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The U.N. Foreign Legion

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Mar 18 2011 11:23pm

The Pope! How many divisions has he got?

-Joseph Stalin

Leave it to a brutal realist like Stalin to lay everything out in the most stark terms. A Pope with no military was not something worth paying attention to. The same applies to the United Nations.

In the recent Common Sense show we did (“Arming the Independents”) we waxed nostalgically for a UN that existed only in the minds of the dreamers who created it (and maybe not even there). A UN that could actually do what it was designed to do. A UN, for example, that could prevent genocide.

It was Winston Churchill who first suggested early in its development that the UN “should forthwith be equipped with an international armed force”. In fact, the UN charter signed by all member states obligates them to provide both armed forces, and the facilities to maintain them for UN use in maintaining peace and security around the world.

The lack of such a real force was one of the “defects” Churchill felt might make the fledgling UN as unequipped to handle reality as had been the UN's idealistic predecessor The League of Nations. And so it has. The UN faces two huge obstacles to its ability to prevent things like genocide. The first is a force capable of resisting force, the other is the willingness to use it.

The time of the Rwandan genocide is the best example I can think of when an even basic, vanilla version of Churchill's UN idea should have been able to justify its existence. During the three months of genocidal killings there, between half a million and 1.5 million Rwandans lost their lives in a conflict that could have been halted with a few thousand first-rate troops. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said he believed that with 5,000 U.S. soldiers he could have saved 500,000 lives. American casualties in Rwanda would almost certainly have been negligible. A lightly equipped French force of just over 2,000 was in Rwanda near the time of the genocide, and was virtually unassailable by any indigenous armed forces. So why weren't such forces deployed?

The reasons are complex and varied. The self-interest of individual nations often comes into play. This is precisely why if we want to have any ability to mitigate future Rwandas, we need to think of a force that is an international force, not a bunch of elements drawn from member nations simply fighting under a U.N. Flag (see Korea, 1950). The organization also needs structural reform to address the pervasive problems in its design that hamstring its ability (and willingness) to take action when the need arises. What the U.N. needs is their own equivalent of the fabled French Foreign Legion.

The Foreign Legion is a famous French elite force that takes recruits from all over the world into its ranks and turns them into superior soldiers. Historically, the Foreign Legion was often used in the past to uphold France's control of colonial areas. The UN version of such an outfit would instead be tasked with aiding desperate people who need help in situations where guns are required. There is an obvious need for this in the world.

The United Nations currently employees the troops of member nations in so-called “peacekeeper” roles. But the familiar blue-helmeted soldiers are deployed by the UN only to maintain an already existing agreement between hostile parties. The UN has no force that can be put into situations where the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians (or even millions in some cases) could be saved by the employment of a few thousand actual soldiers. In other words, UN peacekeepers are there to prevent a currently peaceful situation from turning violent, not to protect innocents in situations that currently are  violent. What this means is that the UN can maintain a peace agreed to after a genocide has occurred, but they have no force that can do anything about it while it is going on. This undercuts one of the primary missions of the organization.

So, how much would be needed by the UN to carry out such a role? Well, the obvious counter-question is to ask what such a force would be asked to do. A modern military land division usually has in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 20,000 or so troops. It is considered to be the smallest sized force that contains all that's needed within it for basic operations. A division usually has units attached to it to provide for other needs (a contingent of aircraft or armor might be a good example) and includes supporting logistical forces. The UN with even one operational division of its own capable of offensive operations is an immensely different organization than the one we have now. In answer to Stalin's question, the UN would then have one more division than the Pope.

Now, one division does not count for much in a real war. It has limited uses. In any sustained contact with hostile forces it will get worn down quickly (which is why the UN should have one reserve division as well). But in a sense, that limits its usefulness to those situations of immediate humanitarian need. It simply isn't good for much else besides going into destabilized areas and helping to protect large numbers of threatened civilians from extermination. But in Rwanda, it would have saved a million or so people from being hacked to death by a rival ethnic group.

Now, building such a force would be ludicrously easy. An advertisement on Craigslist will probably get you enough applicants to fill out the ranks (and these days they would be veteran  applicants. There's so many ex-soldiers out there capable of serving in an international force that we might as well be living in the post-Peloponnesian war era or during the wars of Alexander the Great's successors). The cost for equipment and support elements would also be ridiculously low by the average standards of military expenditures. Cost is really no factor. Will IS though.

