latest signal of America’s deepening and complicated ties on the continent.

   With the White House and the Pentagon facing questions about an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger in which four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly indicated to two [1] senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Friday that these numbers are only likely to increase as the U.S. military shifts even greater attention to counterterrorism in Africa. 

   “The huge increase in U.S. military missions in Africa over the past few years represents nothing less than a shadow war being waged on the continent.”
“You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham after the briefing. “You’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”

   But the U.S. military has already seen significant action in Africa, where its growth has been sudden and explosive. When U.S. Africa Command, the umbrella organization for U.S. military operations on the continent, first became operational in 2008, it inherited 172 missions, activities, programs, and exercises from other combatant commands. Five years in, that number shot up to 546 [2].  
Today’s figure of 3,500 marks an astounding 1,900 percent increase since the command was activated less than a decade ago, and suggests a major expansion of U.S. military activities on the African continent. (VICE News requested 2016 numbers, but AFRICOM failed to answer phone calls or respond to email requests.)

  “The huge increase in U.S. military missions in Africa over the past few years represents nothing less than a shadow war being waged on the continent,” said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

  These developments stand in stark contrast to early assurances that AFRICOM’s efforts would be focused on diplomacy and aid. In the opening days of the command, the assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, Theresa Whelan, said [3] it would not “reflect a U.S. intent to engage kinetically in Africa.” AFRICOM, she said, was not “about fighting wars.”

  But an increasing number of AFRICOM’s missions have the appearance of just that. The command has launched [4] 500 airstrikes [5] in Libya in the last year alone, and U.S. forces have regularly [6] carried out [7] drone attacks and commando raids in Somalia.

  “This military-heavy policy,” said Hartung, “risks drawing the United States more deeply into local and regional conflicts in Africa and generating a backlash that could actually aid terrorist organizations in their recruitment.”

   Officially, the Pentagon says the 3,500 missions consist primarily of training and advisory efforts to build the “defense capabilities” of local partner forces, including the use of counterterrorism assistance efforts such as the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program and Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, according to spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris. (Harris also confirmed that Waldhauser’s figures were accurate).

   These programs are aimed at a plethora of terror groups that have sprung up across the continent since the 2000s, including 19 “active militant Islamist groups,”  — such as al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region, and the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara —  in AFRICOM’s area of operations, according to the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The ultimate aim, according to AFRICOM, is to defeat “transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”

   But AFRICOM uses extremely broad language to describe training missions, including those in which troops [8]are killed in action. Missions carried out under the rubric of “security assistance,” “security cooperation,” “train-and-equip” or “building partner capacity” — can be indistinguishable from actual combat.
“There is a notion,, in some circles at least, that training missions are ‘safe,’ and that U.S. troops are not exposed to the same level of risk as if they were engaged in direct combat,” said Hartung. “There may be an element of truth in this, but when push comes to shove, training missions can easily cross the line into combat operations.”

  In May, for example, a Navy SEAL was killed [9] by al Shabaab militants in Somalia while “assisting partner forces,” according to AFRICOM. Earlier this month, four Special Forces soldiers were killed [10] in an ambush while providing “advice and assistance” to local forces in Niger.

  A U.S. special forces soldier trains Nigerian soldiers in first aid during Flintlock 2016, a U.S.-led international training exercise with African militaries in Thies, Senegal, February 11, 2016.REUTERS/Sylvain Cherkaoui

  U.S. troop deaths or scandals are frequently the only mechanism by which Americans come to know about military deployments to African nations like Niger, which according to Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris is home to more than 800 U.S. military personnel.

   But Niger is hardly exceptional. Every day, 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. personnel are deployed [11] across the African continent.

   These near-constant [12] training [13] exercises [14], missions, and activities with troops from Benin and Burkina Faso, Cameroon [15] and Chad, Gabon and Guinea Bissau, not to mention Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Togo and Uganda [16], among other nations, remain largely unknown to most Americans. So is the string of U.S. bases and outposts stretching from Djibouti [17] to Tunisia [18], Cameroon [17] to Kenya [17], Ghana [17] to Niger [19].  

   “We’ve seen a significant increase in U.S. military training to the African continent in recent years,” Colby Goodman, the director of the Security Assistance Monitor, which tracks U.S. spending on foreign militaries, told VICE News. The number of African troops trained by U.S. military personnel jumped 89 percent, Goodman notes, from 22,825 trained in 2014 to at least 42,815 individuals a year later.

