Truthdig Radio: Osama bin Laden and Nuclear Meltdown
In this premiere episode of our weekly radio show, former bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer tells us why we’re losing, renowned physicist Frank N. von Hippel tells us to fear the bomb and Juan Cole says Arab protesters are looking for a New Deal.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
: This is Truthdig Radio, a new weekly show featuring the best in news, criticism and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m Peter Scheer, Truthdig managing editor. Today we’ll be hearing from two Middle East experts, former bin Laden hunter Michael Scheuer of the CIA and informed commentator Juan Cole. We’ll also check in with renowned physicist Frank von Hippel about the threat of nuclear power and weapons. Along for the ride are Truthdig editors Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Josh Scheer and myself. Here we go.
This is Truthdig radio; I’m Peter Scheer. I’m joined by Joshua Scheer and Robert Scheer, and Michael Scheuer, the adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. He was a former intelligence officer at the CIA, where he served as the chief of the Bin Laden Issues Station, and as a special adviser to the chief of the Bin Laden Unit. His new book is “Osama Bin Laden.”
Michael, you’ve argued in the past that bin Laden has been caricatured by this country, to the detriment of our national security. Can you explain that?
Michael Scheuer: Well, I think I can. You know, you’re always lucky if you’re fighting an idiot or a madman, because they make mistakes. And yet 15 years, 16 years after bin Laden declared war, he’s still at…he’s still on the loose, and according to our own intelligence chiefs, poses an increasing threat both at home and abroad. You know, what can you do to measure a man’s effectiveness? I think you look at his words and deeds. And from my study of him, there’s a pretty close mesh. For example, he said early on, “We can’t possibly beat the Americans by ourselves. What we need to do is incite other Muslims to join the war and to take a nontraditional approach toward dealing with the Americans. First, to try to take advantage of international economic conditions to drive the United States toward bankruptcy; second, to spread out the military and intelligence forces so they have little reserves and no flexibility; and third, to create political dissent inside the United States, and to strip away our allies one at a time.” And so, if we’re looking at…using their own metrics, he’s been a pretty successful man. And to argue that somehow he is just another gangster or thug, and not very bright at that, I think is a mistake that harms only us.
Peter Scheer: Osama Bin Laden actually said at one point that people should read your book if they wanted to understand why we’re losing the war on terror. Can you put that into context with the war in Afghanistan, which is now our longest war?
Michael Scheuer: Yeah. I think he was simply saying that “we have told you…”—we, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants—“…what this war is about, and yet you don’t listen. This war is about what you do in the Muslim world, not how you live as Americans in the United States. Whether it’s elections or democracy or liberty or gender equality or beer after work, we don’t care about that. This war is about what you do in the Muslim world. And in terms of Afghanistan—Afghanistan is a place where he wanted to lure us to, because he thought that the Taliban and al-Qaida and their allies could bleed us slowly to death, and that we would not have the will to win. And from 1997 until 2001, each of the attacks al-Qaida staged against us was meant to prompt our deployment to Afghanistan in ways that were greater and more costly than simply shooting cruise missiles. And of course after 9/11 we went there, and unfortunately we stayed instead of just going there to kind of beat them up and get out.
Robert Scheer: You know…hi, this is Robert Scheer…and I really liked reading your book. It’s very clear, the “Bin Laden” one. And you point at, though, in terms of the contemporary issues…here we have a situation in the Mideast where ostensibly we’re primarily concerned with fighting terror, terrorism, and we’re fighting bin Laden, but we get caught in these ethnic and religious differing currents. And, you know, 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, for instance, but we have a close alliance with Saudi Arabia. And at one point, I think it was on NPR, you mentioned that even bigger and more powerful than the Israel lobby is the Saudi lobby. And we’re at kind of an odd moment now where we’ve focused on Iran, and we’re very worried about the Shiites in Bahrain, for instance, and we will probably support the Saudis in extending their influence, and we’ve made Iran the main issue. And according to your own writings, Iran is not the main issue.
Michael Scheuer: No, I think Iran instills the definition, if you will, of a “contained enemy” that we used during the Cold War. They’re surrounded by a Sunni population that would rather kill them many times over before they got around to us or the Israelis or the Brits. They’re now…over the last 15 years they have become surrounded by American military bases, and the U.S. Navy could cut off their access to the high seas almost instantly. And third, their economy is driven by energy production, which has peaked. And so if that’s not the definition of a contained state, I’m not sure what it would be. But the problem for us, of course, is Saddam was a fully contained entity in Iraq, and we still went into a foolish war with him.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, but the point I was getting at is that, you know, this sort of Shiite-Sunni thing, which is now basic to the debate. We see the influence of Iran in Lebanon; we see it expanding in Iraq because we got rid of Saddam Hussein, who was their military opponent. And just taking it to, actually, the issues of this week—one is Gen. Petraeus saying we’re winning in Afghanistan, we need to have a long-term presence; you’ve argued that that’s a sucker-punch that we’re responding to. And the other is the turmoil, some of which is very exciting, in the Mideast, again is being cast in this terrorism/anti-terrorism, bin Laden/anti-bin Laden. So we’re going to now rally around Saudi Arabia, when in fact it represents some of the worst tendencies in the Mideast, and was the place that we’re at least funding, and certainly a number of the recruits for bin Laden came from.