As originally conceived the UN was a far more robust group than it actually turned out to be. What good would providing a military force to a UN suffering from the current (and long-standing) pox of inertia be? Could it ever agree to use it? And if it did, might it decide to use it in a situation where the USA (or another major nation) didn't want it to? Could one actually envision such a disagreement leading to war between the UN and a major nation?

Well, let us not forget that the 1950-1951 war in Korea was fought under the UN flag. Eventually China would fight on the side of the North Koreans in that conflict (and the USSR had been very involved from the start of it, even flying air missions for the North Korean side), so that's already an example where the UN found itself at odds with another major power (or two).

But in the 1950s, as now, the UN had no true independent military force of its own. It required others to pledge to fight for it. If they would not, the UN had no power at all. Even when the troops could be rounded up, the nations providing the military forces also had total veto power over operations. Had the U.S. not wanted to fight in Korea, there would have been no Korean War, regardless of what the UN wanted. Even if the UN been in possession of an army division or two of their own, they still wouldn't have been able to intervene in Korea. That's too small a force for an endeavor like that (The Chinese alone were said to be using a million men in the fighting).

But that's what should keep anyone from becoming too worried about a UN with troops being a danger to the vast majority of sovereign states. A division or two of top-flight, 1stclass troops (on the French Foreign Legion model) is a great tool to have to deal with minor-sized problems that could kill large numbers of people (Rwanda for example). It won't be useful in wars of any consequential size between nation states. It would instead be the equivalent of an armed international police force. Unlike the blue-helmeted peacekeepers the UN uses now though, they would truly be UN troops, and they wouldn't be at all squeamish about using force if the shooting started...or to get it to stop if it is directed at large numbers of helpless civilians.

It would be intriguing to see how the major world powers reacted to the idea of an independent UN military force capable of offensive action. It seems logical to assume that if they had favored something like that, it would already be a reality. An independent UN military force hints at the idea of a more independent UN in general, which also likely wouldn't be favored by the major powers. Many countries would have to show their true cards when it comes to whether they really favor the idea of a UN, or if they only favor it when they get to be part of a special class of nations within it (such as members of the UN Security Council) that can thwart, all by themselves, whatever the world body decides to do.

Let's not pretend that's not a thorny issue for other reasons as well. National sovereignty is the direct opposite of what the UN offers the world if the idea behind it is taken to its natural limits. “World Government” is a pervasive fear in the USA, and I confess to having that fear myself sometimes. But the answer is not to say that sovereignty mandates that governments be allowed to exterminate their own people if they want to (uninterrupted by foreign military meddling), but that a UN that is going to be acceptable to major nations is going to be one with finely drawn mandates. Preventing genocide is a nice narrow mandate and I would trade everything the UN does now (UNICEF included) in exchange for the organization having the willingness and ability to stop an immanent or currently occurring genocide. In fact, I think such a move gets you closer to the original mission of the organization as it was conceived.

But what if one Security Council member vetoes the UN resolution authorizing the use of force in a genocidal situation? What about the will necessary to make such troops effective? Isn't this an institutional problem the UN has? Yes, it is institutional. But I think it is institutional because it is structural. The Security Council has always been the rigged part of the UN. Everyone knows this. Even while hoping through idealistic eyes that the UN would halt things like genocide, the Great Powers were not willing to lower themselves to the status of just one among many nations. Hence any of the permanent members of the UN Security Council can veto anything passed by the UN that they don't like. Those nations also, not coincidentally, happen to be the victorious major nations from the Second World War. They are “Grandfathered” in to positions of special power. Every other country is limited to a temporary turn on the Security Council in revolving fashion. Because the structure of the organization is rigged, the vetoes from Security Council members usually act to stop the UN from moving decisively in any direction on the big issues of the day. If we want a UN that works, this needs to be reformed. Imagine if today, in the interest of fairness, the veto power of permanent members of the UN Security Council nations were removed. How do you think the U.S. or Russia or China would react to that? Again, it sure would force the large nations to show their real feelings about the idea behind the UN.

Abolishing the permanent Security Council membership would pose some issues. Churchill made a comment once defending the idea of the unfair Security Council design by saying something to the effect that the UN should not become a body where the weak nations dictate to the strong. Though he was trying to defend the UK's self-interest in that case, in fact he does have a broad point. Should two tiny nations really be able to outvote a very large one? It seems to me that if this is about representation, that this could be done proportionally by population as it is in many parliaments (including the U.S. Congress). Perhaps you get one vote per a certain number of citizens. To allay fears of an intervention-happy UN it could be mandated that a 2/3 vote be needed to use UN troops (or some such safeguard). The Security Council would either have to be done away with, or all positions on it would need to be on a rotational basis. There's just no good moral justification in the 21stcentury for the special treatment the nations that dominated the world in 1945 get in the world body.