  Even before Mattis informed Sen. Graham and Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, there were indications that the counterterror missions would expand. This month, Donald Yamamoto, the acting assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Trump administration’s proposed $5.2 billion African aid budget would address “key priorities” such as “assist[ing] partner nations to defeat ISIS branches and affiliates and other terrorist organization threats and networks in Mali and the Sahel, Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere.”  

  Recently, the acting U.S. Army Africa commander, Brig. Gen. Gene LeBoeuf, noted [20] that so-called “theater security cooperation” activities — missions designed [21] to “build relationships that promote specified U.S. interests” — are set to rise from 186 this year to 271 in 2018, with about 80 percent taking place in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger. The recent attack on U.S. forces in Niger, believed to have been carried out by the Mali-based Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, suggest these missions pose increasing risks.

  Experts warn this surge in U.S. military activities lacks strategic planning, and that providing training and equipment to such poor nations with fragile governments can result in greater instability.

  “First, it’s very easy for our activities to overwhelm a country’s absorptive capacity for aid, which tends to result in elevated levels of corruption,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, a national security and foreign policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “Next, by disproportionately funding the military and security apparatuses of these governments, we run the risk of militarizing or securitizing the country — elevating the militaries to a place of increased power relative to civilian government.”

  Zimmerman warned this is particularly risky “in countries where there is inadequate civilian control of the military.” In 2012, for example, a U.S.-trained Army captain, Amadou Sanogo, overthrew [22] Mali’s elected government. Two years later, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, another U.S.-trained officer, seized power [22] in Burkina Faso.

“With all of this,” Zimmerman said, “I think we run the risk of working ourselves in more deeply — building dependence rather than independence — which will make it hard for our forces to eventually conclude their mission.”

Spokespersons for Africa Command would not comment about the missions or such concerns, ignoring multiple emails from, and even hanging up on, this reporter.

 “The U.S. government would do well to do serious risk assessments about its military activities in Africa,” Goodman warned. “These risk assessments must include the risks of U.S. military activities contributing to terrorist recruitment, especially in the Sahel, through increased U.S. military presence and by supporting corrupt military forces.”

Hartung shared similar concerns and said it was critical for the public to stay informed of the military’s often quiet expansion. “Congress and the public need to pay more attention to far-flung U.S. military train-and-equip missions, both in Africa and globally. They can too often sow the seeds of greater U.S. military involvement,” he said.

Nick Turse is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book is “Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.”



Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Who Ordered Killing of Honduran Activist? Evidence of Broad Plot Is Found

Published on Portside (

Who Ordered Killing of Honduran Activist? Evidence of Broad Plot Is Found

October 29, 2017

Elisabeth Malkin

Saturday, October 28, 2017
New York Times

MEXICO CITY — It was just before midnight when two men kicked in the door to Berta Cáceres’s house in the small Honduran mountain town of La Esperanza. Moving past the kitchen, one of them opened the door to her bedroom and fired six shots. She died moments later.

   In a country where the fight to protect land rights provokes violent retaliation, the murder in March 2016 of another environmental defender might simply have receded into a grim tally of regrettable losses.

   But Ms. Cáceres, 44, had won international acclaim for leading her indigenous Lenca community against a dam planned on their land. Her prominence transformed her killing into an emblematic crime — and turned the investigation that followed into a challenge to the entrenched impunity of the powerful in Honduras.

    Now, 20 months after the killing, a team of five international lawyers has warned that the people who ordered it may never face justice.

   The evidence, the lawyers said, points to a plot against Ms. Cáceres that was months in the making and reached up to senior executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, known as Desa, the Honduran company holding the dam concession.

    “The existing proof is conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination,” the lawyers wrote.
Desa has repeatedly denied any involvement in Ms. Cáceres’ death or any connection to “acts of violence and intimidation.”

    Eight suspects are in custody [1], including Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the social and environment manager for the company, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired Honduran Army lieutenant who was Desa’s director of security until mid-2015.

  “What the public ministry has yet to do is indict the people who hired Bustillo to plan the operation,” said Miguel Ángel Urbina Martínez, one of the lawyers reviewing the case at the request of Ms. Cáceres’s family. The lawyers’ report, which The New York Times has obtained, will be released Tuesday.

    The government’s investigation, by an elite unit in the Honduran attorney general’s office, remains open, although the lawyers’ group said there was no sign that it had progressed beyond the eight suspects.