Michael Scheuer: Yeah. Well, we have to support the Saudis because the Saudis are our masters. Now, you know, in the relationship, we are the slaves; they are the masters. They supply the swing country production in terms of oil; they buy a great deal of our debt; and we’re on the hook to defend them. They buy enormous amounts of weaponry, but they can’t defend themselves. And I think you put your finger on it: Bahrain…all the rest of what’s going on in the Middle East is basically noise. If the Saudis and the Bahrainis and the Ahmadis start shooting at Shias—and apparently they have done that to some extent today—if that becomes a prolonged war, we could very well get sucked into that war, along with the Iranians. And so I think your point about Bahrain being a flashpoint is exactly right. I think it’s the most dangerous spot in the Middle East at the moment. And in terms of the Saudis, the Saudis probably are the single most dangerous state to the United States in the world. You know, Iran or…China is a threat and Russia is a threat, but we recognize them; we watch them; we know they’re a threat. But the Saudis, the king comes to the White House and they hold hands with the president while all the while he’s paying for a brand of Islam to be taught in the United States that is extremely anti-Western, anti-Jewish, anti-Christian. And it is a reflection of how dependent we are on the Saudis that we really don’t do anything to defend ourselves.
Robert Scheer: You know, I want to pursue this a bit, because you’ve criticized the 9/11 Commission Report as very limited. And there’s a box in that report, I think it’s…I forget what page it’s on, which says that they were not allowed to interview the key witnesses, the people that are…you know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others. They were dependent upon other interrogation, and they couldn’t even interview the interrogators. And I wonder, do we know enough about the relation of bin Laden to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to these people, how the whole thing was done? And are we still pursuing ghosts here, or are we on the right track?
Michael Scheuer: No, I think we pretty well know how the operation worked that attacked us on 9/11. I think the people who…the 9/11 truthers are just…are very skeptical. It’s their right to be skeptical, but it’s obvious that the attack was done by al-Qaida. What the 9/11 Commission blurred, and what I resigned from the agency over, was the refusal to talk to the American people about the responsibility of some of the senior people in government for 9/11. But more importantly, the 9/11 Commission talked about U.S. foreign policy and basically said, “Well, the Muslims are too dumb, really, to understand how good our foreign policy is for them. So we have to really do a better job at communicating our good intentions.” And I think both of those things were a real detriment to the United States, and need to be corrected somehow.
Josh Scheer: So if we…I’m sorry, Michael, this is Josh…and if we continue on this current path, what is the endgame?
Michael Scheuer: Well, the endgame is an endless sort of war. I argued in 2002, when I published my first book, that our goal should be to make sure that the coming generation of young Muslim males have less reason to focus on the United States, and that the only way to do that was to deny them the motivation of our foreign policy, which also provides a certain glue of unity in a very diverse and fractious organization. We have not done that. And so we have now another generation that has come to adulthood in people like Awlaki, in people like the young Libyan Abu Yahya, who are now a second generation of al-Qaida, and we now need to worry about the third. As long as our foreign policy remains constant in the Middle East—our support for the Saudis, our support for the Israelis, our presence on the Arab Peninsula, a number of other things—we will do nothing to dent the motivation of our enemies. And so we can kill them with drones, we can extradite them with rendition, we can kill them on the battlefield; but really, all that will be is a body count, not a measure of progress. And our enemy will grow faster than we can possibly cope with it.
Peter Scheer: I want to ask about this question of foreign policy. We run a columnist, William Pfaff, on our website, who recently wrote that American foreign policy appears now to be made by people who have no concept of foreign countries or their history or how they operate. And there’s no shortage of people like you, who present a very rational critique of that policy, and yet we seem to go down this road all the time where, you know, in the case of Afghanistan we’re presented with very, very limited options, all of which involve ground war of some kind. How do we get out of this morass of stodgy thinking in foreign policy?
Michael Scheuer: [Laughs] You know, I would suggest: Never again vote for anyone from the Ivy League. [Laughter] We’ve had now four consecutive presidents who came out of Harvard or Yale or Columbia, and they don’t see the world as it is. They see the world they want to be. Mrs. Clinton, wandering the world at the moment to champion feminism…which clearly we want to do in the United States, but it will cause wars in many other places in the world. I don’t know how we get around it. I think at base, our problem in foreign policy has much to do with our problems in education. That we don’t teach things that are unpalatable; we don’t talk about religion to our children, or the power of religion to our children, so they don’t understand that; and we are, at the elite level…Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Bush, they put me in mind of Marxist-Leninists, who believed that communism would inevitably triumph. And our leadership in both parties tends to believe that secular democracy will ultimately triumph, and that anyone who opposes it is simply medieval or just a plain anarchist of some kind. And that’s a mistake, and that will lead to war.
Peter Scheer: But how can they believe that, if they’re backing these regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, that…
Michael Scheuer: Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it? That’s exactly right. One of the points that is a very good one is, how can you be preaching democracy in Bahrain when you’re supporting the Saudi government who’s in Bahrain shooting down Bahrainis? But we seem to be able to cope with that kind of contradiction and move ahead as if it didn’t matter. It must take a very much smarter person than myself to be able to accommodate those two thoughts and think you’re succeeding.
