Finalité Revisited

Shortly after the big round of EU enlargement in 2004, I took a look at future prospects for enlargement. At the time, I called prospective members, “largely a collection of the poor, ill-governed and recently-at-war.” Most of them are much less recently at war, many of them are better governed, and almost all of them are less poor, yet for all but a few prospects for EU accession seem to me more distant than in 2004.

What has happened?
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War aims

Would it be too cynical to say that, with yesterday’s French close-support air mission, Nicolas Sarkozy’s war aims in Libya have been fulfilled in their entirety? After a string of false starts – such as re-announcing the Union for the Mediterranean, having to dispose of his foreign minister, and sending the amphibious-assault ship Mistral to pick up Egyptian refugees who turned out to have already left by air – he’s finally managed to assert himself. And the Libyan rebels certainly benefited from the air support, probably more than the 110-odd Tomahawks last night. Further, specifically European will and capability have been demonstrated. It’s probably worth noting this UK-French air exercise last week, which may have been a final rehearsal or just as well, a final warning.

Surely There Is Nothing “Funny” About What Is Going On In Japan?

As Japanese officials continue to toil away in what we all hope will be a successful bid to avert a worst case scenario nuclear meltdown even while thousands of Japanese still remain missing and unaccounted for, financial market participants across the globe have been struggling with themselves to answer one and the same question: just how serious are the economic consequences of all this devastation likely to be? Continue reading

Velma and the cloud of krypton

Jim Gutshall:

It was coming up 441, when you’d come up the road, you could taste it. Up there around Wickersham Road. And right around the Hoover farm. It must have been that it hit the high spots. I can’t really say anything else other than the metallic taste. My main thing was that taste.

Ruth Hoover:

That night we had little red spots on our arms where we didn’t have sleeves on. … We saw on TV that night where they said, “Take a shower if you think you had any exposure to anything. To fallout.” I was so scared and I was just glad to be out of there. We never did take a shower until the next morning. I was so emotionally exhausted, all we did that night was just lay there and watch for the news on TV. We talked about it later, that we had little red spots on the arms. We talked to our doctor. He said that it definitely should have been washed immediately. We should have scrubbed it. But, time will tell if anything happens to us. There was quite a few over in Goldsboro (who said they saw the powdery substance). There might have been a couple of people on this side of the river (also). But it was really fine. It wasn’t as large as paper trash or anything like that. It was real fine. 

Marie Holowka:

So, I finally got up after struggling there maybe five minutes or so. I walked to the house. I opened the door. I stumbled into the house. I said to them, “Did you hear anything about Three Mile Island?” They said, “No, we didn’t.” I said, “You know what happened to me. I fell down three times before I could come to the house.” I was just something like a drunk. We stayed in the house. It was blue. You couldn’t see anything or nothing. And we were scared. Everything was blue. Everywhere was blue. Couldn’t see the buildings or anything. It was just heavy blue all that time. We closed up our doors. We stuffed rags underneath the door so this wouldn’t come in. But I think it was all the way in. And we stayed there. It was a warm day. It was a hot day. It was so hot. We shut all the windows and all the doors and we stayed inside. And about nine [a.m.] we listened to the local radios. But they wouldn’t say anything. They were only playing Dolly Parton’s music.

From Three Mile Island: The People’s Testament, by Aileen Smith, 1989.

Aaron Datesman at A Tiny Revolution takes the last of these reports and tentatively puts forward a physical explanation: the Holowka farm had been blanketed in radioactive krypton, the emitted gamma rays colliding with atmospheric nitrogen to produce blue light. One of the messages Datesman wants us to take away is that nuclear accidents have hard-to-predict and hard-to-track outcomes. Uncontained fission products may turn up some distance from the site of the accident, in patches, and in harmful concentrations. There are no systems in place for measuring the spread of radiation over large areas; in any case ‘radiation’ refers to three physical processes (alpha, beta and gamma decay), each of which affects human health differently.

And Holowka’s story is terrifying. But then, it would be. It has classic ghost story ingredients: an isolated, rural setting; a malign, home-invading, luminous ether which suffocates its victims. In his retelling, Datesman adds a sucker punch: a plausible explanation that makes things worse. Normally, with a ghost story, you have a rational ‘out’. Someone plays the role of Velma from Scooby Doo, explaining that the floating lights are just illuminated balloons, or something, and the fear is instantly dissipated. Datesman’s role, by contrast, is to make that same explanation intensify the fear; this time, the rational position doesn’t lead to an out: our world really is like this. There really are ground-hugging poisonous clouds that glow, and will kill you.

