Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Further Look At North Korea -- The World's Nuclear War Head Boutique

Dear Warwick:

On a cloudy Sunday morning, it is great to get some good news. No one prays more than me that the human race will never again see a nuclear weapon detonated in anger. Now let us look carefully at what was said here.

Most of this article was well researched and well thought out. They did not seem to know about the 22 teams of scientists that the US government keeps on standby to go in a do nuclear forensics in the event an American city is attacked with nuclear weapons. This indicates that the people in authority here consider the probability of such an attack high enough to warrant the funding required for such an effort. Also please bear in mind that the stated US policy is that if an American city is attacked with nuclear weapons, nuclear retaliation will be carried out on the state that was involved in the manufacture and providing of the weapon. Please hold that thought for a moment.

I discount Iran as a source of nuclear war heads for some terrorist group. Their biggest enemy is Israel. If they could destroy Israel and get by with it, they might "go for it." They know that Israel possesses 150-200 nuclear war heads. The types of war heads they have are not known. I suspect they range from small tactical devices to 5 megaton "city busters." As a matter of interest, authoritative reports state that most of these weapons are kept at sea. If Israel was attacked with nuclear weapons, they might retaliate against the country that provided such a weapon. We cannot rule out another scenario. Perhaps you have seen the 1964 movie Dr Strangelove with Peter Sellers. In the movie the Soviets had a doomsday machine buried deep underground. If they were attacked with nuclear weapons, the doomsday machine would be detonated and the whole world destroyed. Any one considering a nuclear attack on Israel would have to look at another very dark possibility. If Israel suffered a nuclear attack and was destroyed, they might launch all of their nuclear weapons and effectively destroy all of the countries in the Middle East. I am sure this goes through the minds of their enemies who would think twice before attacking Israel with a nuclear device.

Pakistan gives me some concern. They seem to have put fail safe devices on their weapons. They are acutely aware of the consequences to them if one of their weapons were used in a terrorist attack. The danger there is a group of low-level employees with jihadist sentiments. That is a long shot. As long as the world keeps up the pressure on Pakistan, there is a low probability of one of their weapons going astray and ending up in a terrorist act.

North Korea is the country that scares me. I doubt that Kim Jong Il and his generals are psychopaths and insane. Just the opposite, they are very clever guys. They are also desperate for money to maintain their life styles and power. More troubling is the propensity they have shown for criminality. I gave you the example of the North Korea ship loaded with heroin that was intercepted by Australian authorities. I also talked about counterfeit money. There are probably many other criminal acts that have been "hushed up." They have a very valuable commodity in these nuclear devices. Someone spent a huge amount of money to get their nuclear program to this point. Most troubling is that it might not have been them. That investor wants a return on his investment.

Let us assume that North Korea sold some war heads to a rouge state or group. Let us assume these weapons were smuggled into certain cities and detonated. If European cities were victims of attacks, they might not have the scientific resources in place to figure out where the bombs came from. They would have to rely on teams from the US. You also have only the UK and France that are nuclear armed. From the North Korean standpoint, there is a low probability of nuclear retaliation from Europe if some of their cities are attacked.

If US cities were attacked by weapons smuggled in, they face the scientific teams that eventually would figure out where the bombs came from. Then the US nuclear retaliation policy would come into play. You have some problems that come up. China might take the position that if North Korea is attacked with nuclear weapons they would retaliate with a nuclear attack. Even if China stood aside after seeing positive proof of the North Korean's involvement in a nuclear attack, any nuclear munitions delivered on North Korea would create radioactive fallout that would affect China and Russia. A nuclear retaliation might not be feasible. A conventional attack would involve massive casualties. Other countries might not have the stomach for such huge losses. The North Koreans know all of this. This makes them feel confident that they could survive after selling such weapons. In fact in the North Korean's leadership minds, they might feel that they could then extort huge sums of money from the rest of the world to stop other nuclear attacks.