Josh Scheer: Well, I think you’re both right. I mean, you’re right that they’re stodgy thinkers, and then Peter’s right because…Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil, and you were talking about the debt and all that. I mean, obviously we support Saudi Arabia for that reason, right? They are our masters; you said that.
Michael Scheuer: There’s nothing worth a dead Marine on the Arab Peninsula except for oil. We need oil; it’s a national interest at the moment because we’ve done virtually nothing since the first embargo 40 years ago.
Peter Scheer: But isn’t there another…you hear the same sort of logic that keeps us stuck in Afghanistan, you hear presented in Saudi Arabia a lot, which is that the alternative to this monarchy is some sort of religious extremist in charge of this oil. And terrorists and, you know, whatever else comes with it. Is that reasonable? Is that rational?
Michael Scheuer: Well, I think it’s clear that whatever succeeds the Saudis would be more genuinely religious. The Saudis are about the furthest thing from religion in terms of their own personal behavior. But I don’t think it necessarily follows that an Islamic government would be more oppressive than the Saudi police state. For example, Iran, for all its failures and brutalities, is a much more representative government than any of the people that we call our allies; certainly more than Mubarak was. So I don’t think A follows B in this case. An Islamic government in Saudi Arabia under bin Laden would be much more genuine to the people who live there than the Al Saud family, and probably would be less oppressive. And I always think that it’s easier to deal in this world with nation-states than it is with these non-state actors, or transnational groups, whatever you want to call them, who don’t have a return address. Once someone gets in power, he has to govern the country; he has to run the economy; he has something to lose. And you know where he lives. So, you know, I’m not…I guess I’m old enough to remember when America wasn’t afraid of everything. And so I’m one that believes that it’s not necessarily the end of the world if an Islamic government takes over somewhere.
Robert Scheer: Let me ask you, though—this is Bob—what are the obstacles to having a rational policy? I mean, Peter made a point, you know, there are a number of people who talk sense and back it up, and as I say, your books are very clear; they’re well documented; they’re logical; they’re soundly rooted in historical experience. And so why don’t intelligent people respond? First of all, what are the issues that are inflaming the Muslim world, and are they issues that can be dealt with in a way that’s consistent with American national interests? I mean, what is the position one should have on Israel or on Saudi Arabia or the other irritants?
Michael Scheuer: Well, clearly, these are issues…the issues that are at play are also inextricably bound up with domestic politics. And I have tried never to believe that any…anyone was not as smart as I am. So I have to assume that despite what they say, President Obama, Bush, Clinton and the first Bush know that whatever you think of our relationship with the Israelis, for example, if you’re pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. But it’s a factual statement to say that our relationship with Israel causes us to be attacked by Islamic fighters in many areas of the world. But we can’t have that discussion here. If we have that discussion in the political campaign, the politician involved will never win. He’ll be flooded with anti-Semitism charges; his opponent will be receiving money from all over the place from pro-Israeli people. So they avoid that. They can’t really argue that we’re going to send your sons and daughters to war to defend the Saudi police state, for example; that would be another non-vote-getter. So until we kind of find a way to find a statesman, rather than just this ongoing string of Ivy League politicians, I really don’t know anything but calamity that might begin a debate or some change in U.S. foreign policy.
Peter Scheer: Well, Michael, before we let you go, I just have to ask out of my own curiosity: where is Osama bin Laden? And also, is he even still relevant?
Michael Scheuer: Oh, I think he’s very relevant, sir. He is probably in the northern part of Afghanistan and Pakistan; there’s no border there. Up in Afghanistan it would be the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, across the border in Bajaur in Pakistan. It’s the place he wanted to go in ’97, when he was going to move away from Jalalabad. But before he could move north he was invited to the capital of the Taliban in Kandahar and didn’t think he could say no. It’s also the area where the Saudis and the Kuwaitis have spent 35 years proselytizing. So it’s an area that’s very…oh, how would you say?…religiously congenial to bin Laden. The same kinds of religious attitudes among the population as he holds. So I think that’s probably the area where he is at the moment but, you know, my idea and two bucks will get you a coffee. [Laughter]
Peter Scheer: And how influential is he still?
Michael Scheuer: I think he’s extraordinarily influential. As a symbol, there is no one who compares with this almost Robin Hood-like figure. A man set to inherit part of a $40 billion fortune who instead chose to abandon that and fight with the mujahedeen against the Afghans, be wounded in battle four times, and not only be the only Arab entity to consistently stand up to the Americans, but to attack them and hurt them and live to tell about it. And so I think it’s very important that he be eliminated. Some people argue that then he would be a martyr, but I’ve always preferred a dead martyr to a living, breathing smart guy who is planning to attack you.
Robert Scheer: You know, let me just ask you one last question—this is Robert again—in your book, you have a…you say you didn’t come to praise bin Laden, you came to bury him. But you also have a list, I think there were 10 adjectives that you used to describe him, that are all very flattering. And you know, in a sense, how does he fit into, say…you say the Saudis have a strong religious presence there in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is the dispute between bin Laden and the rulers, and particularly in Saudi Arabia? Is it about corruption, is it about true believer? And tied to that, why do the Saudis have as much influence in this country as you suggest in your writing? I mean, oil—they’ve got to sell the oil to someone; you can get oil elsewhere. And I just wonder, you know, we hear a lot about the Israel lobby; we don’t hear much about the Saudi lobby. How does it really work?