Few will defend the UN today in terms of their ability to get their core  mission accomplished. Yet I hear few people talking about helping that flawed organization evolve into something that CAN do what it was formed to do. There's no question that the need is there. Genocide hasn't vanished from the face of the Earth. Many in the U.S. are also leery of more foreign involvement. I heard from many of them after the last Common Sense show (I am one of them myself). A functioning UN with a modern division or two of independently raised and operated troops would go a long way towards doing these sorts of humanitarian dirty jobs so that the major nations of the world don't have to.

After all, you certainly can't count on the Pope to fix things. I mean, how many division has he got?

Your dollars for their democracy

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Feb 25 2011 9:53pm

How much is OTHER PEOPLE'S freedom worth to us (in dollars and cents at the gas pump)? That's a question that popped into my head after a news story I heard the other day on FOX News.

I had the radio on to a sports station that I listen to, and they have a FOX News update every hour. Earlier this week they had a reporter talking to people filling up their cars with gasoline, and the reporter was subtly trying to tie dissatisfaction with gas prices at the pump to the anti-dictatorship unrest in the Arab world. I kept wanting the reporter to take the next logical step in the questioning. Instead of INFERRING a connection to the radio listener, how about asking the gas station customers themselves the question that was being hinted at? Ask that guy at the gas pump “How high would gas have to go per gallon for you to decide that an Arab world ruled by dictators was preferable to one ruled by the Arab people themselves?”

At that point we have put the American people in the position of many of our leaders for the last 60 years. How much is the freedom of others worth if it comes out of our paychecks? How much is tyranny worth if it saves us money? I wonder how they answer.

A few corrections in advance

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Feb 23 2011 10:13pm

Okay, we haven't released the latest Common Sense episode yet, but I have caught some errors during playback. They aren't anything that affects the conclusions drawn, or the points we made, but we like to make corrections when we find the errors.

First, during my fast-talking discussion about the U.S. Defense budget, I said that some of the expenditures of the nuclear weapons program are part of the Agricultural department. It is, of course, the Energy  department.

Second, In our rundown of global military expenditures the placement of nations is not correct by today's numbers. We said we were quoting 2009, but it might be more like 2008. The latest numbers (which change, it seems, depending on the source) is the USA at #1, China at #2, the UK at #3 and France at #4 (followed by the Russian Federation at #5). As I said, it doesn't alter the point we made, but I wish I had gotten it right while I was recording.

The Debt to our Elders

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Jan 18 2011 12:15am

I have a great rejection letter from the absolutely terrific L.A. broadcasting legend John Babcock in my home files.

John had taken the time to write a long and wonderful note about how I should "never give up" and all that stuff as he penned this note explaining that there were no openings for me at KABC-TV in Los Angeles after I had applied there for a job. I was working at another TV station in town, but really wanted to work for a better outfit, and John would have been my boss. He made the rejection sound so fatherly that it was almost as if he knew me. Of course, since he continually called me "David" in the letter, I was continually reminded that he didn't. (My favorite part was his line: "Always remember, you are David Carlin!")

But I would eventually get that job, and get to work side-by-side with a guy that still defies my ability to describe him. Here's a snippet from a website where his achievements are recounted:

Babcock, John: KDAY, 1955-57; KFWB, 1957-59; KMPC, 1959-61; KLAC, 1961-63; KABC, 1963-73. In 1970 Don Page of the LA Timesnamed John newscaster of the year saying: "John Babcock is one of radio's premier commentators and a leading documentarian." John was born the day of the 1933 earthquake and started life as an orphan. He was shuffled between foster homes until he was adopted by the Babcock family. While he was in his delinquent teen years, John was sentenced to two years in the Boys Republic of Chino. Many years later, he became the president of Chino's Board of Directors. "I am the first ex-student to be elected president of this risk school." After graduating from the University of Texas, John started out in the newspaper business and WOAI-San Antonio. He came to the Southland and started with KDAY. For part of his stay with KABC news he hosted a morning talk show. John was the California press director for Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and 1972. In 1973 John joined KABC television as a writer/producer and eventually went into news management. "When I was at Channel 7's news assignment desk I could get the reporters to do four stories a day. Then it was 3, then 2 and now they think they're doing a favor by covering one story." John retired in 1995 and was active writing and running the Boys school. His wife of 17 years is principal of the Dubonoff School for "kids at risk." Their daughter attends the Peabody Music Conservatory in Baltimore. John died February 1, 1997, at the age of 63. Former KFWB newsman Al Wiman said unequivocally that John "was the best news person EVER!"

