Sunday, September 29, 2013

From the War of 1812 to the War Against Obamacare: American Exceptionalism in Action

Is letting the government shut down going to get politicians in trouble?

That’s the fond hope of Democrats watching the Tea Party-powered Obamacare tantrum in Congress. 
Maybe.  Maybe not.

During the War of 1812, the Madison administration let the whole capital get burned down and suffered minimal political damage.

Instead, it was the hapless Federalists, who were right about the wrongness of the war, who were destroyed as a meaningful political force.

Modern historians seem to be at a bit of a loss as to what the War of 1812 was about.  Nominally, the war was about British maritime affronts—seizure of American merchant ships and impressment of sailors off American ships—relating to Great Britain’s global economic and military maneuverings against France during the Napoleonic Wars.

Actually, the Madison administration had been engaged in continual negotiations with Britain over these issues and, just before the US declared war, the British withdrew the noxious “Orders in Council” that had permitted its navy to feast on neutral US merchant shipping.  Even as the war continued, so did trade, with the British military machine in Europe hungry for supplies served by American merchants (largely, but not solely from New England) hungry for profit.

The actual bottom line was that there was an eager war party—the so-called “war hawks”—of the US western states, who made common cause with the pro-French and Anglophobic Virginia faction controlling the federal administration to stick it to John Bull.

Pro-British, pro-trade Federalists—concentrated in New England--vocally opposed the war, and pointed out its logical, strategic, and fiscal flaws.  More significantly, they viewed the war as a Republican political charade and refused to knuckle under to the “rally around the flag” rhetoric.  Federalists criticized the conduct of the war, dragged their feet in implementing measures relating to mobilizing and dispatching New England militias out of state, and convened the “Hartford Convention” in 1814 to coordinate New England’s pushback to the Madison administration and strive for a New England voice—preferably a New England minority veto—in national affairs.

The war was largely a ridiculous screw-up.  The greatest victory of US arms, the Battle of New Orleans, famously occurred after the peace treaty had already been negotiated in Ghent.

Ruinously expensive bounties (cash bonuses equivalent to a workingman’s annual salary and grants of 160 acres of land) had to be offered to fill the ranks with relatively unenthusiastic soldiers.  Initially, the US Army was terribly led and it was not until 1814 that US land forces gave a good account of themselves in some remarkably fierce but strategically inconclusive engagements along the US-Canada border.  Notably, the successful new commanders, Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Harrison—both of whom subsequently rode their military successes into the White House—had demonstrated their leadership abilities and honed their skills during prior campaigns against the Indians.  (To me this demonstrates the old truism of the US military: that over the last two centuries, the effectiveness and credibility of US military might has relied to a certain extent on the continual presence of convenient, feisty, but underpowered enemies that can be beaten up at close and regular intervals to keep the military muscle well toned and ready for The Big One.)  

The Madison administration decided that escalation and mission creep were the panaceas for the military and political problems of the war, mounting “we will be welcomed as liberators” military campaigns against Canada that opened the Republicans up to extremely well-founded Federalist accusations that the war was not, as sold, a defensive war, but an opportunistic venture in partisan politics and empire building.

In the event, the Republican hope that Napoleon would kick England’s ass and drop Canada in the lap of the United States was disappointed.  Instead, 1813 saw a flood of British ships and troops (freed up by Napoleon’s defeat) to North America, driving the US government to consider conscription—regarded as the hallmark of Napoleonic tyranny—to get enough troops into the field.  The Madison administration was also compelled to make large investments in the US Navy to challenge British control of the seas, abandoning the Jeffersonian ideal of small coastal vessels in favor of a big, capable, and effective Hamiltonian fleet of frigates.

The Madison administration had taken on disastrous levels of debt in order to fund the war, whose duration and expense it had completely underestimated.  

An excellent account by Donald Hickey, The War of 1812—A Forgotten Conflict, provides this description of the state of affairs in early 1815:

“[The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Dallas] sent two additional reports to Congress.  The first…outlined the Treasury’s problems in paying the national debt.  The second…contained Dallas’s estimates for 1815.  Disbursements for the year were expected to top $56,000,000 (including $15,500,000 merely to service the debt), while income—even with new taxes—would be a paltry $15,100,00.  This meant that the government would have to raise $40,900,000 through loans and treasury notes.
…Republicans were dumbfounded…After reading the report, [Speaker of the House John] Eppes ‘threw it upon the table with expressive violence’ and, turning to Federalist William Gaston, half in jest said: ‘Well, sir, will your party take the Government if we will give it up to them?”  “No, sir,” replied Gaston, “not unless you will give it to us as we gave it to you.” [page 247]

Thomas Jefferson offered his solution, issuing paper money, and told Madison: “[O]ur experience…has proved [paper money] may be run up to 2. Or 300 M[illion] without more than doubling…prices.”[246]  Considering that at the time US treasury securities was selling—not trading, but selling, straight out of the gate—at a 20% discount, the Sage of Monticello’s optimism seems misplaced.

Of course, as a debtor of long standing, Jefferson was well attuned to the inflation-loving attitude of the debt-loving (and bank-hating) Republican base, and hostile to the hard discipline of the financial markets and sound money championed by the Federalists.

Jefferson himself was something of a feckless amateur in economic affairs, personal as well as national, as this account of his indifferent management of his personal presidential finances reveals:

As he prepared to leave office, Jefferson was shocked to learn that by trusting “rough estimates in my head,” he had exceeded his salary by three to four months, which meant he had a debt of about $10,000 that had to be covered.

After the Library of Congress got torched by the British in 1814, Jefferson’s protégé, President Madison, thoughtfully replenished the nation’s strategic supply of books by purchasing Jefferson’s library for the sum of $23,950.  The Federalists, of course, were not interested in this piece of Republican self-dealing—especially since Jefferson had promised to donate his books to the nation at his demise at no charge and the nation perhaps had more pressing priorities than restocking the library.  One Federalist spluttered that Jefferson’s books would help disseminate his “infidel philosophy” and were “good, bad, and languages which many can not read, and most ought not.”  The measure passed narrowly, along partisan lines. 

The Library of Congress windfall might have assisted Jefferson in some of his temporary financial embarrassments (he immediately used the proceeds to pay off $15,000 in debts), but did not spare him the misery of dying in debt (after a dodgy scheme to maximize revenue from some property by awarding it as a prize in a state-sanctioned raffle fell through), leaving his heirs to liquidate his estate and sell off his real estate, art, chattels, and slave holdings to partially settle accounts.

Anyway, back to the War of 1812. 

In the end, the Republicans were forced to resort to that despised instrument of the Federalists, chartering a national bank to make sure, at the most vulgar level, that there was some bank out there that would have no choice but to buy government securities.

The Madison administration also botched the defense of the capitol—the panic-stricken encounter at Bladensburg, Virginia, was mockingly called “The Bladensburg Races” for the dearth of US valor displayed—and in August 1814 the British marched into Washington and burned the key edifices of the city to the ground.

Good lefties will recall that it was a distant ancestor of the late and lamented Alexander Cockburn, one Sir Admiral George Cockburn, who burned Washington.  Alexander Cockburn’s brother, the journalist Patrick Cockburn, provided an appreciation of his ancestor and his handiwork to the Independent in 2012.  

Mr. Hickey provides a helpful guide to the proper pronunciation (“Co-burn”) and remarks: “Cockburn was a bold and able officer in the prime of a long and distinguished naval career.”  [153]   

Contemporary US opinion cared to differ, especially after his forces laid waste to the Chesapeake region unopposed for 12 days in April 1813: “’Cockburn’s name was on every tongue, with various particulars of his incredibly coarse and blackguard misconduct.”   At the fall of Washington, Cockburn refreshed himself at the White House with the supper that President Madison had hurriedly abandoned, and then put the building to the torch.  British forces also fired the Capitol, the Treasury, and the building housing the state and war departments.  

The Admiral displayed the trademark Cockburnian combativeness when dealing with his adversaries in the press.

According to Wikipedia

The day after the destruction of the White House, Rear Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer [a quasi-governmental newspaper that handled the British very roughly], intending to burn it down. However, several women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because its reporters had written so negatively about him, branding him as "The Ruffian." Instead, he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick, ordering all the "C" type destroyed "so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name".

Once the National Intelligencer replenished its supply of “C” type, it resumed publication and sniffed that Cockburn acted “quite the mountebank, exhibiting…a gross levity of manner, displaying sundry articles of trifling value of which he had robbed the president’s house” and berating the absent editors “with much of the peculiar slang of the Common Sewer.” [199]

Admiral Cockburn was apparently not haunted by remorse over the burning of the American capital.  The formal portrait of Cockburn painted circa 1817 by John James Hall shows him posed triumphantly before the flaming ruins of Washington.  The painting resides at that shrine of British naval derring do, the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The War of 1812 was by no stretch of the imagination an American victory.  The peace settlement simply returned conditions to the antebellum status quo.   The United States, while perfecting its world-class army and navy (and preparing it for non-stop exercise in the wars of expansion to come and, of course, the Civil War), was near bankruptcy and had its capital burned down.

But there was intense national pride (and, I expect, relief) that the US had fought Great Britain to a draw. Federalists ended up taking a public relations beating for their lack of war enthusiasm, the Hartford Convention was rather unfairly labeled as a treasonous convocation, and Federalism retreated from the national stage to become a sectional affectation of the New England rump.  

Jeffersonians touted the War of 1812 as “America’s Second War of Independence.”   This ridiculous and self-serving formulation, reflecting a desire to cut New England—Federalist vanguard of the somewhat more authentic first revolution—down to size and inflate Jeffersonian pretensions, is in some ways completely correct.

The War of 1812 declared the independence of the rest of the United States from Federalist preoccupation with international commerce, prudent fiscal policy, and careful accommodation with Great Britain.  In fact, by fighting a botched war about British maritime issues markedly remote from the Republicans’ continental, agricultural, and expansionist interests but dear to the hearts, pocketbooks, and power of the Federalists, the Jeffersonians and the war hawks casually trampled upon existential Federalist priorities, counsel, and opposition, and demonstrated the utterly peripheral and disposable character of Federalist interest in the national discourse. 

The war was the event that confirmed that a hell for leather dash for a continental empire (and into civil war) would drive American politics for the next decades.  Federalists would be passengers on this juggernaut, not the driver.

The war also affirmed a uniquely American brand of impunity: the reality that, on top of democracy and economic freedom, a miraculous combination of geographic distance, vast resource wealth, military capability, virulent nationalism, a youthful and rapidly increasing population, growing commercial and financial heft, and lucky accidents in Europe (such as the global supremacy of America’s primary trading partner, Great Britain) made it possible for the United States to start and then survive a totally screwed up war.

In other words, the War of 1812 can be seen as the birth of American exceptionalism, especially if one defines “exceptionalism” as “exceptional national resilience that not even exceptional stupidity can overcome”.

In fact, the greater the stupidity, the more awesome the resilience, and the greater the victory!
I see the same defiance—defiance of expert opinion, defiance of consequences, the fundamental defiance of the idea that genuine limits exist--in Republican Tea Party flirting with government shutdown and default over Obamacare.  
It will be interesting to see who reaps the political benefits—and who reaps the whirlwind—in this confrontation.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Turkey Chooses Chinese Long Range Missile Defense

[This post originally appeared at Asia Times Online on September 27, 2013, under the title Turkey Goes for Chinese take-away defense.  It can be reposted if ATOl is credited and a link provided.]

On September 26, 2013, Turkey made the rather eyebrow-raising decision to put its long range missile defense eggs in a Chinese basket, announcing it had awarded a US$3 billion contract to the People's Republic of China for its truck-mounted "shoot and scoot" FD-2000 system.

The Chinese FD-2000 is based on the Hong Qi missile, which has been around since the 1990s. The FD-2000 is an export version of the HQ-9 that appeared in 2009 and is marketed as a next-generation improvement on the Russian S-300 system, but whose fire control radar looks more like the radar matching US-based Raytheon's Patriot missile system (with the implication that the PRC filched the technology, maybe with some help from Israel). [1]

Defense correspondent Wendell Minick relayed the description of the FD-2000 that China provided at a 2010 Asian arms show:
It can target cruise missiles (7-24 km), air-to-ground missiles (7-50 km), aircraft (7-125 km), precision-guided bombs and tactical ballistic missiles (7-25 km). "FD-2000 is mainly provided for air force and air defense force for asset air defense to protect core political, military and economic targets," according to the brochure of China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC), the manufacturer of the system. It can also coordinate with other air defense systems to "form a multi-layer air defense system for regional air defense." [2]
Turkey is procuring 12 of these systems (it had originally requested 20 Patriot systems when Syria heated up and got six for a year, since renewed).

The FD-2000 looks great on paper. However, it appears to be untested in combat - and even the Patriot system is apparently not effective against cruise missiles, implying that the Chinese system isn't going to do any better. Political issues aside - and there were a lot of political issues - the deciding factor for Turkey was probably low price, and China's willingness to do co-production and technology transfer.

Maybe the Chinese government are eager to put the FD-2000 in some foreign hot spot in the hopes of getting some real, battlefield data and make some upgrades before the cruise missiles start flying toward Beijing. [3]

Press reports from June already implied that Turkey was leaning toward the Chinese system. However, Turkey's announcement in the midst of the Syrian chemical weapons negotiations still looks like a slap at the United States, which makes the Patriot missile system, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is now manning six Patriot batteries at present installed in Turkey. [4]

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly is feeling piqued at the US-led detour into chemical weapon destruction in Syria, instead of support for the quick regime collapse that he has been craving ever since he made the precipitous and rather premature decision to call for the fall of Bashar al-Assad in the summer of 2011.

Turkey's aggressive regime-change posture has always carried with it the risk of Syrian chemical weapon retaliation, as a Xinhua piece pointed out in early November:
Turkey's army build up on its Syrian border continued, with some 400 chemical, biological and nuclear units arriving in the region as a measure against a possible chemical threat.

While some analysts cited NATO anti-missile defense systems deployed in Turkey, others doubted their effectiveness."The citizens in the southern border have not been given adequate equipment to protect themselves, especially from chemical attacks," said Turkish academic Soli Ozel. "Let's say that one battery misses one missile ... The smart missile may not be so smart." [5]
Suspicion of the Patriot's missile-busting awesomeness seems to be endemic in Turkey:
Sait Yilmaz, an expert, told Turkish daily Today's Zaman that Patriots - the anti-ballistic missiles provided by NATO - would not be effective against short-distance missiles. He said that if Syria fired a large number of missiles on Turkish targets at such a short distance, most would go uncountered. [6]
The general consensus seems to be that if Syria unleashed a barrage of short-range missiles the Patriot missiles would not do a sensational job; indeed, the suspicion is that the six batteries are in Turkey merely as a symbolic show of NATO support for Turkey. Presumably, the protection provided by the FD-2000 would also be less than 100%. Syria, however, is something of a sideshow in Turkey's missile defense game.

Turkey's decision to procure these missile defense assets goes back to 2011 and was part of Turkey's ambiguous dance with the United States, NATO, and Iran and the threat of Iran's long range missiles.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced that Turkey's participation in the US/NATO integrated ballistic missile defense system would be limited to hosting a radar station at Malatya - without any NATO provided missile defense. Unsurprisingly, Iran announced that a NATO radar station in Turkey would have a bull's eye painted on it and Turkey was left to its own devices to deal with the Iranian threat. Therefore, the Turkish government embarked on its procurement odyssey seeking a defense against long range (ie Iranian) missiles, which ended with the announcement of the purchase of the FD-2000.

It can be assumed that Turkey, eager to maintain its regional clout as an independent security actor, made the conscious decision to stick a finger in Iran's eye by siding with the US and NATO on the radar (while stipulating that Iran must never be formally identified as the radar's target), and to try to manage Iran's extreme displeasure by deploying a more Turkish, non-NATO, presumably less confrontationally managed missile defense system. [7]

Performance questions aside, the Syrian trauma has reinforced Turkey's desire for a non-NATO missile defense system. As an analysis on the Carnegie Europe website pointed out, Turkey's feelings of being slighted by the US and NATO on Syria are no accident and translate rather directly into an independent defense policy:
In a little-known episode of NATO history, the only Article 5 [collective self defense] crisis-management exercise ever conducted by the organization ended in disagreement. Coincidentally, the scenario for the exercise, held in 2002, was designed to simulate an Article 5 response to a chemical weapons attack by Amberland, a hypothetical southern neighbor of Turkey.

Amberland was known to have several Scud missiles, tipped with biological and chemical warheads, aimed at Turkey. During the seven-day exercise, the United States and Turkey reportedly took a more hardline stance in support of preemptive strikes, while Germany, France, and Spain preferred to defuse the crisis through more political means.

The exercise apparently ended with NATO members disagreeing about the prospective NATO response before any attack was carried out or Article 5 was officially invoked. [8]
As Turkey sees it, in other words, maybe the danger on Iran is that NATO will go too far and embroil Turkey in a regional confrontation it does not desire; on Syria, the reality is that NATO doesn't go far enough, and is leaving Turkey vulnerable to Syrian retaliation for Erdogan's perilous overreach on Syrian regime change.

Even though the FD-2000 is not well-suited to coping with a Syrian short range missile threat, the missile defense batteries could also assist in enforcing a no-fly zone at the Syrian-Turkish border, something that NATO has specifically ruled out for its Patriot batteries in Turkey (which are for the most part safely out of range of the Syrian border and whose main purpose seems to be protecting NATO and US military installations) without an enabling UN resolution or suitable coalition.

Turkey would probably be happy to have this independent capability in its security/Syria destabilization portfolio though, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per pop, it will probably think twice about a shooting spree of FD-2000 missiles at Syrian planes. Erdogan is also unhappy with Russia's frontline support of the Syrian regime militarily as well as diplomatically, especially compared with Chinese discretion, and that's probably why he didn't choose the S-300 option.

Iran, which has experienced the headaches of politicized supply (or, to be more accurate, non-supply) of its S-300 missile defense system by Russia, is also reportedly considering the FD-2000 (its manufacturer, CPMIEC, was sanctioned by the United States for unspecified Iran-related transgressions presumably relating to Chinese willingness to transfer missile technology) ... but maybe Iran is thinking long and hard about the rumor that the fire control radar technology passed through Israel's hands on its way to China.

Apparently a Western marketing point steering Turkey away from Russian or Chinese systems was the argument that inoperability with NATO equipment would be a problem and the missile defense batteries would be sitting there without vital linkages to NATO theater-scale radar and missile-killing capabilities (though Greece, with an inventory of Russian S-300s, somehow managed to make do).

Well, maybe that's the point. Erdogan is implying he doesn't want to rely on the United States or NATO - which might demand Turkey's diplomatic and security subservience and NATO control over Turkish missile defense assets - to keep his missile defense system working, while exposing both missile sites and the radar facility to Iranian NATO-related wrath.

Perhaps Erdogan has abandoned his dreams of full partnership with NATO and the European Union, and doesn't see Turkey as Europe's front line state in the Middle East. He wants his own, independent missile defense capability to protect distinctly Turkish targets and manage his relationships with Iran and Syria on a more bilateral basis.

And as far as the People's Republic of China is concerned, it can mollify Iran with the observation that China, by stepping up and providing the system in place of Raytheon or a French/Italian consortium, was preventing the full integration of Turkey into the NATO missile defense bloc.

In which case, Turkey's name on the NATO membership rolls should include an asterisk denoting its special status. Or maybe it should be a red star.

1. See here
2. See here.
3. See here.
4. See here
5. See here.
6. See here.
7. See here.
8. See here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It Looks Like Japan Lied Its Way Into the Olympics

[Update, November 24, 2014:  Despite dire predictions, TEPCO has successfully removed 1331 spent fuel rods from the cooling pond at Number 4 reactor.  Removal of the 204 fresh fuel rods is underway.  On the other hand, Mainichi reports that the "freeze play" plan to freeze contaminated water to keep it from draining into a trench has failed.  Instead, TEPCO has received permission to place concrete in the bottom of the trench and hopes that will stop the flow.  Per the Guardian, TEPCO is still pursuing plans for a 1.5 kilometer ice wall to keep groundwater from entering the reactor building and becoming contaminated.  Fukushima generates 400 tons of contaminated groundwater per day, and 500,000 tons is now stored on site.  Total cleanup & compensation estimate now about US$85 billion.  CH 11/24/14]

[Correction: in the final round Tokyo was competing against Istanbul and Madrid, not Rio.  Heckuva choice for the IOC this time.]

In order to secure the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Tokyo, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the IOC that the Fukushima situation was “under control”, per AFP:

"Let me assure you the situation is under control," [Abe] said.

"It has never done or will do any damage to Tokyo."

Abe replied decisively when pressed by veteran Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg over Fukushima.

"You should read past the headlines and look at the facts," he said.

"The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbour only 0.3 square kilometres big.

"There have been no health problems and nor will there be. I will be taking responsibility for all the programmes with regard to the plant and the leaks."

It looks like the key point, to paraphrase Bill Clinton is “what your definition of ‘situation’ is”.

If the “situation”  is currently officially stated radiological hazards to Tokyo and Olympic participants thanks to Fukushima, the answer is a qualified “yes”.

That is, if the Japanese government continues to give public credence to rather unfounded Tepco optimism that the Fukushima clusterfuck will simply maintain the current trend of dumping radioactive water into the ocean and the main danger to denizens of Tokyo involves getting radioactive sushi from some tuna caught out in the Pacific.

After Shinzo Abe came home from scoring the Olympics, he announced that the Japanese government would participate more actively in the faltering Tepco effort.  

At the same time, Abe took pains not to stint on the denialist BS that underpinned the Olympics bid, as if the main problem was not hundreds of tons of sizzling fuel rods and thousands of gallons of radioactive water, but “rumours”:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the scrapping of two Fukushima nuclear reactors that survived the 2011 tsunami, a write-off that threatens to complicate a turnaround plan the operator has presented to creditors.

He also said he stood by his commitments to the International Olympic Committee of insuring a safe 2020 Summer Games.

"I will work hard to counter rumours questioning the safety of the Fukushima plant," he said.

Some fact if not rumour-obsessed locals explicitly rebutted Abe’s contention that the situation was “under control”.  Per Mainichi Shimbun:

The town assembly of nuclear disaster-hit Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, passed a protest resolution against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sept. 20 for declaring the situation surrounding the radioactively contaminated water leaks at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant "under control."

The prime minister made the controversial comments during Tokyo's final presentation at the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s general meeting in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, saying, "Some may have concerns about Fukushima. Let me assure you, the situation is under control." He also said the effect of the water leak has been "completely blocked" within the 0.3 square kilometers of the plant's harbor.

The Namie Town Assembly unanimously passed the Sept. 20 protest resolution stating that there is a "serious problem" with Abe's remarks as they "contradict reality." The protest also calls the situation at the plant, where some 300 metric tons of radioactively contaminated water is leaking into the ocean every day, "serious."

"The situation has never been 'under control,' nor is the contaminated water 'completely blocked,'" the protest read.

There is no guarantee that the current Fukushima clusterfuck will not get an upgrade.  Per anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman:

Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.
The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.

Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all us.

The situation at Unit 4 does look pretty dire.  The cooling pond, on top of a damaged structure, contains a reactor load of rods (Unit 4's rods had been moved from the reactor to the pond as part of routine maintenance when the tsunami hit) that are usually gingerly manipulated under precisely controlled conditions by computer-driven cranes.  Conditions at Number 4 cooling pond are considerably less than optimal, as Reuters tells us, and the actual removal operation might play out like a frustrating encounter with one of those claw machines at Denny's.

Botching the removal could lead to a ghastly, if not apocalyptic nuclear accident.  The possibility that Tepco is driven to try to remove the rods, not because it is ready to, but because the whole building is subsiding in water-soaked soil and may come crashing down, also inspires the heebie-jeebies.

Wasserman expressed a vote of no confidence in Tepco and launched a petition drive to strip Japan of its control over the Fukushima clean up and turn the effort over to the international community through the United Nations.

At the time I thought, hmmm, that doesn’t seem particularly practical.

However, a radio report from ABC Australia also indicates that the Japanese government now thinks it may not have the capabilities to handle Fukushima by itself, despite Abe’s personal assurance to the IOC (which should remind us of the lack of legal enforceability of brave statements made by politicians on their own kick).  

Reportedly, Abe talked with French president Hollande at the UN this week and asked for French help to decommission two of the Fukushima units.

The broadcast also made the interesting point that Russia offered help shortly after the disaster, and also advised the Japanese government that Tepco’s strategy of cooling the hot, collapsed cores with water would a) not solve the problem and b) create a huge irradiated water mess.  The Japanese government apparently ignored the Russian approach and, guess what, the problem is not solved and there is a huge irradiated water mess.

Cynical observers will perhaps conclude that the Abe administration was aware of these major and currently insoluble issues from the git-go, but declined to involve itself in Tepco’s Fukushima work until after the Olympics bid was safely under its belt, allowing the Japanese government to base its presentation on Tepco’s sunny assurances rather than the somewhat grimmer reality prevailing at the site.

As for the Olympics bid itself, it looks like the Abe administration followed the Karl Rove formula for political jiu jitsu, namely attack your opponent’s strength and turn it into weakness (best typified by the Swift-boating of John Kerry’s war record during his presidential race against the service-dodging party-hearty history of George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard’s “champagne squadron” during the Vietnam War).

Refusing to regard the Fukushima situation as a liability, the Abe team turned on the waterworks to make the tsunami disaster the emotional centerpiece of its bid:

The effects of the tsunami and earthquake – killing over 18,000 people – was never far from the lips of the presentation team.

Princess Takamado – daughter-in-law of the Japanese Emperor – spoke in French expressing the gratitude Japan owed to the IOC in the way they had rallied round after the tsunami and how it had had an impact on the young living there.

“The Olympic bid has given the young people in the area affected something to dream for, the motivation to move forward with courage,” said the 60-year-old, who is the first member of Japan’s Royal Family to address the IOC.

“I know one of the IOC’s most important aspects is the legacy a Games leaves. The IOC will certainly remain in the heart of these young people.”

Mami Sato, two time Paralympian in the long jump, spoke movingly about her personal experience of when the disaster struck.

“I was not there at the time and I was really worried because I did not know if my family was still alive but luckily they were,” she said tearfully to the backdrop of a photo of her reunited with her parents.

Abe added: “Today, under the blue sky of Fukushima, there are young boys playing football and looking into the future and not the past.”

The Brazilians are probably kicking themselves for not packaging their massive anti-government demonstrations (and attacks on the economic wisdom of hosting the World Cup, something that undoubtedly gave their Olympics bid a black eye) as a non-stop carnival of Olympic-worthy youthful passion.  Also, no princess--even though there are not one but two family lines claiming the Brazilian imperial throne and there are plenty of princesses, including the quite attractive Paola Maria de Bourbon Orléans e Bragança Sapieha.  C’mon, people!

The Turks are probably kicking themselves for not packaging their sizable anti-government demonstrations as a non stop carnival of Olympic-worthy youthful passion by Istanbul's admittedly Olympics-hating young urban bourgeoisie.  And Erdogan could have flown to Rio to assure the IOC that the Kurdish unrest and Syrian debacle were all "under control".  Also, no princess--even though Europe is generously seeded with heirs to the house of Osman and attractive and articulate princesses like Princess Ayşe Gülnev Sultan
would have been available to lobby the royalty-besotted IOC. (Attaturk  did make a clean break with the imperial aspirations of the Ottomans and exiled the house of Osman; I guess Princess Takamado can say There, but for the grace of General MacArthur, go I!  However, the Erdogan government--while keeping one eye cocked at the disapproving Turkish army--is gingerly pursuing rapprochement with the house of Osman in order to burnish Turkey's claims to regional leadership.)

Madrid, for that matter, was unable to spin its substantial supply of existing Olympic-worthy venues and its desperate need for an economic kickstart into IOC support.  Spain had badly botched its anti-doping image management by short-circuiting a massive investigation into the blood-doping and medication-dispensing activities of one Dr. Eufamiano Fuentes.  A Spanish judge restricted Fuentes' testimony to his activities relating to traditional doping whipping-sport professional cycling, even when he offered in open court to name names in other sports as well.  The rumor is that Spain's massively popular and economically powerful football clubs leaned on the court to keep out of the public eye allegations that Fuentes was doping their athletes.

As for princesses, Spain, with a reigning royal family, is chock-a-block with in-country talent.  However, one of the byproducts of Spain's crushing economic crisis is growing disenchantment with the excesses and incapacities of the local aristocracy; the possible deposition of the royal family is now an item on the national agenda. But maybe Princess Leonor and Princess Sofia could have swayed the IOC with, perhaps, a little less hauteur than they displayed at Easter mass in 2010.

As to what’s really going on under the blue skies of Fukushima, this post-Olympics reportage gives a more honest picture (under the Irish Times’ typical feisty headline, Fukushima clean-up may be doomed):

Across much of Fukushima’s rolling green countryside they descend on homes like antibodies around a virus, men wielding low-tech tools against a very modern enemy: radiation. Power hoses, shovels and mechanical diggers are used to scour toxins that rained down from the sky 30 months ago. The job is exhausting, expensive and, say some, doomed to failure. 

Today, a sweating four-man crew wearing surgical masks and boiler suits clean the home of Hiroshi Saito (71) and his wife Terue (68). Their aim is to bring average radiation at this home down to 1.5 microsieverts an hour, still several times what it was before the incident but safe enough, perhaps, for Saito’s seven grandchildren to visit. “My youngest grandchild has never been here,” he says.

Saito’s house is outside the mandatory evacuation zone, from which 160,000 people decamped by government order and have yet to return.  Another 40,000 or so from Saito’s municipality, Minamisoma, voluntarily evacuated and have yet to return.  According to the article, one estimate for the total cleanup bill for Fukushima may reach $600 billion.

 And that’s only if things don’t get worse.