It’s not that there are no comforting explanations available, and in this next bit I’ll have a go at providing some. Of course, unlike someone who knows some physics and who—in a pinch—can quantify, I can offer only endoxa, shuffled around. Marie Holowka had a stroke; a transient ischaemic attack. She lost consciousness for a while, then—the blood flow to the part of her brain that processes vision having been impaired—she ‘saw’ blue. No one else reported seeing blue. Ruth Hoover and her sister were sunburned: it was unusually sunny for early spring, and they were just outside for too long. And fallout was something they’d been told about since high school. There’d been an accident at the nuclear plant: yes, you’d expect to see fallout. In reality, some ashes from a neighbour’s fire had been picked up on a breeze. Similarly, Jim Gutshall was the reteller of an urban myth: that radiation ‘tastes like metal’. Everyone in the neighbourhood of Three Mile Island got to hear that same story that year. The local doctor had a stream of people coming to him saying they’d had a funny taste in their mouth.

These, then, are my outs, my Velma stories. If you’re an advocate of nuclear power generation, should they also be your outs, your stories? I tend to think not. Plausible, anecdotal reassurance falls far short of what’s needed. Saying that the worried are irrational isn’t warranted. Datesman is right to point out that we are not systematic in how we measure and report radiation. A quick survey of news reports on Fukushima-Daiichi shows significant confusion over the units involved. Milli-sieverts are reported as micro-sieverts, or vice versa (one is a thousand times greater than the other); the odd reference to grays, rems and curies gets thrown in. Some people are sceptical about the informativeness of the official radiation counts; the suspicion is that they’re cherry-picked. But say the reports are honest. Are they sufficient? Nuclear plants may have radiation-measuring devices at ‘the main gate’, but what’s happening a hundred metres beyond the main gate? At a thousand metres? At ten kilometres? Although there are radiation sensors in various places (aircraft carriers, universities, EPA monitoring stations), there’s no grid of radiation sensors emplaced in the terrain. Could there be? The official response to a lack of reliable, fine-grained information—in the context of a known accident—is to announce an evacuation zone. This may be sensible, but how can it possibly be reassuring? It’s surely the opposite: an evacuation zone is meant to be alarming; you’re meant to take heed, and leave. So say you do leave. At what point is it safe to go back? At Three Mile Island, the official evacuation zone was a five mile radius from the plant, and evacuation was voluntary. After a while—it can only be—most of those who left went back. Did they go back because they were assured it would be safe from then on? Core meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in March 1979: a release of radioactive krypton—a dense gas, heavy enough to settle on dwellings—was authorised in July 1980. There was no second evacuation. There is some good news: this planned release was to some extent monitored. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes how they went about tracking it:

On a large wall-map of the area surrounding Three Mile Island, EPA scientists plotted the trail of the krypton. The map is divided into 16 pie-shaped wedges radiating out from the power plant, with colored dots showing the location of permanent sampling sites. Other markers show the placement of the mobile sampling units, which were kept constantly informed of changes in the direction of the plume by radio contact. … EPA’s two teams were stationed on the east and west banks of the Susquehanna opposite the power plant. A monitoring team from the Nuclear Engineering Department at Pennsylvania State University took measurements at locations further out to provide an independent check of EPA’s samples. The data obtained by Penn State researchers also served as an assurance that the krypton plume was dispersing as predicted and not touching in high concentrations at remote locations.

Assuming this is how it all actually happened—that any findings of high radioactivity during the single authorised release would have been broadcast promptly—Pennsylvanians of July 1980 had a way to assess risk. You’d hope this was the case: it’s hard to see any other way of making the planned Three Mile Island krypton release acceptable, short of a second, compulsory, evacuation. But what about unauthorised, unplanned releases? In retrospect, it’s widely believed that there were several. Marie Holowka says she saw blue on the morning of the accident. On that day—March 28, 1979—there was no EPA tracking. On that day, no one was expecting Kr-85 (or Xe-133, say) to be floating around Pennsylvania.