Warwick I hope I am wrong. I just gave you the worst possible case.

with kindest regards,

Debunking Myths About Nuclear Weapons and Terrorism
STRATFOR TODAY » May 29, 2009 | 1426 GMT

Thomas Starke/Getty Images
A warning placard on a container at a decommissioned nuclear facility
STRATFOR’s Geopolitical Intelligence Report on May 26 generated many questions and responses from our readers concerning various scenarios of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. We take a closer look at issues of terrorism, loose nukes, unstable and unpredictable world leaders and clandestine delivery in a follow up to our coverage of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.
STRATFOR’s Geopolitical Intelligence Report that examined North Korea’s nuclear test elicited many questions from our readers regarding nuclear terrorism and the role that could be played by irrational world leaders in actually using such a weapon or device. STRATFOR examines these issues.
Terrorists and Apocalyptic-Minded Jihadists
Concerns about nuclear terrorism have been a reality since even before Sept. 11, 2001 — though a profound lack of situational awareness in the wake of those attacks spawned a deep concern about what plans al Qaeda might already have in motion for the weeks and months that followed.
In planning the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda enjoyed financing that included patronage from Saudi royalty and — perhaps even more importantly — sanctuary from which to operate in Afghanistan. Hardened radicals, bent on re-establishing a Caliphate across the Muslim world, al Qaeda had time and resources to consider devoting to potential chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) programs. Their only success (they tinkered unsuccessfully with biological and chemical weapons) was in weaponizing hijacked civilian airliners.
Related Links
Nuclear Weapons: Devices and Deliverable Warheads
Nuclear Weapons: The Question of Relevance in the 21st Century
Nuclear Weapons: Terrorism and the Nonstate Actor
Presently, al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and empirical evidence in the years since 2001 has shown a steady erosion — especially after the July 2005 London Underground and March 2004 Madrid bombings — of the apex leadership’s capability to orchestrate global strikes. Al Qaeda’s remaining leadership is on the run and focused only on operations in the Middle East and South Asia. Al Qaeda “franchise” operations have undoubtedly sprung up around the world, but these are far less capable and far more localized than the pre-Sept. 11 al Qaeda phenomenon.
Though al Qaeda is only one example, it is important to note that the immense security, sanctuary, financial backing and time that al Qaeda had was insufficient to begin attempting to produce a crude nuclear device in any meaningful way — the furthest they got was attempting to procure nuclear materials that turned out to be fake, sold to them by con men. Even chemical and biological weapon pursuits (which were certainly explored and experimented with) were not seriously or successfully pursued, given the complexity and cost.
Efforts to clandestinely build a nuclear device require a coherent and consistent investment measuring in the billions (if not tens of billions) of dollars over a period likely spanning a decade or more. They require large, fixed, well-powered and vulnerable installations for a variety of aspects of the effort. These installations represent an enormous risk and opportunity cost for a terrorist organization. The international community closely monitors some of the equipment required, and they will concentrate an enormous investment of intellectual, financial and material resources into just the sort of target that the United States can bring air power to bear upon.
Though the history of the use of CBRN in terrorist attacks is limited, the fact of the matter is that most cases where groups have considered pursuing these capabilities have ultimately led to them being abandoned in favor of more obtainable and efficient tactics. They simply fall well short of the destruction wrought by simpler and more conventional explosive devices. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar and hour for hour of effort, high explosives are far more effective at inflicting massive casualties. The innovation of using hijacked civilian airliners as human-guided cruise missiles is far more in line with al Qaeda operational thinking than concepts of concentrating so much in easily targetable facilities for long periods of time. Doing so runs in the face of basic operational security considerations for any terrorist organization.
For further reading on STRATFOR’s perspective on the full spectrum of weapons of mass destruction, see the following analyses:
Biological Weapons
Chemical Weapons
Radiological Weapons and ‘Dirty Bombs’
Nuclear Weapons
Loose Nukes and Clandestine Acquisition
But what about acquiring a nuclear weapon that has already been built? The security of nuclear weapons is and has long been an important concern.
However, the effort involved in actually trying to steal a nuclear weapon would entail a significant dedication of resources and an immense intelligence effort beyond the reach of almost any terrorist organization. Indeed, the odds of a failure are high, no matter how careful and meticulous the planning. Some nuclear weapons facilities around the world are obviously not as hardened as others, but taken as a whole, they are some of the hardest targets on the planet, and the personnel better vetted than almost any other institution.
Even the lightest attempt to begin probing runs the risk of not only failing to acquire a bomb, but setting off a series of alarms and red flags that brings such an aggressive investigative and law enforcement/military response down on the terrorist organization that it could be completely wiped out before it ever attempted to target its true objectives (whatever they might be).