Michael Scheuer: Well, the Saudi lobby is extraordinarily powerful, but much more quiet than the Israeli lobby. They work through retired U.S. government officers—ambassadors, senior intelligence officers, former congressman and senators, to influence the Congress and influence public opinion. I think you’ll recall that in the weeks after 9/11, The Wall Street Journal published four or five pieces by former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia that praised the Saudis, said that “don’t mistake the 9/11 hijackers as the true reflection of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are our good and noble friends.” And so it works in that manner. It works because not only do they sell us oil, which they have to sell us, as you said, or have to sell someone, but they buy extraordinary amounts of weaponry from the United States. We’re in the midst now of a $60 billion purchase from U.S. arms makers. And, you know, it’s really kind of a sleight-of-hand affair, because the Saudis buy the guns; the price of oil goes up a little bit; the money they make from the increase pays for the guns.
So at the end of the day, mom and pop American pay at the pump not only for gasoline, but for Saudi arms purchases. So when you wrap all of those things together—and, frankly, the failure of American politicians to do anything on energy policy—when you wrap all of those things up, I don’t think it’s any wonder that the Saudis have so much influence in our country. In terms of bin Laden’s strife with the Saudis, it has primarily to do with the un-Islamic, what he regards as the un-Islamic behavior of the Saudi government: putting into place some laws that are made by man rather than by God, by inviting the United States and Western countries to put military troops in the Peninsula in 1990 and ’91 and then keeping them there; the tendency of the Saudis to support what bin Laden and other Islamists view as U.S. policies rather than Islamic policies. So the real rub for bin Laden with the Saudis comes down to them not being, in his eyes, genuine Muslims.
Peter Scheer: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, on that note…
Robert Scheer: Before we leave, Peter, can I just…
Peter Scheer: This is what happens when you’re on a show with your father. [Laughter]
Robert Scheer: OK, I’m sorry, but in the book you…in the book you, I think, make an important point, which is you challenge the basic narrative that they hate us for our democracy, they hate us for who we are. And you’re suggesting that is not the core; that they could live with us. So this whole notion of a radical Islam that is our inevitable enemy, you do challenge. Maybe that would be a good way to conclude this.
Michael Scheuer: Yeah. You know, one thing I tried to do in the book is I went through my entire archive of bin Laden’s statements, interviews, essays, sermons, which amounted to about 850 pages. And never once does he say in that that this is a war about culture. That this is us trying to destroy you because you’re degenerate or because you’re debauched or because you have elections or primaries in Iowa. And yet that is what we hear from president after president in both parties. And as much as I hate to say it, it’s just a flat lie. Bin Laden and his generation went to school watching the Ayatollah Khomeini, for about a decade, try to ignite a jihad against the Americans because of X-rated movies, women in the workplace, beer, and other sorts of degenerate activities. No one blew themselves up for that. Even when they blew up our Marines in Beirut, they [didn’t do] it under the Ayatollah’s rhetoric; they did it because we were on their turf. Bin Laden knows better than anyone that very few Muslims are willing to blow themselves up because my daughter goes to university. But there seems to be an endless number who are willing to blow themselves up or die fighting us because we’re occupying a Muslim country. So if you don’t get that basic point right, your policy is built on sort of a foundation of sand. If you don’t know the motivation of the enemy, you really aren’t going to have a very good chance to stop him.
Peter Scheer: Thank you so much, Michael Scheuer…
Michael Scheuer: Thank you, sir. You’re very kind to have me.
Peter Scheer: He is the author, most recently, of “Osama Bin Laden” and a veteran of the CIA, where he was the chief of the Bin Laden Issues Station and a special adviser to the chief of the Bin Laden Unit. I hope you’ll come back and join us again soon.
Michael Scheuer: It’d be my pleasure. Thank you, sir.
Peter Scheer: This is Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we are joined by Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist and a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. He is an expert on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation with decades and decades of experience, and we’re really honored to have him. Thanks for being here.
Frank von Hippel: My pleasure.
Peter Scheer: So, we have a major crisis in Japan, obviously, that has the whole world in a state of concern about nuclear energy, nuclear technology in general. The EU energy commissioner says it may be the worst nuclear disaster ever, which is really saying something. They’re going to review all of their, I don’t know, something like 140 plants. And the Japanese emperor came out recently, said he’s deeply worried; 13,000 people already dead and missing as a result of the tsunami, but even larger concerns, perhaps, about the radiation leaking out of the reactors in Japan. How scared should we be?
Frank von Hippel: Whatever happens, it will not be on the scale of, in terms of deaths, of what was caused by the tsunami and the earthquake. But psychologically, there seems to be something special about radiation, and so I think there is a tremendous amount of fear. We could have a Chernobyl-scale release; I don’t think we’ve had one so far, and I think most of what has been released has been blown out to sea, fortunately, by the prevailing winds. But it’s a very serious, very serious … and I think it was very prudent for them to evacuate out to 12 miles and suggest additional precautions beyond that.