    Two American advisers, a retired homicide detective and a former federal prosecutor, have been working with Honduran authorities since the first days of the inquiry, part of an effort by the United States Embassy to push [2] the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández to solve high-profile criminal cases.

   Many of those cases involve powerful groups that critics say operate beyond the law. “The great challenge for Honduras is to dismantle these parallel forces,” said Mr. Urbina, a criminal justice expert from Guatemala and an adviser on judicial reform.

    To prepare the report, Mr. Urbina’s group examined some 40,000 pages of text messages, which were retrieved by Honduran government investigators from three cellphones, one seized at Desa’s offices and two used by Mr. Rodríguez and Mr. Bustillo.

   The messages, according to the report, show that the two men remained in frequent contact with three high-ranking Desa executives as they tracked the movements of Ms. Cáceres and other members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as Copinh.
The conversations reveal, the lawyers said, that the orders to threaten Copinh and sabotage its protests came from Desa executives who were exercising control over security forces in the area, issuing instructions and paying for police units’ food, lodging and radio equipment.

   “There was this criminal structure comprised of company executives and employees, state agents and criminal gangs that used violence, threats and intimidation,” said Roxanna Altholz, the associate director of the Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the lawyers’ group.

    The other members of the legal team are a former war crimes prosecutor, Dan Saxon, and two Colombian prosecutors who have tried human rights cases, Jorge E. Molano Rodríguez and Liliana María Uribe Tirado. They have been working on the case for a year, traveling to Honduras to conduct interviews and review case material.

   The lawyers were chosen by Bertha Zúñiga, Ms. Cáceres’s daughter, with recommendations from the Center for Justice and International Law, a Latin American human rights organization.

   The text messages were handed over to Ms. Cáceres’s family this May on the orders of a judge after Honduran prosecutors canceled four appointments to share their findings.

   The question, Ms. Altholz said, was why the prosecutor’s office, which seized the phones in April and May last year, had failed to act on “the quality and the amount of information” that “it has had in its possession for the last year and a half.”

   A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said he could not comment immediately.

   For Ms. Cáceres’s daughter, the content of the messages only reinforces the sense that Desa’s executives felt untouchable. “They were so confident of impunity that they talked openly,” Ms. Zúñiga said.

   The company has come to the defense of its employee, Mr. Rodríguez, the environmental manager. He is “a family man, honest and hard-working, who is unjustly deprived of his freedom,” Desa’s dam division, Agua Zarca Hydroelectric, said in an unsigned email. The company “completely trusts in the innocence of Mr. Rodríguez.”

    Desa obtained a concession to build a dam on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras in 2009. By law the company was required to consult with the Lenca community, but Copinh opposed the project from the beginning, arguing that the dam would jeopardize the community’s water resources and livelihood.

    From the start, Desa was an odd creation, said Juan Jiménez Mayor, the head of an anti-corruption commission [3] backed by the Organization of American States. It had only $1,200 in equity when it won the dam concession, along with operating permits, water rights and a contract to sell power to the state electricity company.

   In 2011, members of the Atala family, one of the most influential in Honduras, injected millions of dollars into the company and joined the board. Mr. Jiménez’ commission has begun to investigate Desa’s contracts, a move that drew an angry response from Honduran business groups.

   Copinh fought the dam on several fronts. It filed legal challenges, led community meetings and brought a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which ordered the Honduran government to provide protective measures for Ms. Cáceres. She had been receiving death threats and knew they were serious. Four members of Copinh were killed in 2013 and 2014.

   In 2015, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is awarded to grass-roots environmental leaders. But it was not enough to protect her.

  In November 2015, according to the lawyers’ report, the former security chief Mr. Bustillo met with a high-ranking Desa executive. In January, he visited La Esperanza and later obtained a gun through Mariano Díaz Chávez, a former Honduran special forces officer who is accused of organizing the hit squad that assassinated Ms. Cáceres.

  An attempt to kill Ms. Cáceres was planned for early February but called off, the lawyers said. “Mission aborted today,” Mr. Bustillo wrote to a Desa executive. “Yesterday, we couldn’t.”

  The report did not name the Desa executives because they have not been charged by Honduran authorities.

  Mr. Bustillo returned to La Esperanza for several days at the end of February and arranged to meet with the same executive on March 2. Early on March 3, after Ms. Cáceres was killed, Mr. Bustillo called him again.

   After the killing, Mr. Rodríguez, the environment manager, forwarded details of the crime scene report that police had provided to one of the company’s executives.