And even if one could be stolen or otherwise acquired, modern nuclear weapons have been designed to include a series of (highly classified) safety features. Though all nuclear weapons are not created equal, these range from permissive action links without which the device cannot be armed (a feature Pakistan is now thought to employ) to configurations that will actually render the fissile core(s) useless if improperly accessed. The security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan has long been something STRATFOR has kept a close eye on, and something we continue to monitor. The Hollywood scenario of a terrorist group stealing away with a nuclear device in the night and automatically being able to arm it at its convenience is not grounded in reality. Furthermore, the theft would be difficult to carry off without setting off the same alarms and red flags that would leave little opportunity for the device to be smuggled particularly far — much less half way around the world.
Nuclear weapons are complex devices that require considerable care and maintenance — especially the small, modern and easily transportable variety. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, fears arose of a series of Soviet suitcases containing sophisticated nuclear devices were somehow lost. These fears persisted into the 21st century, well after the fissile and radioisotope materials in the design would have decayed significantly enough to effect the performance of the weapon, in addition to the diminished functionality of its other components after being handled roughly over the years.
Irrational Actors
One of the questions that arose from our analysis of the North Korean situation was that it was governed by a reliance on rational actors. There was a concern that STRATFOR was too quick to assume that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be considered rational.
Historically, every leader makes mistakes and missteps. Some are certifiable: Josef Stalin utterly refused to believe his advisers when they insisted that Nazi forces were poised to invade in 1941. Even after the invasion began, he refused to believe it until his most trusted advisers actually traveled to the front lines.
But despite Stalin’s ruthlessness when it came to cracking down on the population of the Soviet Union, he did not throw a nuclear weapon at the United States the moment he got one, even though many in the West feared that he might. Running a country as Stalin ran the Soviet Union for as long as he did requires a certain rationality, and most importantly, a personal nature that clings tenaciously to continued existence. Overseeing the defense of that country against the Nazi onslaught and then implementing an aggressive crash nuclear program takes coordination and focus.
No one can run a country by themselves. They require loyal and competent administrators. A certifiable and apocalyptic-minded leader is simply unlikely to rise so far — and is even less likely to command the respect and loyalty of those necessary to actually run the country for any length of time.
Kim Jong Il undoubtedly ranks very high among the world’s most idiosyncratic world leaders. But he has deftly transferred and consolidated control over a country that was run by a single individual, his father, for nearly 50 years. By balancing various groups and interests, he has both maintained internal control and loyalty and kept the attention of some of the world’s most powerful countries focused on North Korea for more than 15 years. Indeed, he has overseen the allocation of resources necessary to build both crude intercontinental ballistic missiles and crude nuclear devices while faced with crushing international sanctions. This is the track record of a competent (if annoying) leader, not a crazy one.
If Kim was merely suicidal, he has had the artillery, artillery rockets and short-range ballistic missiles at hand to destroy Seoul and invite a new Korean War since before his father died — a choice that would be far quicker, cheaper and even more complete than the prototype nuclear devices that North Korea has so far demonstrated. Rather, his actions have consistently shown that his foremost goal has been the survival of his regime. Indeed, he has actually curtailed much of the more aggressive activity that occurred during his father’s reign, such as attempting to assassinate South Korea’s president.
While Kim’s actions may seem unstable (and, indeed, they are designed to seem that way in order to induce an element of uncertainty at the negotiating table), Pyongyang regularly uses ballistic missile tests and even its nuclear tests as part of a larger strategy to not only keep itself relevant, but to ensure regime survival.
As for Ahmadinejad and his fiery rhetoric denying the Holocaust, calling for the destruction of Israel and defying the United States, he has not lost steam in recent months before the country’s next presidential election in June. This rhetoric has a role. Not only is it populist, and intended for domestic consumption, but it is also a strategy, similar to North Korea’s, to cultivate perceptions and influence behaviors by making Tehran appear crazy and unpredictable. Regardless, even if he is reelected, the true power in the country is the clerical leadership, not the country’s highly-visible president. Although the executive in Iran does indeed wield considerable power, the complexity of the Iranian political system allows for several layers of oversight.
Furthermore, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the true leader in Tehran — has consistently relied upon consensus when it comes to policy- and decision-making. Under his direction and authority, the various institutions — the executive, Parliament, the Expediency Council, the Supreme National Security Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Guardians Council, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and others all have a say in the final policy on a given matter. Though there are extremist elements within some of these institutions (such as the IRGC), Tehran’s senior leadership has consistently demonstrated itself to be far more rational than Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric suggests. In short, even if Iran did have nuclear weapons, it would not be Ahmadinejad — or any potentially like-minded successor — with his finger on the proverbial button.
Furthermore, any fears associated with Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons must be balanced against the policies of Israel, which is not known for its subtlety or half measures. The Israelis deploy a fully functional nuclear triad, and have a variety of survivable means for delivering a decisive retaliatory blow against Tehran if nuclear weapons were ever used against them. This is not doubted by anyone in Tehran.
Truly crazy and suicidal leaders have a difficult time becoming leaders of a country even capable of considering trying to developing a nuclear weapon, much less being able to see the process through to the end over the course of a decade. But the leader of a country has worked to get to that position. They may have taken risks, but they were generally calculated and they want to enjoy the fruits of that labor. The consequences for miscalculating with nuclear weapons is annihilation — not only for themselves, their family and the power base that they have toiled to build, but for the entire society.
Nuclear Weapons and Proxies
Another concern is that North Korea, Iran or Pakistan might hand off a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor or proxy of some sort — one that would detonate it at a mutually-agreeable target as soon as possible. Subsets of this same issue are whether one of these countries might not use a shipping container or some other clandestine means to carry out an attack on the United States or another target — the deniable use of nuclear weapons.
Three factors must be considered when addressing the above concern. The first is an issue of trust and control. Non-state, militant proxies like Hezbollah rely on patrons like Iran for support and training. But they have their own interests as well — and they hold those close. Despite its own rhetoric about Israel, for example, Hezbollah’s senior leadership often owns property in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, and has grown wealthy off the proceeds. They are no more interested in seeing their livelihood and retirement destroyed in the Israeli retaliation than Tehran. This older generation does not have complete control over the organization (nor is it a monolithic, unified entity), and there is certainly no shortage of young, ideologically motivated militants in Lebanon.
But that assumes Tehran would ever hand over a nuke to Hezbollah in the first place. Proxies must be kept dependent, otherwise they cease to be proxies. They do not share some deep bond of trust. Though there may be some shared ideological affinities (like their hatred of all things Israeli), they attempt to maintain control over their proxies. Handing over even a crude nuclear device is anathema to that relationship and would destroy the dynamics by which the country enforces its will as a patron. It would have provided an organization that it can never fully trust with the one true guarantor of sovereignty.
Second, the nuclear device is the product of an immense, expensive national effort. Each individual weapon or device — especially early on — represents an enormous investment of national resources. By handing one over to an outside group, the country not only has no assurance of it being employed in the way they want, but opens itself to the prospect of that immense investment being wasted or misused. Because a meaningful nuclear deterrent rests on not one weapon, but many, the incentive will be for the country to consolidate its stockpile and deploy it to multiple locations that it has strong control over in order to work towards establishing that deterrent.
Finally, there is the issue of risk. A nuclear weapon used in a terrorist attack — not just against the United States or Israel, but anywhere in the world — will be followed by the most intense, broad and meticulous investigation in human history. The idea that because a bomb was involved in a terrorist attack that the fissile material that made it possible will not be traced ruthlessly to its source simply does not hold water. The necessary investigative processes are not only possible and well understood, but work to improve and further refine them has only intensified and received additional funding after 9/11. Indeed, a country providing a nuclear weapon to a non-state group could not have even reasonable assurances that it would not come back to haunt them, either through investigation or interrogation of those that carried out the attack.
Far from being able to carry out a nuclear strike clandestinely or deniably, Tehran would be opening itself up to responsibility and accountability for Hezbollah’s actions. Again, the material will almost certainly be traced back to Tehran. And it would be Tehran that suffered the consequences.
Indeed, the closest Pyongyang has come to this is an attempt to share some civilian technology with Syria — its trial run with the idea of low-level proliferation of some civilian (though inherently dual-use) precursor technologies. It quickly decided that the entire idea was too risky and sold Syria out to Israel and the United States, resulting in Israeli airstrikes in Western Syria in 2007. So while the concern about technology sharing is real (and validated by the now infamous network of A.Q. Khan), there are also limitations to how much one country is willing to risk for another. The Israeli bombing and North Korea’s betrayal of Syria will not be soon forgotten.
And if countries like Syria and North Korea cannot trust each other when it comes to such high stakes, the idea that a country would be willing to trust a non-state actor is even more problematic.
Ultimately, such doomsday scenarios cannot ever be completely ruled out, and continual, ever-improving efforts to further secure global nuclear stockpiles and vigilance over them are certainly warranted from a security standpoint. But man has controlled nuclear weapons for more than half a century, and we do not see the latest nuclear crisis playing out any differently than every other nuclear crisis that has come before it. Furthermore, STRATFOR does not subscribe to the idea that countries build nuclear weapons in order to use them immediately, thereby triggering nuclear war, or freely hand them off to non-state actors that would.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