Generally, the cause of nuclear power generation is blighted by a mix of real danger and imaginary danger, a mix of good information and bad. The responsibility for this is almost always placed on the public and the press. But in such a situation, a non-specific fear of nuclear power generation is surely rational: we, as people who happen to live near nuclear power plants, nuclear waste processing facilities and nuclear weapons factories, have only the most limited and coarse-grained information, no ready way to weight it, and the cost to us of getting it wrong seems very high. Lumping all the non-experts together and blaming them is a poor response: the official information is bad. If not outright inconsistent, it’s ad hoc and tainted with the narratives associated with nuclear deterrence. State (or state-licensed) nuclear power generation is as matter of historic fact closely tied to state production of nuclear weapons and the emergent security state which monitors for dirty bombs and / or suitcase bombs. There’s an attendant diversity of information, whether it’s the old and crude ‘Duck and Cover’ or ‘Protect and Survive’, or something more modern, like this from the US DHS (note: uses rem as its units). The state, or some part of it, attempts to to equip its own citizens with a reasonable survival plan in the case of accident, terrorist attack, or all out nuclear war. There are attempts at systematicity, and the language tends to the moderate. At the same time the same state (or some part of it; perhaps some other part) wants people to know that fissile material can be deadly: deterrence depends in part on spreading this perception. For example, here’s Kissinger (albeit in 2009, long after leaving office):

The danger posed by nuclear weapons is unprecedented. They should not be integrated into strategy as simply another, more efficient, explosive. We thus return to our original challenge. Our age has stolen fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?

So we all know that nuclear is dangerous: we’ve been told. So when is it safe?


Kevin Drum makes the mistake of reading McArdle and writes “I have to admit that ‘gigantic earthquake in Japan’ was not on my list of possible flash points for the global economy. And in the end, I don’t think it will be.”

It certainly shouldn’t be, if only because Tokyo Earthquake is probably the most widely used wildcard in any sort of future/scenario planning. Sure, it was a low-probability event at any given time, but over longer terms it had a non-trivial likelihood of coming to pass. From financial markets to supply-chain managers, they all should have a file at hand marked Tokyo Earthquake, and the work — for people far away — now involves dealing with how reality diverges from what was planned. Maybe some international actors will be exposed as having neglected to answer this most obvious of what-ifs, but most will have worked through the possibilities.

Intended, unintended consequence

Some comic relief. So Viennese property developer Richard Lügner had to face his big decision of the year – who to invite to the Opera Ball. He picked Karima el-Mahroug, the woman who kicked off the latest Berlusconi scandals, herself. Hilarity, of a painfully hypocritical Austrian kind, ensued. Apparently he got on better with her than he did with Grace Jones, who stood him up and went to the U4 nightclub at 222 Schönbrunner Straße instead.

(Consider this a rare AFOE gossip column post.)

Libya: European navies update, and links

Information Dissemination is worried that the norsouthern shore of the Mediterranean is now “ungoverned territory”. This is surely odd – Egypt and Tunisia have entirely functional governments. Surely it’s Libya that’s gone anarchic? It does tell you something about the rules-of-the-road some people have internalised. If it’s not our dictator it doesn’t count as government, and the answer is a US carrier group.

But it’s not as if the Europeans weren’t active, even though there is hardly a foreign secretary on the continent who isn’t dripping with egg on their faces. NATO’s headquarters in Naples, the former AFSOUTH, is the coordinating authority for Operation Atalanta, but it is also responsible for the NATO Response Force, a sizeable fleet led by a Spanish admiral. An impressive European naval force is already in the area, including two of Italy’s San Giorgio-class assault ships, with the French Mistral due to pass close by on her way to the Indian Ocean – you wouldn’t bet on her making the voyage as planned. Two of Spain’s powerful Galicia-class LPDs are with the NRF and may join at any time.

The danger, of course, is what Adam Elkus describes as the temptation of “discrete military operations”, often prompted by moral shame. (There’s plenty of that to go around.) We already seem to be seeing the effects of Clausewitz’s notion of friction
the Dutch Lynx crew and, if rumours are accurate, an SAS patrol, have got into trouble, although the problem for the British seems to be diplomatic rather than anything else. It does, however, point out why these operations shouldn’t be lightly undertaken, no matter how long you’ve been planning.

Meanwhile, in order to help keep things in perspective, Libya was reported to be on the brink of civil war over how to execute Gaddafi.

A very special relationship

One of the defining features, looking back, of the revolution in the Middle East – or will we call it the Southern Mediterranean? – will be just how ugly the relationship between EU and other Western governments and the dictators was. This post from the UK TUC’s policy blog sums it up nicely:

It heralds the collapse of the old EU strategy for the EuroMed region, characterised at the meeting as a mixture of privatisation and migration, or supporting neoliberal economic reforms in ‘stable’, autocratic regimes.