“Sergio, relax,” another executive wrote through WhatsApp, a few days later. 
   “Everything will come out O.K. you’ll see. Don’t panic and pass that on to other people.”


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Trump's Nuclear Dreams: Nightmares Past and Present

Trump's Nuclear Dreams: Nightmares Past and Present

Thursday, October 26, 2017

By Rebecca GordonTomDispatch | Op-Ed

Donald Trump is escorted by a protocol official as he prepares to take the lectern to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 19, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Donald Trump is escorted by a protocol official as he prepares to take the lectern to address the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 19, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Preventing a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea may be the most pressing challenge facing the world right now.
Our childish, ignorant, and incompetent president is shoving all of us -- especially the people of Asia -- ever nearer to catastrophe. While North Korea probably hasn't yet developed the missiles to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland, it certainly has the capacity to reach closer targets, including South Korea and Japan.
But what can ordinary people do about it? Our fingers are far removed from the levers of power, while the tiny digits of the man occupying the "adult day care center" we call the White House hover dangerously close to what people my age used to call "the Button." Nevertheless, I think there may still be time to put our collective foot on the brakes, beginning with the promise of a bill currently languishing in Congress.
Meanwhile, many of us who were born in the post-World War II years are re-experiencing nightmares we thought we'd left safely in the past.
Duck and Cover
I was born seven years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the rest of my generation of Americans, I grew up in the shadow -- or perhaps more accurately, the glow -- of "the Bomb" (which, in those days, we did indeed capitalize). I remember the elementary school ritual of joining a line of neat, obedient second-graders crouching on knees and elbows against a protective concrete hallway wall, hands covering the backs of our necks. I remember coming home from school, recounting that day's activities to my mother and watching as she rushed to the bathroom to vomit -- her all-too-literal gut reaction to a world in which her children were being prepared in school for global annihilation.
In class, we saw civil defense films produced by the government, like the one that encouraged us to "set aside a small supply of canned goods" in makeshift basement shelters. "They're safe from radioactivity," the narrator assured us, as a lovely, young, white mother confidently placed the last can firmly on the cupboard shelf. (The film was far less enlightening about what to do once that "small supply" ran out.) Other movies reminded us that we should always be aware of the location of the nearest fallout shelter or taught us how to duck and cover.
By 1961, my family had moved from rural New York State to Washington, DC, where my mother got a job with the brand new Peace Corps. Everywhere in my new city I saw the distinctive black-and-yellow signs indicating fallout shelter locations. The student body at Alice Deal Junior High School was too big for hallway drills. Instead, at the appointed time, we would all be herded into the auditorium, where a solemn-faced principal would describe the secret underground shelter where we would all be safe, should the Soviets actually launch a nuclear attack on our country. I remember bursting out laughing, while my homeroom teacher fixed me with an angry stare. Who was the principal kidding? We lived in Washington, the number one political target of any potential Soviet nuclear strike. Even then, I was aware enough to know that, whether above ground or under it, we would either fry immediately or die of radioactive poisoning thereafter.
In my family, we joked about bomb shelters. We knew they wouldn't save us. So I remember being shocked when, in the early 1960s, we visited the family of a friend of my mother's named Yarmolinsky. We kids were all sent out to play behind their suburban Virginia home, where my brother and I stumbled upon a large dome in the middle of the woods. "What's that?" we asked our new friends.
"Oh, that's our fallout shelter," one of them replied.
I was stunned. The Yarmolinskys lived just a few miles from Washington and yet they had their own fallout shelter! What I didn't know then was that the father, Adam Yarmolinsky, at the time a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and one of his "whiz kids," was the architect of a "complicated domestic [program] to expand the construction of fallout shelters in American homes."
Indeed, "shelter morality" became one of the favorite ethical issues of the day. The question was: What responsibility would people who had the sense to build such shelters before an attack have for people who failed to do the same? In 1962, Life magazine published a cover story urging the government to build mass shelters in order to avoid just such a future division between "haves" and "have-nots." It quoted a Mrs. Florence Ergang who said, "I am dismayed at shelter morality. It is natural to protect one's family, but my ethics dictate that my neighbors be protected too."
Even today, students in college political science or business ethics classes sometimes wrestle with the "fallout shelter exercise" (although the quandary it lays out undoubtedly seems to them like a scene from ancient history). In that exercise, students are asked to decide which individuals -- a Latina sex worker and her infant son, a white male biologist, and so on -- should be allowed to remain in a fallout shelter with limited space and supplies. There's even a fallout shelter game for your cell phone where the characters are a bit more multicultural than in the civil defense films of the 1950s -- although all three women pictured on the home screen still wear little-girl skirts.