Robert Scheer: What are the lessons of this for the reliance on nuclear power? The president has said we’re very committed, we’re going to spend a lot of money, yet the Europeans are saying maybe they’ll pause and pull back.
Frank von Hippel: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: And so why don’t we get your take on it?
Frank von Hippel: The main dangers are, in the region, long-term land contamination. There’s a thousand square miles of land which has been contaminated and considered uninhabitable as a result of the Chernobyl accident 25 years later… due to a 30-year half-life isotope called Caesium-137. The other major danger, which is … and the first danger I was talking about was … could be contributed to mostly by the spent-fuel pools, which are now becoming the focus of concern. These are pools where the fuel which has been previously discharged from the reactors is stored and, as the water evaporates, it’s suffering damage and starting to release radioactivity. The other concern is a shorter-life isotope called Iodine-131, which from Chernobyl caused detectable increases of thyroid cancers as much as 500 miles downwind. There, fortunately, there’s a protection; if people take non-radioactive iodine before they’re exposed, they can saturate their thyroids and the radioactive iodine will bypass the thyroids. But I don’t think yet that there’s really … that’s being distributed to people beyond the 12-mile zone. So that’s sort of a summary on the potential consequences. If you’d like to talk about the future of nuclear power, I could.
Robert Scheer: I think so, yes.
Frank von Hippel: There’s been much talk about nuclear renaissance. Of course, to the extent it exists, it’ll be severely set back by this event. But in fact, what we’ve seen so far is most of the nuclear power plants being built, certainly the ones that have started within the last few years, are being built in China. There, there really has been something happening, and I think the future of nuclear power, to the extent there is a future, looks as if it was going to be China-driven. There was a lot of concern expressed in China, especially by the chief nuclear regulators, that they were going too fast, they didn’t have enough trained people, quality-control problems. And I think now, after this accident, that will be listened to and they will slow down somewhat.
The situation globally is, at the moment, nuclear power provides about 14 percent of electricity globally. The electricity demand of the world has been, in recent years, growing much faster than nuclear capacity, so that percentage has been going down. The hopes of the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Nuclear Energy Agency and the IEA [International Energy Agency] were that, for their high scenario, was that nuclear could in fact catch up and grow, and sort of preserve its share, and might even slightly increase its share of global electricity. So nuclear power, even in the proponents’ view, you know, wouldn’t be the solution to global warming, because electricity is of course only a portion of our energy use, and we’re talking about 15 percent of our electricity use. So there was very little happening in the United States or Europe as far as building new nuclear power plants. They’ve turned out to be very costly in the U.S., and not competitive, and the same in Europe. And, also in the U.S. and Europe, the electricity demand hasn’t been going up like it has been going up in China and East Asia more … well, South Korea, for example.
Peter Scheer: Although the president has been a big proponent of nuclear energy, and has received lots of money, we should say, from Exelon Corp., a nuclear energy outfit from Chicago. Are you concerned about future building here even now?
Frank von Hippel: It’s really been quite bizarre. You know, the Republicans are even more in favor of nuclear power than the president and, I think, the Democrats generally. And I think they’ve really held hostage the energy program, the Obama administration’s energy program … loan guarantees, which is for building nuclear power plants in the United States. Even that, though, hasn’t been sufficient, really, to overcome the very high costs that the constructors are charging for building new plants.
Robert Scheer: If I could take you back a ways, you’re a specialist in arms control, and I recall being at a conference in Moscow in, I guess it was the mid-’80s; it was around the time of Chernobyl. And even though there’s a world of difference, by design, of a nuclear power plant and a nuclear weapon—one is designed to kill—I remember people like Roald Sagdeev and Yevgeni Velikov and other Soviet scientists using Chernobyl as an example of the danger of nuclear war. And should this be a reminder of what nuclear weapons can do and the amount of damage they can cause?
Frank von Hippel: That’s right. I mean, people have said that Chernobyl was one of the things that destabilized the Soviet Union. You know, the loss of confidence in the central government as a result of that. But on a scale of nuclear war, Chernobyl is a tiny event. The estimates of the number of people killed by Chernobyl is about 10,000 extra people dying from cancer over the rest of their lifetimes. That’s a major event. But we’re talking, in a nuclear war, hundreds of millions of people being killed. But somehow there’s something special about radiation: the invisibility, the fear factor, that somehow makes it especially traumatic. You know, the coal plants are killing thousands of people a year just as invisibly as the Chernobyl accident did once. So my main concern about nuclear power is actually the fact that the barrier between the spread of nuclear power and the spread of nuclear weapons is not being maintained effectively.
Peter Scheer: But you could … I could understand why, you know, even though the threat of nuclear weapons is much greater than the threat of nuclear power—when we’ve actually had these thousands of deaths in our lifetimes from nuclear-power disasters, and there have been other disasters that have scared us, while we’ve had relative calm with nuclear weapons since they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the great build-up. I mean, I can understand why that’s in everyone’s consciousness, a greater concern about nuclear energy. And now with, also, you know, the threat of terrorists grabbing this nuclear fuel, this spent fuel, or this irradiated byproduct of nuclear power. There seem to be very real threats.