North Korea--A Dark Future

SINGAPORE — North Korea's progress on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is "a harbinger of a dark future" and has created an urgent need for more pressure on the reclusive communist government to change its ways, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday.

He said the North's nuclear program does not "at this point" represent a direct military threat to the United States and he does not plan to build up American troops in the region. But the North's efforts pose the potential for an arms race in Asia that could spread beyond the region, he added.

At an annual meeting of defense and security officials, the Pentagon chief said past efforts to cajole North Korea into scrapping its nuclear weapons program have only emboldened it.

North Korea's yearslong use of scare tactics as a bargaining chip to secure aid and other concessions _ only to later renege on promises _ has worn thin the patience of five nations negotiating with the North, Gates said.

"I think that everyone in the room is familiar with the tactics that the North Koreans use. They create a crisis and the rest of us pay a price to return to the status quo ante," he said in a question and answer session after his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

"As the expression goes in the United States, `I am tired of buying the same horse twice.' I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about. There are perhaps other ways to try and get the North Koreans to change their approach," he said.

The sharp statements were echoed by the South Korean defense minister and even China, North Korea's strongest ally. They reflect fears throughout the region that last week's nuclear and missile tests by North Korea could spiral out of control and lead to fighting.

"President Obama has offered an open hand to tyrannies that unclench their fists. He is hopeful, but he is not naive," Gates said in his speech.

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"Likewise, the United States and our allies are open to dialogue, but we will not bend to pressure or provocation. And on this count, North Korea's latest reply to our overtures is not exactly something we would characterize as helpful or constructive. We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia _ or on us. At the end of the day, the choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah is North Korea's alone to make. The world is waiting."

The North said it would no longer honor a 1953 armistice truce with South Korea after Seoul joined a 90-plus nation security alliance that seeks to curb nuclear trafficking on the seas.

Additionally, the U.N. Security Council is drafting financial and military penalties against North Korea as punishment for the weapons testing. Similar penalties approved after the North's 2006 atomic test have been only sporadically enforced, and largely ignored by China and Russia.

"I think that the combination of their progress in developing nuclear technology, and their progress in developing multistage long-range missiles, is a harbinger of a dark future," Gates said. "What is now central to multilateral efforts ... is to try to peacefully stop those programs before they do in fact become a `clear and present danger,' as the expression goes."

Gates also warned North Korea against secretly selling its weapons technology to other outlaw nations.

Later, at what officials called the first-ever meeting among defense chiefs from the U.S., Japan and South Korea, Gates asked his counterparts to begin considering other steps against the North should it continue to escalate is nuclear program. The military leaders did not discuss specific potential actions, but U.S. officials who attended the half-hour meeting said any steps would be taken in self-defense.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee said the talks "could not have come at a better time."

"North Korea perhaps to this point may have mistakenly believed that it could be perhaps rewarded for its wrong behaviors," Lee told reporters. "But that is no longer the case."

Earlier Saturday, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the second-in-command of the General Staff of China's military, told the security forum that Beijing "has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test."

The Obama administration said it planned to send a delegation on Sunday to Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing and possibly Moscow over the next week to discuss how to respond to North Korea.

"The reality is that given the objectives of the six-party talks that were established some years ago, it would be hard to point to them at this point as an example of success," Gates said in response to a question after his speech.

Those countries _ the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan _ "need to think freshly about where we go from here."


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The Beautiful Island Where My Sister And I Were Born

A new storm surge
By Sheila McNulty
Published: May 30 2009 02:37 | Last updated: May 30 2009 02:37

Driving into Galveston, Texas, earlier this year, six months after hurricane Ike, I had visions of New Orleans a year after hurricane Katrina. On a visit to the Louisiana city to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, I was shocked to find empty homes all around, “Stop” signs still bent to the ground, missing street signs, and stairways leading to buildings that had long been swept away. There was an intact gate with a mangled house behind it, a row of houses with holes in their roofs, revealing how families escaped as the water reached into attics. With so much of the city still a shambles, its future looked uncertain.