As an adolescent, I knew all the words to satirist Tom Lehrer's "Who's Next." ("First we got the bomb, and that was good/'cause we love peace and motherhood...") I read the nuclear thriller Failsafe, the grim, end-of-everything novel On the Beach, and that peculiar mixture of racism and nuclear terror, Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, in which a nuclear blast sends the author's self-reliant, libertarian hero into a dystopic future "America." There, Black people oppress the white population -- to the point of regarding young white women as culinary delicacies. Yes, the science fiction writer who gave the world Stranger in a Strange Land and taught hippies how to "grok" (to understand something deeply and intuitively) also created that perfect fictional confection of the fears of comfortable white people of the 1960s.
It's hard to explain, especially to those who were born after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, taking with it the immediate fear of nuclear holocaust, what it was like to grow up in the knowledge that such a war was coming within your lifetime. It's hard to describe what it was like to lie awake at night waiting for the sound of the sirens that would let us all know it was happening. During those long nights, I hid a transistor radio under my pillow, turning it on repeatedly to reassure myself that the pop-rock station I disdained during the daytime was still transmitting top 40 hits, not duck-and-cover instructions.
My morbid preoccupations weren't unusual in that era. The constant threat of nuclear war formed the background radiation for the childhood of a whole generation. All my friends, many of whose parents worked for the federal government, shared my fears. When we said good night on the phone, my high school boyfriend and I sometimes wondered aloud if we'd see each other the next day. Our adolescent reckoning with our own mortality became a confrontation with the mortality of our species. We lived with a curious wartime consciousness, in which we planned for our futures while knowing that there might be none to plan for.
A Dose of Reality
So much for the never-realized fears of the baby boomers. How likely is Donald Trump not just to revive them, but to start a nuclear war with North Korea in 2017? Several indicators suggest that the danger isn't as great as some of us may fear.
Trump has yet to follow through on his August 9th threat to rain "fire and fury like the world has never seen" on North Korea, should it again threaten to attack the United States. Nor has he implemented his breathtaking guarantee at the United Nations that, should North Korea "force" us "to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy" it. In both cases, as political scientist Steven Brams has pointed out, Trump's rhetoric left the location of his nuclear tripwire so vague that even he may not know where it is or when it might be crossed. As recently as October 13th , according to the New York Times, North Korean officials "renewed their threat to launch ballistic missiles near Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific." There has been no response from Trump, so we can only assume that, whatever he means by a North Korean threat, that isn't it. Fortunately for the world, it seems that he's treating such promises the way he treats all his utterances -- as infinitely subject to reinterpretation or even retraction.
The president's threats to use nuclear weapons may well be another instance of his well-documented "negotiating" tactics, in which he launches a bargaining process with a preposterous starting position in order to make the merely outrageous appear like a reasonable compromise.
Even in the case of another US adversary that may have sought nuclear weapons in the past -- Iran -- Trump has not been as decisively destructive as he could have been. Although he has railed endlessly against the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, negotiated in large part by President Obama, he didn't tear it up recently (as he has often promised to do). Rather, he punted the problem to Congress, simply refusing to certify that Iran is abiding by the agreement, in spite of International Atomic Energy Agency assurances that it is. For a man who has an obvious urge to wield autocratic power, Trump is surprisingly willing to dilute it to get credit with his base while avoiding genuine action.
Those are modestly hopeful signs -- although it's hardly a hopeful sign of anything that the world is reduced to reading an American president's words as if they were so many throws of the I Ching. Unfortunately, we must also consider ways in which Trump's presence in the White House makes nuclear war more likely.
He has repeatedly expressed a personal fascination with nuclear weapons, although he seems to have little idea of what their actual use might mean. In March 2016, for instance, he told The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News that he might even consider using nuclear weapons in Europe, which he called "a big place," as if some parts of it might be legitimate nuclear targets. And he added, "I'm not going to take cards off the table." At an MSNBC town hall that same month, he proposed using nuclear weapons against the "caliphate" of the Islamic State. Nuclear weapons directed against guerrilla fighters? That makes so much sense!
When Chris Matthews suggested that Japanese citizens might be nervous on hearing a presidential candidate bring up the use of nuclear weapons, Trump responded by asking, "Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?" It might be a reasonable question, if someone other than Donald Trump had been asking it.
When word first surfaced that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a "moron," some of us wondered which of Trump's many displays of ignorance had occasioned the label. Now we know. It seems to have been the president's suggestion, at a July 2017 national security briefing, that the United States should increase its current nuclear arsenal of around 4,000 warheads by a factor of 10.