Frank von Hippel: That’s right. I’m very concerned, in fact, that the danger of nuclear war has receded so much in people’s consciousness.
Peter Scheer: You’re an expert in nonproliferation. What are the stockpiles like? What is the threat of nuclear war at this time?
Frank von Hippel: Well, the U.S. and Russia still have most of the nuclear weapons—about 10,000 each, going down toward 5,000 each. But we’re talking about weapons which, on average, have maybe 10 times, 20 times the power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. So a huge, huge destructive power. And even more concerning to me is the fact that the U.S. and Russia still, even though the Cold War’s over more than 20 years now, have about 1,000 each ready to launch within 15 minutes at each other. It’s just crazy. And I think that reflects the fact that the anti-nuclear weapon movement demobilized so quickly at the end of the Cold War. You know, they thought that it was all over, that somehow the nuclear weapons had gone away, the threat had gone away. And then that coupled with the inertia of the nuclear, what I call the doomsday machine, you know, it’s a crazy logic that supports keeping these weapons on alert even though the danger of unauthorized or accidental or hacked launch is overwhelmingly huger than either the U.S. or Russia attacking each other deliberately.
Robert Scheer: Well, I’d like to conclude on that, because to my mind there’s something valid about being alarmed about the Chernobyls and what’s happening in Japan. And it’s a reminder of … that nukes are different. And you’re absolutely right, there’s no comparison between a peaceful power plant and a weapon, but we have grown indifferent to the damage that can occur, and the fear. And I just wondered, now when you have a country like Pakistan having weapons, when others might be getting it, the human error—everybody keeps saying there was human error, or human error was in Chernobyl—well, human error in the handling of nuclear weapons, in the proliferation issue, and the possibility of an attack even on a peaceful power plant. I mean, does this alarm you?
Frank von Hippel: Oh, yes. Very much. My concerns with regard to nuclear power plants in the United States are sort of more dominated by the possibility of terrorism. One paradoxical thing about this is that when I talk about nuclear disarmament, and is it feasible, or would it make the world safer, conventional war … you know, World War II kind of wars again, I say it wouldn’t. Because, in fact, countries can still keep each other hostage by virtue of the fact that we’ve built nuclear power plants near our cities, and another country with a non-nuclear weapon could unleash multiple Chernobyls if they wanted to.
Peter Scheer: On that uplifting note, I think we have to end, but thank you very much for joining us.
Frank von Hippel: OK, my pleasure. Thank you.
Peter Scheer: He is Frank von Hippel, a theoretical physicist and a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig. I’m Peter Scheer, here with Kasia Anderson and …
Kasia Anderson: Hello.
Peter Scheer: … somewhere lurking in the background, Josh Scheer. And we’re joined by Juan Cole. He is a Middle East scholar who is fluent in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. His Informed Comment blog is read by all informed people, and his Truthdig column appears every other Tuesday. Juan, thanks for being with us.
Juan Cole: It’s my pleasure.
Peter Scheer: I want to ask you about your column this week, which is called “People Power vs. Washington.” And you refute the claim advanced by some neoconservatives in light of the Arab uprisings that President [George W.] Bush’s foreign policy somehow worked after all, and the invasion of Iraq unleashed this torrent of Democratic feeling as it was meant to, or as they claimed it was meant to, at a certain point. Can you just summarize that view for us?
Juan Cole: Well, sure. The problem with that claim is that it’s all magical thinking. It’s not … there’s no causal link or evidence put forward, and indeed, you know, the whole discourse of the Bush administration was kind of one long episode of magical thinking. So let me just do a thought experiment: If opening up Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, starting parliamentary elections in Iraq were to have an impact on the region, what would that look like? Well, wouldn’t it come in the aftermath of the events? Wouldn’t it come in 2004, 2005, 2006? Whereas if we look at the region in that period, ah! Most people were afraid of Iraq, were afraid of what was happening there, with regard to sectarian fighting and foreign occupation. So finally, in 2011, we get some movement in Tunisia and Egypt, masses in the streets demanding democracy. Well, if Iraq were important to them as a model, wouldn’t they say so? Wouldn’t there be columns, wouldn’t there be tweets that said “Oh,” you know, “they accomplished this in Baghdad; we can do it here.” But there were none. None. Nobody instanced Iraq as a model. In fact, where I saw Iraq mentioned in the Twitter feed for Tunisia or Egypt was people saying “Be careful, guys. We don’t want to have happen here what happened in Iraq.”
Peter Scheer: And in fact, as you point out in your column, there’s some uprising, there’s some protest in Iraq now that’s going largely unreported.
Juan Cole: Well, that’s another thing, that if Iraq were this big success story and the shining beacon on the hill that’s inspiring other people, then why is it subject to the same kinds of mass demonstrations, criticisms of secret police, authoritarian governments, corrupt elections—as are going on in the other countries? That is to say, even the Iraqis, or a very large number of Iraqis, don’t seem to see what they’ve got as a success story.
Kasia Anderson: Hi, Juan. I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about … if there’s any evidence that the right wing is drawing from to substantiate this claim that Iraq is somehow, you know, an inspiration for other countries in the Middle East. Are they citing any particular sources, or are they just kind of gesturing at what’s happening as evidence?