After the flood - May-30

Southern style, northern charm - May-23

Maltese gloss - May-23

Palatial surroundings - May-16

Waltz into Vienna - May-16

Of water and wealth - May-09

Half as much time had passed since hurricane Ike had swept on to land in Galveston in September, swamping the island with winds of more than 100mph and a storm surge of 17ft-20ft. I knew the downtown area had been flooded with up to 12ft of seawater and more than 75 per cent of the area was severely damaged. I expected the devastation to be visible still.

Yet just across the causeway that gives access to Galveston, I found a new plant nursery on the left, fresh landscaping in the centre of the main street and, despite the initial fears the city might not come back, every indication it would be keeping its place on the map.

Residents underlined their hope for a full recovery by pointing to the few leaves sprouting on oak trees that had stood on the island for hundreds of years. The salt water had killed a lot of vegetation but these were starting to spring back. The hotels, convention centre and restaurants were open for business. The quaint Grand Opera House, which dates from 1894, was hosting schoolchildren for a performance of Puss and Boots, having reopened in January, four months after it was flooded, with new red carpeting and refurbished blue velour seats.

Galveston is no stranger to disaster. A brass plaque in the opera house commemorates the catastrophic 1900 hurricane that killed up to 12,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in US history. The most recent storm, which caused widespread damage in seven countries, was the third most destructive to hit the US but its death toll was relatively modest at 195, including 112 in the US, where 34 remain missing.

Only a few people were killed in Galveston because the city was evacuated. And that is one of the reasons that, just months after the storm, people are already buying into the community of 60,000. Another attraction is the can-do spirit of the residents, who are rapidly rebuilding. About 300 people volunteered to work on the Galveston Community Recovery Committee, which put together a comprehensive recovery plan. “Ike left nothing in this community untouched,” says Betty Massey, committee chairman. “So we figured we have to address it all.”

The people of Galveston are realists and many have decided to sell their homes for 50 cents on the dollar in an effort to get on with their lives, leaving others to help rebuild the island. Andrea Sunseri, real estate agent for Sand ’N’ Sea Properties, says many of her clients are elderly women who want to move into retirement communities on the Texas mainland so they have listed their homes for about $72,000 when they could have sold for $150,000 before Ike. The buyers are hard workers, willing to invest “sweat equity” in the beach community.

On the drive away from downtown, along the sea wall, one can see how much work remains to be done. The Flagship hotel, which stretches 1,000ft out over the water, lost its access ramp to the island and a corner of its façade, so passers-by can now see into the rooms. A bit further down the beach is what little remains of the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week 89th Street fishing pier, which once contained numerous benches and a shop filled with treats and supplies. Except for the occasional beam sticking up from the water’s depth far out into the sea, the only part remaining is half the shop.

Out in the rental communities, one house hit by a tornado is still without a side or roof. Galvestonians know the extra-wide trailer office that is now on the right side of the road used to be on the left and that many of the homes that were formerly beachfront are now actually standing over the water. Under Sunseri’s former home, for example, there is now a gap of 4ft where the ground was washed out to sea, leaving the foundation on support beams, hovering in the air. The home of one of her friends is no longer standing. But even amid this destruction, residents are busy planting grass, painting walls and repairing stairs and garages. There are trailers provided by the federal government in the worst-hit areas to house people while their own properties are being restored.

Aside from the bargain prices, Sunseri thinks househunters have been drawn to the seeming safety of investments in properties that withstood the storm. Among them is Barb Gatlin’s Grace Manor, a home-turned-bed-and-breakfast built by a survivor of the 1900 storm to withstand hurricanes. It includes a raised basement, which put the living quarters where a second storey might normally be and the bedrooms above that. The beams were inter-locked and the architect encased the house in protective layers – brick over wood and stucco over brick. Ike did flood the ground floor, forcing Gatlin to replace her appliances and the Sheetrock to guard against mould but the rest of the house suffered only a broken window and damaged shingles. Indeed, she was open for business a month after the storm.

She acknowledges that not everyone recovered as quickly. “It’s been a struggle for a lot of people and that weighed on the community,” she says. But most have soldiered on with support from neighbours. “When you’re all without utilities and electricity and have nothing to do, you meet in the street,” Gatlin explains.

Nearby, some shops once deluged with 12ft of water are also open again, workers are doing repairs in others and residents are building homes where old ones no longer stand. And Sunseri reports that the real estate business is brisk. She’s sold 11 homes since the storm and has another eight waiting to clear at the title company, which isn’t far off her typical pace of 25-30 transactions a year. “It’s pretty phenomenal, given all that’s happened,” she says.

One new homeowner is Paul Byers, a 27-year-old first-time buyer, who was outbid on six houses by contractors before securing the seventh with an offer of $75,000, about half the price it would have sold for before Ike. The property had sustained some damage after several inches of flooding but the previous owner had already gutted the house and replaced the Sheetrock and Byers plans to do much of the remaining work himself.

He says he’s not worried about a hurricane damaging his investment. “It was a 100-year storm,” he says. And, for the price he paid, he could suffer through another four of five without losing money. “You gotta roll with the punches,” he says

Sheila McNulty is the FT’s Houston correspondent

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More On North Korea--The World's Nuclear War Head Boutique

Dear Warwick:

First I hope that my prediction of yesterday never comes true. But I have to look at the worst possible case always. Australians can tell you all about North Korea. A North Korean freighter ran aground loaded with heroin for the Australian kids. The US shut down one bank connection in Macao where Kim Jong Il was laundering all of his money from illegal operations. The elite always live well there regardless of what happens. I could go on with the criminality aspect for hours. Wars often happen because of miscalculations. Kim Jong Il and his generals may be emboldened to the point that they do something really stupid and it would be hell for all of us. South Africa would not be a target of nuclear terrorism. But you all would suffer if North Korea supplied a few war heads that jihadists used to hit American and European cities.

America is at fault also for the current situation. North Korea invaded the South in 1950. The US was pushed all the way down to a small pocket around Pusan. General MacArthur counter attacked and drove the North Koreans out of the South and went charging like General Patton all the way to the Yalu River that is the border with China. MacArthur was emboldened as Kim Jong Il is now. He was boasting that he would move across the Yalu River into China and this upset Chairman Mao who staged 500,000 men on the border and sent 250,000 after the American 8th army and the US Marines. What should have happened is that the US forces should have had an orderly retreat back to the North Korean capital and held the Chinese. President Truman should have held to his original warning that he would use nuclear weapons to stop the Chinese advance. If that had happened, we would have had a more or less united Korea with the far northern part a Chinese province. Ironically after the Soviet Union fell, many of Stalin's papers were made public. One document talked about his reaction after American troops stormed into North Korea. He made one ironic comment as follows: "Oh well now we will have the Americans as neighbors." In other words, the Russians planned to do nothing if the US got North Korea. The fear mongers of the time thought the Soviets would launch a nuclear war to save North Korea. South Africa even fought in Korea and I will give you a story below.

How do we solve this problem? As long as China supports them, North Korea will be a big danger. Taiwan holds a big key here. When President Kennedy came to office, he made the comment that a divided China and Taiwan was not natural. He promised that in his second term, he would stand aside and let China unite with Taiwan. Sadly he did not live to implement this. When Kissinger and Nixon were opening the door to China, they offered them Taiwan if they agreed to open a dialogue with the US. Ironically Chou En Lai called Chaing Kai Shek in Taiwan and tipped him off about this offer. When it became public, the Taiwan lobby in the US stopped this.

China needs "an offer that they cannot refuse." It would be real politik and something like this: "Give the West North Korea and we will stand aside and let you unite with Taiwan like you did with Hong Kong. (I spent time in Hong Kong where the Chinese took over in 1997. It is still autonomous and feels like the British are still in charge. China would treat Taiwan the same way.)