The advisers Trump seems to respect the most at the moment are generals or former generals, including his chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Commentators (including some on the liberal end of the spectrum) like to think of this coterie of military men as the "grown-ups" in the Trumpian room. I'm not convinced, but even if they are more temperamentally suited to governing than this president, they have a tendency, not surprisingly, to reach first for military solutions to diplomatic problems.
Mattis, for example, has warned of "a massive military response" to any North Korean threat to the US or its allies. "We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea," he told the reporters in September, "but as I said, we have many options to do so." Similarly, when ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked McMaster, "[J]ust to be clear, threats alone will not provoke a US military response, will they?" the general replied, "Well, it depends on the nature of the threat, right?" McMaster then essentially argued that, because Kim Jong-un has had family members killed and is cruel to the North Korean people, he must be too unstable to understand how mutually assured destruction (a Cold War nuclear strategy with the apt acronym MAD) is supposed to work. Oddly enough, another communist dictator, Joseph Stalin, who presided over party purges and the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, seemed to comprehend the concept well enough, but those inscrutable Asians are apparently altogether different.
Even retired General Kelly has recently said that North Korea simply cannot be allowed to have "the ability to reach the homeland" with nuclear-armed missiles, "cryptically telling reporters," according to CNN, that "if the threat grows 'beyond where it is today, well, let's hope that diplomacy works.'"
* Trump's civilian advisors aren't much better. In September, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told CNN's State of the Union that the administration "wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get [the North Koreans'] attention first." But, she warned, "if that doesn't work, General Mattis will take care of it." Lest listeners should be confused about how he'd "take care" of that country, she explained as bluntly as the president had: "If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed."
Certainly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly brought up the need to keep communication channels open to North Korea, even in the face of Trump's tweeted advice "that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man." Nevertheless, he seems to expect diplomacy to "fail." On October 15th, Tillerson explained to CNN that "those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops." Until? Why does he assume bombs will fall? And exactly who does he expect to drop the first one? Is he talking about a possible US first strike?
It's as if the entire administration has accepted the inevitability of an otherwise optional war. If you want an analogy, consider the way George W. Bush's administration maintained the pretext of being open to negotiations with Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein until it launched its preordained invasion and the first bombs and cruise missiles began to hit Baghdad on March 20, 2003.
Trump wants to rule by command. The niceties of the Constitution, the law, and the doctrine of the separation of powers have made this harder than he thought. So far, his attempts to run the country by executive order have largely failed, with his "third one's the charm" Muslim ban once again stalled in the courts. Even his latest move to dismantle Obamacare by ending federal premium subsidies won't take immediate effect. Indeed, it already faces legal challenges from at least 18 states.
He's frustrated. Why can't he just wave a hand, like Jean-Luc Picard, commander of the Starship Enterprise, and order his underlings to "make it so"?
As it happens, there is one realm in which the Constitution, the legal system, and Congress make no difference, one realm where he can do exactly that. He, and he alone, has the power to order a nuclear strike. The more that what remains of law and custom can still prevent him from ruling by fiat elsewhere, the more likely he may be, as Senator Bob Corker has warned us, to put the world "on the path to World War III" and to the first use of such weapons since August 9, 1945.
Pull His Fingers Off the Button
Congress would still have time to stop this madness, if it had the courage to do so. There are a number of actions it could take, including passing a law that would require a unanimous decision by a specified group of people. (For example, officials like the secretaries of state and defense together with the congressional leadership for a nuclear first strike.
Better yet, Congress could reassert its long-abdicated constitutional right to declare war. It could, for example, approve a simple piece of legislation introduced in January by Representative Ted Lieu of California. According to the Congressional Research Service, his bill, House Resolution 669, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, "prohibits the president from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike."
Congress should act while there is still time. Removing Trump's ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack might ease some fears in Pyongyang. And the rest of us might once again be able to sleep at night.
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Rebecca Gordon is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, which has been hailed as a "morally challenging" and "courageous work" that reveals how torture has been "sanitized" in the US. She teaches philosophy at the University of San Francisco. Prior to her academic career, Gordon spent decades working as an activist in peace and justice movements in Central America, South Africa and the United States.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs