Thursday, February 26, 2015

Netanyahu uses faulty logic to justify a dangerous & unwise policy

By Marc Jampole

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s reasoning makes as little sense as his overall strategy.

Netanyahu is determined to scuttle the imminent deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries over Iran’s development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. (BTW, P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France—plus Germany.) Netanyahu argues that by signing a 10-year deal, the United States and the other countries are giving Iran de facto permission to construct nuclear weapons when the agreement ends. Netanyahu is convinced that once Iran has a nuclear capability, the first thing it will do is use it on Israel.

There are three major holes in Bibi’s logic:
  1. From what we can tell, the agreement will likely halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for 10 years, postponing for a generation the possibility of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel.
  2. If, after the agreement ends, Iran begins an active program of nuclear weapons development, the United States and other nations can always renew the severe economic sanctions that have been crippling Iran for years.
  3. Tehran is less than 1,000 miles from Tel Aviv, close enough that any nuclear bomb exploded in Israel would poison the Iranian air and water for decades. Moreover, Israel would likely respond to a nuclear attack from Iran in a like manner, leading to the immediate deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Iranians. The doctrine of mutually-assured destruction that has kept the United States and the Soviet Union (and now Russia) safe from a nuclear conflagration would likely also prevent Iran from attempting a first strike against Israel.
But as illogical as Netanyahu is thinking, his overall strategy is even more absurd. How will giving a speech in front of the U.S. Congress sink the talks? Most observers note that the speech represents a marriage of convenience between Republicans, who want to embarrass President Obama, and the Israeli Prime Minister, who thinks the speech will win him votes in the upcoming Israeli elections. In the short term, this strategy is risky, and in the long term it is doomed to failure. His planned speech gives the growing number of American Jews uncomfortable with Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians another reason to unite, funnel money to Israeli progressives and jawbone their elected officials. It pisses off many in the United States, already uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s support of additional West Bank settlements. And it worsens his relationship with the head of the country that protects Israel and shtups it with $3.1 billion in military aid every year.

President Obama and others have objected to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress because it comes too close to the Israeli elections and therefore goes against the American tradition of not appearing to interfere in foreign elections. In breaking this tradition, with whom has Netanyahu gone to bed? The American right, which before Reagan had a long history of overt anti-Semitism and still has its share of racists and Jew-haters.

Joining with Republicans to embarrass a Democratic president really has to make a lot of Jewish Senators and Representatives who are Democrats pretty unhappy; even the most militaristic of them may now listen a little more carefully to the arguments of those who want to apply more pressure on Israel to stop building more settlements in the West Bank and finally negotiate a two-state solution. Of course Netanyahu’s insult to the president must please all those Jewish Republicans in Congress—oops, there’s only one!

We haven’t come to the big strategic question—how could Israel possibly be against rapprochement with Iran? What could Israel possibly lose by bringing Iran back into the stable of nations dedicated to peace? Who benefits from the current state of affairs in the Middle East? Of course the Israeli and Jewish equivalents of Islamic and Christian extremists get to keep the status quo, which is helpful to their side. And Israeli and American arms manufacturers certainly benefit from continued tensions, as they will be able to sell more guns, bullets, tanks and aircraft. The status quo suits these groups and their political factotum Netanyahu just fine.

Thus the only way to understand Netanyahu’s campaign to upset the negotiations with Iran as reasoned action is to conclude the he is an ardent supporter of the current instability in the Middle East. And that makes him a warmonger. We can only hope that Israeli voters realize Netanyahu’s way leads to more bloodshed and vote him out of office on March 17.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We need to initiate a massive campaign to make LAWS against the law

By Marc Jampole

Does your spell check program ever frustrate you when it changes the grammatically correct “the person who” to the incorrect “the person that” or misses your mistake when you write the incorrect “the company and their employees” instead of the correct “the company and its employees?”

We can blame these mistakes on the humans who programmed the software.

But who will we blame when computerized robots decide to bomb a village of innocent civilians while searching for an escaped soldier? Or when an autonomous weapon decides on its own to start shooting wildly into a shopping mall?

I’m not talking about drones, which humans operate at a distance. Humans maintain full control over drones.

No, I’m referring to the next advance in weapons of mass destruction: automated weapons that make the decision to shoot, to bomb or to torch without human intervention, based upon the weapon’s completely independent analysis of the situation. They’re called Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and military contractors all over the world are working furiously to develop them. The United States, Britain, Israel and South Korea already use technologies seen as precursors to fully autonomous weapons systems, according to a New York Times reportthat’s almost two years old. 

You probably haven’t heard much about LAWS. My Google News search revealed a total of 159 stories about them on the same day that close to eight millions stories appeared about the aftermath of Rudy Giuliani’s absurd accusation that President Barack Obama doesn’t love the United States and almost 4.5 million stories covered the death of a minor actor named Ben Woolf (who?). 

Use of LAWS raises many technical issues. Opponents of LAWS wonder if we can ever program a robot to make the subtle distinctions between an enemy combatant and an innocent civilian, or to understand that the enemy has moved its antiaircraft radar device to the roof of a hospital (an exampleI borrow from the Times Bill Keller)? Then there is the issue of faulty programming that plagues automated systems meant to check spelling and grammar, analyze loan applications, translate from one language to another, evaluate essays or select products for purchase. And what happens if an electrical surge or scratch in a printed circuit makes an autonomous weapon go haywire? Or if some rogue programmer implants malware into the system?

The moral issues raised by having robots make battle field decisions for humans are even more troubling. Virtually all systems of human morality start with the principle, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” Since the beginning of recorded history thousands of philosophers, historians, soldiers, politicians and creative writers have written many millions of words pondering when killing another human being is justifiable.  We honor those who kill in society’s name and punish those whose murderous deeds society considers as unwarranted.  The issue of the “just war” is one of the most important themes in moral philosophy since at least the fourth century before the Common Era.

From the birth of humans until today, every killing in peacetime and war, condoned and unsanctioned, single deaths and mass murders—all of it has been committed by individual human beings to whom we can assign praise or blame, guilt or innocence. Taking the decision to pull the trigger, drop the bomb or throw the grenade out of the hands of human beings and putting into the hands of software is inherently immoral because it makes it impossible to determine who really is responsible for a wartime atrocity. The generals will blame the robot or hide behind the robot for justification, claiming that the software is infallible.

Some proponents of LAWS argue that automation will lead to more humane wars, since robots are not subject to mistakes in analysis, vengefulness, panic, fear or other emotions that color the decisions made by men and women in battle. That’s my definition of a sick joke—something that is both funny and horrifying at the same time. The lack of emotion in a robot may cause it to decide to level the village for strategic reasons, whereas a human being might recognize that the deaths of innocents or destruction of historic structures would make an attack unthinkable. And consider how much easier it will be to go to war if all a government had to do was send out the robots. The history of recent American wars suggest two dynamics: 1) the more our soldiers die in a war, the more likely people are to turn against the war; and 2) the number of deaths on the other side doesn’t sway most of the population from supporting a war. It seems clear that having an army of autonomous robots that hold within their operating systems the final decision to shoot or not will lead to more and more violent wars. Holding computers up as more virtuous than humans because they analyze dispassionately is the same kind of illogical thought process as the standard rightwing argument that businesses can regulate themselves but that society must carefully watch food stamp and Medicaid recipients for fraud.

Building the atom bomb was a bad idea that many of the scientists involved later regretted. Building lethal autonomous weapons systems is another bad idea.

I’m advising all OpEdge readers to write, phone or email their Congressional representatives, Senators and the President of the United States every three to four months asking them to come out in favor of banning all LAWS research and development in the United States and to work for a global treaty to ban LAWS R&D internationally. The United States should impose the same harsh sanctions on nations developing LAWS that we now impose on the Soviet Union, Iran and North Korea. We should refuse to buy any military armament from any private company ding LAWS R&D.

There’s a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) dedicated to the issue of autonomous weapons on April 13-17. I recommend that all readers email CCW at and tell the organization that it should come out against any further development of LAWS and recommend sanctions against nations and businesses that develop LAWS.

In short we have to make LAWS against the law. Let’s not let this genie get further out of the bottle.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What did Scott Walker miss by quitting college before he earned a degree?

By Marc Jampole

I have no problem with the fact that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker didn’t finish college. Having a college diploma is not an absolute requirement for serving as assemblyperson, county executive, governor or even president.

Of course our only president without a college degree since the 19th century had a pretty shabby record: He helped to start the cold war. He selected nuclear power over solar as the primary energy source for the government to support. He nationalized steel plants to stop a strike. He let demagogue Joe McCarthy walk all over the country and tacitly approved the red scare. His name was Harry Truman and he also approved the two most barbaric single acts in human history: dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities after Japan had started negotiating its surrender, thereby killing from 150,000 to 200,000 innocent civilians in two fell swoops.

Just because most elected office holders have college degrees doesn’t mean one has to have one to succeed, just as the fact that the overwhelming number of business executives have diplomas doesn’t mean that we can’t see the occasional Bill Gates, Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg. That virtually all of these non-degree-bearing business titans (Steve Jobs was the very rare exception) came from wealthy families probably matters the same as the fact that many if not all of our past presidents without degrees came from wealthy families. Of course, some might say that Walker, even if born to a solidly middle class background, has been recently adopted by the ultra-wealthy Koch family.

Thus, while I would advise a young person who wants to go into politics to get a degree or acquire a wealthy family, I am not opposed to Scott Walker merely because he dropped out of college when he still had between one and two years worth of credits left to earn a degree.

I do, however, wonder what courses Walker missed by leaving Marquette University early?

He obviously missed some economics classes. He buys into the Reagan program of lowering taxes on the wealthy, cutting basic government services, killing unions and reducing regulations—all the policies that have led to the greatest non-violent transfer of wealth in world history over the past 35 years, taking wealth and income from the poor and middle class and giving it to the wealthy. Study after study disputes the economic premises of the rightwing, and yet they persist in proposing lowering taxes, cutting money for public education, ignoring our crumbling infrastructure of mass transit, roads and bridges, passing laws that discourage unionization and opposing regulations that protect our environment and create jobs in new earth-friendly technologies. We could cynically conclude that these right-wingers are supporting a program that helps their major constituency, the ultra-wealthy, but in Walker’s case, might it be that he missed the econ classes that would help him through some of the more arduous number-crunching of mainstream (read: Keynesian) economics?

Walker probably missed some science courses, too. He has signaled many times that he doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming. He promised not to support any legislation that would raise taxes to combat climate change, and has spoken at the climate-denying Heartland Institute. He is also on record as disliking resource recycling.  No one knows Walker’s views on evolution, because he keeps dodging the question. But his comment “Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God,” seems to suggest that he really doesn’t understand science, since science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a deity. Science investigates how things work, not why they do. Walker’s current attempt to turn the University of Wisconsin, one of the world’s leading research institutions, into a glorified trade school certainly shows a lack of understanding of the importance of new scientific discoveries for the continued well-being and improvement of society.

Another class Walker probably didn’t have a chance to take—or maybe he just didn’t attend the lectures—is Ethics. His reign as Milwaukee County Executive was as full of scandals involving his friends and cronies as has been the political career of Republican Governor Chris Christie, and that’s not a good thing. Walker has been investigated for illegally coordinating contributions from a super PAC. His latest illegal and unethical shenanigan has been to refuse to pay the annual Wisconsin state contribution to state pension programs, another Christie trick. Finally, one has to question the ethics of any candidate who takes millions of dollars from the Koch money machine, since the Kochs are known for injecting false notions into our national discussions about the environment, global warming, taxes and industrial policy.

My question, then, is whether Scott Walker would hold and promote so many false ideas if he had finished college. Judging from the large numbers of diploma-holding Republicans who say they share his beliefs, the answer is probably no. If we want to look for the reason Walker proclaims such ignorant views, we would probably be on firmer ground just following the money—right to the front doors of the Kochs, Adelson, Anschutz, Waltons, Scaifes and other American oligarchs who seek to distort our political discourse by flooding the marketplace of ideas with lies.