Well, he was the best news person that I ever worked closely with, to be sure. And yes, he has passed away now. He sprang to my mind after I just posted an old picture of myself on our facebook site. It's from me back in my days of working with John, and a bunch of memories came flooding back. And also, with them, a bit of anger that people like John are not as remembered as their achievements warrant. What's so sad about that is that so many really talented people (who would have been remembered forever had their work been cast in the "digital stone" that is the Internet) are getting swallowed up by anonymity. This is, of course, the fate of more than 99% of all the people who have ever lived, so it isn't abnormal. But it seems a shame that such good talents are as unknown now as they have become (and people who couldn't carry their jockstraps will be remembered forever because of the historical good luck of being born in the current era).

When I knew John, he was a dinosaur in the business. KABC "Eyewitness News" was on top of the ratings in the late 1980s/early 1990s and John was decidedly "Old School" for such a hip (and yes, Hollywood) operation. They really didn't know what to do with him. He was a leftover legend there.

The station still let him produce his multi-part "mini-docs" and being his right hand man at doing that became my job. The subjects chosen for these documentary pieces were usually history-related (and you can see the stuff I learned doing this...or hear it every HH podcast we do. Thanks again John...). In addition, John taught me journalism (so did a bunch of other people that I have never gone back and properly thanked, but who deserve my everlasting gratitude. Paul Dandridge, Linda Breakstone, Mark Brown, Jim Hattendorf, Becky Martinez, Mike Merle, Jeff Michaels, Art Rascon, and Dan Spice to name but a few. Oh how much we all owe to people who never get thanked for the help...). John learned the journalistic trade the old fashioned way, and his experience dripped like honey on anyone who was willing to absorb it. As he got older he seemed more and more to WANT to pass along stuff to we young 20-somethings.

Famous John stories: He was in the motorcade in Dallas (last car, if I remember) when Kennedy was shot. He didn't see anything because the view from his location was terrible. He was one of the first ones to Parkland hospital since he used to work in that local media and knew the area well. He also spoke to Jack Ruby a couple of minutes before Ruby shot Oswald, and watched the whole thing go down. ("What are you doing here Jack?" was what John said to him when he saw him a few minutes before the shooting). He covered the Manson trials and Manson fell in love with the guy. John had letters from Manson framed on his wall (yeah...we news people are kooks...). He had GREAT Manson stories...

Even his youth was full of great stories. After getting caught stealing a car, John was put in a youth facility. His bunkmate was Steve McQueen (the two stayed friends, and both helped to give back to that facility after reaching adulthood).

Just watching the way John processed the info about a current situation was like a lesson in reporting. The questions that came to his mind that he wanted answered (I use the same sort of questions in many a CS episode), the way he quickly determined what was important, and who was involved is like a lost art these days in news reporting. It was like watching a detective. We lovingly called him "Babo" but he was more like a pit bull muckraker with a crusading mentality and a strong sense of justice. I just can't think of anyone even remotely like him in the current American mainstream media.

But at the end it was sad. Sad and wrong. John was slowly eased out of his position and encouraged to retire (poor health made that decision easier). What was so sad and wrong wasn't this fact, but the fact that the reason he wasn't a valuable asset to the news station anymore was that there was no place in the modern TV news business for a real, old-fashioned newsman (sorry ladies...but that's what they were called back in his day).

I keep thinking of what would happen if you could cosmically resurrect the great journalists of old, give them an Internet station where they could work together as a news team, and see what they could crank out. If they did this, John wouldn't have been one of their "lead anchors". A Murrow, or Cronkite or Mencken would likely field that spot. But John Babcock would be on that elite staff. And given the way he was even as an old man, he would be kicking some ass. The reporters of old were much more enterprising and investigative people than those who have today inherited that mantle. This devaluation in the quality of the Fourth Estate (both the individual journalist and the news outlets that employ them) could go a long way explaining how we got to our current state of affairs both in the USA and globally.

We all miss John Babcock now (whether you knew him or not).

A Baseline for Tragedy

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Jan 12 2011 8:19am

Since I must be the last person in the country to express an opinion about the tragic killing of a ton of people in Arizona this week (including a federal Judge and the grievous wounding of the presumed main target, U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords ) I suppose I should point out the advantages of being last; it is nice to wait and see how a little time to absorb the event affects my thoughts about it.

I was on the radio the morning that the event many have compared this latest tragedy to occurred. When the Oklahoma City Murrah  Federal Building was badly damaged by a truck bomb on April 19, 1995. 168 people were killed in the attack. It was, at the time, the worst incident of terrorism on U.S. soil. I was on the air all day taking calls from traumatized listeners. People and pundits were saying many of the same things about that event when it happened, as they are saying now in the wake of this latest outrage. There was a ton of discussion about the "tone of the national debate", about the vitriol of conservative talk radio and of domestic right-wing extremists. Some predicted that the attack would be but the first of many more future assaults.

It wasn't.

Talk radio didn't change. The national debate didn't get any less heated (in fact, it would soon escalate with impeachment proceedings against the very polarizing president Bill Clinton). The right-wing militia types didn't fade away. And nothing bad happened. The attack by Timothy McVeigh was an isolated attack by a small group of extremists. It didn't represent some larger trend nor was it a foretaste of similar dire things to come. But many couldn't resist seeing it that way at the time, in the heat of the moment.

My wife was a reporter for a CBS News affiliate the day the Thurston High school shootings happened (May 21, 1998- 4 dead, 22 wounded ). She arrived on the scene within 30 minutes of the shots being fired, and was there for the next 16 hours reporting for CBS stations around the country. She saw it all close up. It was simple insanity. Everybody spent days seeking to find a way to explain it (it seems to be almost a human need to make sense of these sorts of things), yet in the end we were all just left with a feeling that probably would have been the same as if the intentional shooting of classmates by a troubled student had been a sort of natural disaster, rather than a human directed mass murder. A random lighting strike or tornado touch-down that just happened to hit here in Oregon this time, rather than someplace else.

Obviously it goes without saying that this latest killing spree in Arizona is a terrible tragedy. The actual number of dead and wounded is quite shocking. This gunman managed to do a lot of damage in his short, deadly attack. I am always stunned when I meditate for a while on the ripples of pain and anguish this gunman's lone act (which took seconds) will inflict on the families of the victims. That lone murderous moment will torture and haunt the loved ones of the victims (and some of the surviving victims themselves) for the many decades they have left to live. When you add up all the people affected, by the cumulative length of time they will be affected, it adds up to pain and suffering on a massive scale.

That having been it normal? I know that's a strange question to ask about something that seems so obviously ABnormal, but I think it would help us put this event into perspective if we had some sort of a baseline with which to measure this recent attack. I mean, many have called this attack an "assassination attempt". It seems to me that based on what we know at this point, that's a fair assumption. If that's the case, how many assassination attempts (of prominent figures) are normal for the USA in any given decade? For example: we averaged a U.S. president assassinated every 20 or so years between Lincoln and McKinley. The "baseline" on that score has improved dramatically since then. Where are we now, numbers-wise, compared to the 1990s or the 1980s? Or how about for the 1960s?

Without having any idea what we should expect in terms of such tragedies, it is hard to know if this latest attack is an negative omen for the future or just what we might expect based on statistical data from past decades. If this is akin to a lighting strike, have we had more or less lightning than normal? It seems to me that this is a crucial question before we can determine if we are faced with a unique situation that signals the beginning of a trend that bodes ill for the future, or just the normal amount of hideous violence that seems to be a constant in our system.

Everyone on our discussion board at least, seems aware of the most likely outcome of all of this bad stuff happening: it is just going to be another excuse or rationale for our leaders to crack down in some way on us even more. And to be honest, I am not sure they could stop themselves if they tried. We put pressure on them to "do something about these tragedies!" and they try. But how effective can you be at stopping lighting strikes? (Or our latest version of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley or Leon Czolgosz?). We live in a time where our elected officials seem to wield nothing but hammers, and every problem like this just looks like another nail to them. They will deal with it the way they have dealt with the other nails they have run into. Everyone blamed the Obama Administration advisors for the supposed line they uttered to "Never waste a good crisis". Well, that's not a philosophy that's confined to the advisors around the president. That's pretty much standard operating procedure for all our political class these days (with a few notable exceptions). I doubt they will waste this crisis either.

That having been said, please don't hurt any of them. It's a crime, a sin, it's evil and won't make anything better. One would have to be insane, I think, to believe otherwise.

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