Privatisation and migration – that cuts both ways, of course. The South Mediterranean elites were very well served by this strategy, while an enormous class of underemployed youth built up. On one hand, emigration was a safety valve, reducing the amount of actual violence and repression they needed to use. In that sense, it was a policy that many Mediterranean nations would recognise only too well, especially Italy. But it wasn’t as if the North Mediterranean governments were especially pleased about absorbing the emigrants. While the economic relationship was built on privatisation and migration, the power-political relationship was built on migration and terrorism.

Terrorism is the obvious one – the Southern Med’s security agencies successfully marketed themselves as defenders against an otherwise inevitable take-over by Al-Qa’ida and therefore natural allies for European partner agencies keen to demonstrate their usefulness and alliance commitment to the United States. Migration is less so, but it was another way in which police forces on each side of the Mediterranean cooperated – although it was recognised that people would migrate, the EU was not keen on them coming here, and projects like FRONTEX and NATO’s Operation Atalanta (which straddles both counter-terrorism and migration) put a very significant emphasis on building up military-to-military and police-to-police links.

FBI files are turning up amidst the piles of Viagra, condoms, and firearms in Egypt’s ransacked spook centres. The only conclusion is “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night”, as the inevitable, awful revelations start to pour in.

We’ve already had a few, concerning not so much the structure of cross-Mediterranean relations as the personalities. But the personalities and the gossip are an index of the underlying realities. When Michéle Alliot-Marie, successively France’s defence, interior, and foreign minister, spends her holidays with Ben Ali’s crown prince, this should tell us something about the politics of it, and why she made her astonishing offer to help out with those irresponsible rabble outside the Tunisian interior ministry. Tony Blair was perhaps the ultimate exponent of this, supping regularly with both Hosni Mubarak and his North Mediterranean mirror image, Silvio Berlusconi, and encouraging the London School of Economics to do its very best for Gaddafi’s son.

Clearly, it wasn’t just a question of brutal realpolitik, although it was all that. Is it telling that the countries whose governments were most friendly with the South Mediterranean dictators were also the ones with the biggest housing bubbles and – with the exception of the French – the biggest commitment to Iraq?

Now, of course, it’s all become very different.

Panning back to Egypt…

A couple of weeks ago, the big question had ceased to be “Will there be a revolution in Egypt?” and had become “Will it matter?” The revolutionaries had demonstrated that they could endure, could divide the Army from the government and the security state, and had eventually succeeded in chasing the president out of power. But would this mean lasting change? Wouldn’t it just imply the creation of a new ruling elite, or a permanently-temporary military junta? The grey lineup detailed here were in charge, issuing statements about going back to work. This piece from David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal sketches it out, and reveals far more than it means to.

It’s easy to sketch the scenario in which Egypt blows it. The army could maintain control behind a façade of democracy and protect elites who benefited from the growth produced by significant economic reforms that Mr. Mubarak blessed. Four things have to go right for Egypt to seize the moment.

First, the young protesters of Tahrir Square have to keep the pressure on the military. A lot depends on which way they go. If they’ve been soured by privatization that engorged the cronies, will they demand the security and subsidies of the state over the risks, competition and dynamism that comes with a vibrant private sector? In short, do they want government jobs? Or a shot at being hired—and maybe fired—by an entrepreneurial company?

Of course, the policies those elites benefited from are precisely the ones he goes on to advocate, and the ones that the IMF recommended and Mubarak implemented. Wessel alludes to this further down the piece but never quite manages to say that the Egyptians hated them so much they overthrew the state. Also, although he compares Egypt with Poland after communism, he doesn’t seem to be aware that a major factor in Poland’s revolutions (1981 and 1989) was that the state got huge international loans it couldn’t pay back.

Anyway, so that was one scenario – the military guarantees some constitutional change but keeps the political economy and the power-structure Mubarak left.

It doesn’t seem to be working. Mohammed Fadel has a good rundown of the Army’s (and the Muslim Brothers’, and the 2005-era middle class dissidents’) efforts to put pressure on strikers, their eventual failure, and some of the economic ideas circulating among the revolutionaries. Apparently, the military has eventually been induced to open talks with the real trade union movement as opposed to the yellow unions that were part of Mubarak’s system. You can read their negotiating position at guess who’s.

But perhaps the best news of all isn’t economic. Here’s some incredible reportage of an incredible and very significant event – the crowds take over the headquarters of Central Security in Alexandria, and start salvaging the secret files the spooks were trying to destroy.

I wouldn’t bet on the holy-of-holies in Cairo lasting much longer – Hossam el-Hamalawy has already been down to his local station with his Canon EOS 5D and his angry mob. Guess what, that’s full of files as well.

In 1989, something similar happened – when it looked like the post-Wall East German government might be stabilising, and that it felt confident enough to tell the public that it was going to retain the Stasi although under a new name, people invaded the organisation’s offices to secure the key assets of any secret police force, the files. It was the end, really; there could be no more hoping for some sort of patched-up afterlife for the basic structure of the DDR. This time there was much more violence, and the spook toys included a sinisterly large stash of Viagra – the Stasi did a fair amount of drug dealing as part of its efforts to raise hard currency, but nothing with those implications.

There probably weren’t many documents like this one in the files at the Normannenstraße either.

The upshot includes the resignation of Mubarak’s last prime minister. In an almost uncanny echo of East Germany, he went on TV not long before the crowds moved into the secret police stations, to defend the institution of Central Security. Just like Hans Modrow did, and with exactly the same effect. His exit was announced via the Egyptian Army’s facebook profile.

His replacement is profiled here – Essam Sharaf, significantly, is both a candidate endorsed by the revolutionaries and a participant in the revolution himself, as well as apparently enjoying a good reputation with the workers’ movement as far back as 2006.

And it’s one jet airliner, for ten prisoners…

One thing that is perhaps being overlooked by people discussing whether or not it would be wise to impose a no-fly zone over Libya is exactly what such a zone would set out to prevent. When it was first suggested, it was inspired by the general horror that the Libyan government was having crowds of civilians strafed by its Sukhoi 22 close-support aircraft. However, especially since several Libyan Air Force crews defected to Malta and to the revolution, air activity has turned out to be much less significant in what is beginning to look like a classical West- or Central-African civil war, based around Toyota pickups and 23mm Russian anti-aircraft guns and mercenaries paid with the money from exporting some mineral or other. You know the one.

It’s fairly well known that Libya sponsored several of the key warlords of 90s West Africa – Foday Sankoh, Charles Taylor, and several others originally met up in Libyan-funded training camps. Interestingly, not only did one of the versions of Jetline International base itself in Tripoli and trade aircraft back and forth with two of Viktor Bout’s companies, but Gaddafi’s government maintains an impressive airlift capacity. As well as the two flag-carrier airlines, Libyan Arab and Afriqiyah, whose names track the changing priorities of foreign policy, the Air Force operates a semi-commercial cargo wing, Libyan Arab Air Cargo, with a fleet of Ilyushin 76 and even two enormous Antonov-124s, some of very few such aircraft owned outside the former Soviet Union.

I’ve put together a Google spreadsheet of transport-type aircraft with Libyan operators, sorted so that currently active aircraft are at the top, and generated URIs to look them up on, for subscribers, and on, in the two right hand columns.

There are a total of 180 airframes, of which 118 are active. It’s probably worth noting that there was a report that top managers at Afriqiyah had resigned rather than take part in Gaddafi’s war effort, and constant rumours of mercenaries being lifted into airfields in the southern deserts.

The upshot of this is that logistics, rather than tactical air power, might be the most important factor in Gaddafi’s efforts to defeat the Libyan revolution/win the Libyan civil war. Rather than engaging in combat, the aim might instead be blockade, as a complement to the international financial sanctions already in place. (A ship has recently been stopped in British waters carrying large quantities of freshly printed Libyan currency.)

On the other hand, it also adds complexity and risk to the whole issue. There are still plenty of people who want to leave Libya, and British government-chartered airliners are ferrying some of them from Tunisia to Egypt. It would be a bad business, to say the least, to shoot down an Il-76 full of refugees. It could be better to try to cut off the supply chain at source by grounding Libyan aircraft elsewhere in the world, although this requires the cooperation of those states who are still willing to let them recruit on their territory. Further, imposing a blockade also implies a responsibility for the survival of the civilian population. Sending aid to eastern Libya has already been suggested, of course.

For a little extra, the Russian Demography blog, venturing well out of its usual beat, notes that the Libyan Government’s Dassault Falcon 900EX business jet, 5A-DCN, took a trip to Minsk recently. Its ICAO identifier, useful with virtual-radar sites, is 018019. There are various things the regime might find useful in Belarus – mercenaries, again, small arms (although they don’t appear to be short of them), and perhaps least disturbingly, impunity. (Hat tip.)

(Cross posted from TYR)