Juan Cole: Yeah, they’re just gesturing. They don’t … they never have had any evidence about the Middle East. I mean, almost everything anybody among the neoconservatives has said about the Middle East is wrong and often just fantastic. I mean, unconnected to reality in a way that makes an informed person laugh.
Josh Scheer: Hey Juan, this is Josh. I was wondering what the U.S. role should be now with what’s going on in the Middle East.
Juan Cole: Well, you know, the U.S. has intervened quite a lot in that region, and often to bad effect. So, as everybody knows, the U.S. overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953, ever since has been harping on “why don’t those Iranians have democracy.” In the Middle East, people are very touchy about foreign intervention. They’ve had a lot of it. The American public doesn’t get taught in high school about the history of colonialism, so we don’t tend to know that the French were in Algeria from 1830 to 1962, or that the French took Tunisia in 1881, or that the British took Egypt in 1882. So we’re not aware of the way in which white Christian people have been in those countries making the laws, telling people what to do; and nobody wants them back. So I think the U.S. should avoid being heavy-handed. It should give what help it can to progressive forces, but I’d hate to see it take these movements as a pretext for imperial intervention.
Josh Scheer: Could there be some way of protecting the people who are getting killed, or … you know, with the protesters and things like that, or would that be too much intervention?
Juan Cole: I don’t know how you would do that. That is to say, the kinds of deaths we’re seeing among the protesters in, say, Yemen or Bahrain, which are among the worst episodes, you know … you would have a couple of people killed yesterday, you would have a few wounded; sometimes a lot of people wounded. But when the United States occupied Iraq—when it had 150,000 troops in the country, and they were doing regular military patrols—there were still a lot of people being killed. So what makes us think that, if the U.S. could occupy Iraq and still not be able to prevent … and in some instances there were 3,000 civilians dying a month under U.S. rule in Iraq. If we can’t … if U.S. troops can’t stop that when they’re in occupation, then how would they stop it from the outside? And I think this impulse to intervene is noble in some ways, because of course some of what the protesters want is very much in accordance with our values. But the practicalities, the diplomatic practicalities of it and the military practicalities of it, are something that people should give a lot of attention to before they go rushing in.
Kasia Anderson: Since you are fluent in these regional languages, are you seeing stories on blogs or on papers online and things like that, that are not really, obviously … probably not getting across the ocean to English-language papers and outlets? What do you see going on online, if anything?
Juan Cole: Well, there’s a lot of missed stories here. I think the really central role in Egypt of labor unions, both blue-collar and white-collar, are entering Tunisia as well, to these protests. That among the big demands being made was that the government allow people to form unions at will, allow them to engage in collective bargaining. That element, which was so central in Tunisia and Egypt, got very little reporting in the American press; and certainly on mass media, I don’t think it was even mentioned. And it doesn’t fit with the emphases of American corporate news, which has stopped covering most labor actions in the United States. So that’s a missed story. And all the talk about Egypt or Tunisia was, you know, the danger of Muslim fundamentalism and so forth, whereas the fundamentalists had very little to do with those revolts. They were very much labor revolts, youth revolts; the emphases were what we would think of as secular.
Peter Scheer: You write in your column, “Their ideals are far closer to FDR’s New Deal than to W.’s white tie society.” I thought that was an interesting point about the collective bargaining. …
Juan Cole: Yeah. Well, you know, when Bush went into Iraq they tried to abolish the public sector in Iraq, which was like 80 percent of the economy. And they did a lot of damage, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran showed in his book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” Whereas, you know, if you ask Egyptians in polling “what’s the government good for,” 80 percent of them say it’s to take care of people. So where these guys’ heads are at is completely different from the Bush administration. And my reference to the “white tie society” was that scene in Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” in which Bush is addressing a soiree of billionaires and they’re in white tie, which we don’t see so much on television, and he’s saying that those are his constituents. So that’s not what’s going on in the Middle East.
Peter Scheer: Speaking of things that we’re not seeing, you talk in your piece about developments in Algeria, Oman, Morocco, and the protests in Iraq that we’ve heard less about. You know, can you just touch on some of those, since we’ve heard so much about Tunisia, Egypt, Libya?
Juan Cole: All right. Well, of course, thousands of people in the street is dramatic footage, and you can understand why television would favor it. But a lot of things are going on in the region that would be difficult to capture with a camera, but which are nevertheless very important. So there’s a lot of side effects of these protests, changes that are being made by governments that are pre-emptive in hopes of forestalling a big movement against them. They’re changing the face of the region. So in Morocco, you have had, since independence in 1956, its independence from France, you’ve had a fairly strong, if not absolute, monarchy. There have in recent years been parliamentary elections; you’ve got a parliament, but it’s curbed by the … power. And darned if the king hasn’t just announced that he’s going to allow the prime minister to be elected from parliament, which is how it usually happens in parliamentary regimes, rather than be appointed by himself. And he’s going to devolve some real powers on the prime minister away from himself.
So it’s not as though the king is becoming a figurehead; I think he’ll still be an important political player, but he’s taking firm strides towards becoming a constitutional monarch. And if this idea catches hold, if it’s a success in Morocco, if it spreads to, say, Jordan, and other Arab publics in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are making similar demands, this is very important as a model. In Algeria, since the civil war began after the abrogated elections in 1991, there’s been a state of emergency. So these … such as they are, that are mentioned in the constitution, have been set aside. So the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, had put to the parliament a measure to abolish the state of emergency, and on Sunday that passed. So these are very important steps towards and opening up of civil rights and more democratic governments in the region.
Josh Scheer: Juan, this is Josh again. What was … with our relationship to oil, what do you think the U.S. wants? Would they rather have the Saudis?
Peter Scheer: Is our country’s response to these uprising movements, I would say, how much is it directly proportional to how much oil these countries have, in terms of the, you know, human rights issues and our backing these regimes?
Juan Cole: Yeah, well, I should say, first of all, that I’m not a Washington insider; I don’t know what’s driving the decisions of the National Security Council or what they’re telling President Obama. So I can’t … I can only kind of read the tea leaves, sort of look at what U.S. policy has been. I think in the non-oil states, which are Tunisia and Egypt, and of course Morocco as well, the U.S. stance has been relatively favorable to the protest movement, although not heavily favorable, and has tended to play catch-up. So when Ben Ali was chased out of the country, all of a sudden the Obama administration was denouncing tyranny in Tunisia. After Mubarak fell was when Obama gave his speech on Egypt. And I regret that. I think Obama’s speech on Egypt could have been an historic speech if he’d only given it about a week earlier. As it was, it did look like playing catch-up.
So at least the U.S. hasn’t, in any significant way, stood in the way of these movements in places like Tunisia and Egypt. I think behind the scenes, from what we can tell from leaks and so forth, Obama called up Mubarak and said “see here, old man, it’s time to go.” They say it was a very, very difficult conversation. And so he presumably was also telling the officer corps the same thing, which in the end was what mattered. So I think Obama handled Egypt all right; I wish he’d been a little bit more out front. But in the oil states, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Iraq, to some extent … is the status quo power. He likes things the way they are. And although we’ve made noises about the need for the king to compromise … with the Shiite majority, we haven’t really forestalled the Saudis invading to prop up the king. And either we’re very weak and unable to forestall that development, or our heart isn’t really very much into it, because we’ve got our eye on the price of petroleum per barrel.
Kasia Anderson: Well, speaking as a Washington insider … and I know you just said you weren’t one, but as someone from, you know, watching these things from your position, the timing of the neoconservatives’ bid for revisionist history with regard to Iraq strikes me as kind of conspicuous, given that Republicans are just starting to roll out their potential candidates for the White House in 2012. How much of this do you see as a recuperative strategy for the former Bushies, and how much might potentially be an eye towards Campaign 2012?
Juan Cole: Sure. Well, the neoconservatives are in the wilderness even with regard to even a lot of the Republican faithful. I think the tea party doesn’t much care for them. And a lot of the mainstream Republicans had turned on Bush by the end of his term largely because of neoconservative policies. So the neoconservatives see an opening with regard to Col. Gaddafi’s ability to put down this rebellion in Libya, and they’re blaming Obama for not stopping that, as if it would be easy to stop. And I think that they are putting down a marker that they should be part of any new Republican administration that might come in in 2012. But note that Haley Barbour just came out for a complete withdrawal from Iraq and against a long-term stay in Afghanistan. And I think you can start to see some isolationism in the Republican Party that will make it very difficult for a neoconservative agenda to have much of a voice there, depending on who becomes the front-runner.
Josh Scheer: I want to jump on Kasia’s point, because maybe it’s also about the fact that Iraq was such an abject failure, and obviously the way they wanted to shape the Middle East was such an abject failure, that this was like “Oh my God, lookit, we actually did something right with this.” Do you think that would be …
Juan Cole: Yeah, sure. Well of course, you know, history is always a fight about how to interpret what happened in the past for the purposes of the present. The neoconservatives are attempting to recuperate from one of the great foreign policy disasters and mistakes we’ve seen in American history. So of course they’re very eager to put a different face on things. But I don’t see evidence of the American public buying it. I think they made up their minds about Iraq having been a big mistake beginning in 2006, and they haven’t wavered in this regard. And I think most Americans are pretty happy at the prospect of getting out of Iraq altogether. I don’t think they’re eager to get involved in another land war, although there is some sentiment for protecting the rebels in Libya. So I think that kind of muscular Wilsonianism, as some people have referred to neoconservatism, is on the ropes; the U.S. public doesn’t have a lot of resources to squander abroad, we’ve got a lot of unemployed. And, you know, they were painting the schoolhouses in Iraq, and I think we’ve got a lot of schoolhouses in America that would do with a coat.
Peter Scheer: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Juan Cole. He is the author of the Informed Comment blog, which has become simply a must-read in this last decade of excitement and less exciting things in the Middle East.
Kasia Anderson: Adventuring foreign policy … [laughter] on the part of the U.S.
Peter Scheer: So, thanks so much for being with us, Juan.
Juan Cole: It’s my great pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Peter Scheer: That’s it for this week’s episode of Truthdig Radio. Check us out in a week, on air, or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Special thanks to our board op Ji, engineer Stan Mizraje, Mark Maxwell, Spencer Downing,and Alan Minsky. For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Josh Scheer, and myself, thanks for listening.