Before I sign off let me tell you a story. South African pilots flew US P-51 Mustangs in Korea. One South African pilot shot down a Mig jet with a propeller-driven plane. Some South African pilots were shot down. Those lucky enough to end up in Chinese custody were treated decently. When being interrogated, Chinese from Hong Kong with British educations did the questioning. They were always described as well-mannered and decent to the South Africans. I'm reading a small book about North Korea in 1950 called Hold Back The Night. One chapter talks about the experience of a US Marine Corps lieutenant from Florida captured by the Chinese. Sure enough, he ended up being interrogated by an English-speaking Chinese from Hong Kong. The two men hit it off famously and were even drinking scotch together. The Chinese colonel sent the man back to his lines after the questioning was over. He was spared some years in a POW camp. Those unfortunates who ended up in North Korean custody were not so lucky.

with kindest regards,

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Further On North Korea--The World's Nuclear War Head Boutique

Dear Warwick:

This is a great article full of truisms. However what is not mentioned is the criminality of the North Korean regime including smuggling boat loads of heroin, counterfeit currency, etc. You can use Google to find a lot of information. They are desperate for money.

There is an excellent book by Dr. Robert Zubrin called Energy Victory. Its main thrust is a plan to make the US energy independent in 10 years based on what the Brasilians did. What I really liked about the book was several chapters on radical Muslims and how they use petro dollars. Please buy the book on download just to read those chapters.

We all know in economics that if the money is there, the need will be met. There is a lot of jihadist money out there to buy a nuclear weapon. The people in charge in North Korea might sell some war heads to some of these well-funded people. This is not a great subject for a novel or a remote possibility. Based on the past criminal activities of this regime, it is a real possibility. The people in power in North Korea might believe that such a weapon could not be traced back to them. They might further reason that even if the weapon was traced back to them, the Chinese would protect them from nuclear retaliation.

The supreme irony would be that people in the US, Europe, etc. who buy all of this oil from the Middle East might find their oil purchase money used to buy nuclear war heads that destroy their own cities.

A Strategic Report On North Korea:

North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Monday, a little more than two and a half years after its first such test in October 2006. Since the early 1990s, North Korea has been engaged in a public balancing act between nuclear development and negotiations with the international community — particularly the United States. One of the key factors driving the North’s nuclear program is its own insecurity when faced with the United States’ full might. At its core, the nuclear program is about regime survival — not only now, but into the future.

Pyongyang’s focus on a nuclear program is rooted in its history. The Korean War showed North Korea how quickly the U.S. military could reverse a situation, pushing the North’s forces from their nearly complete conquering of the Korean Peninsula back up to the Yalu River line in a matter of weeks. But even before the vast difference in military capability between North Korea and the United States was reinforced by that war, North Korea, the united Korea before it and even the earlier Korean kingdoms occupied a rather insecure geographical position in Asia.

The Korean Peninsula traditionally has been an invasion route and contested territory between the two regional competitors, China and Japan. It has developed a limited repertoire of tactics to deal with this unchosen geographic position: It can attempt isolation (the so-called “Hermit Kingdom”); play regional competitors against one another (a similar strategy was employed, ultimately to failure, as Korea sought to avoid the push of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries); or find a third-party sponsor to provide protection from its neighbors (for example, as the United States provided protection for South Korea in the second half of the 20th century).

North Korea has employed varieties of these tactics — from playing the Russians and Chinese off one another during the Cold War (and exploiting both powers� fears of a U.S. occupation of the entire peninsula) to developing a fortress mentality, closing itself off to outside ideas and influence. Even North Korea’s nuclear program, in some ways, has been used at times to draw U.S. attention and maintain U.S. involvement in part to ensure the peninsula doesn’t end up once again stuck between an aggressive China and expansionist Japan.

But the nuclear program, as it developed, also was a manifestation of North Korea’s “Juche” self-reliance philosophy — a philosophy born from centuries of having to rely on others and almost always being sorely disappointed in the end. By developing a nuclear capability, even if in the early stages, North Korea is moving closer to a point where neither its neighbors nor the United States have many options for threatening it without facing a deadly response.

For decades, Pyongyang maintained a massive conventional military, replete with short- and medium-range missiles, rockets and artillery aimed at the nearby South Korean capital, Seoul, as a deterrent to any military action against the North. But this was not seen as a sufficient deterrent to the United States — which continued to carry out military operations around the world against seemingly powerful regimes that ultimately were unable to respond in a manner that truly threatened Washington or even made it think twice. Pyongyang could not be sure that Washington would always consider Seoul as the deciding factor, its threats to turn the city into a “sea of fire” notwithstanding.

Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile programs, then, were part of an effort to demonstrate that North Korea would be able to respond to the United States or other distant aggressors. Initially, Pyongyang was willing to trade away its developing capability in return for more concrete assurances from Washington (whether through a formal peace accord or normalized relations) that Pyongyang would not end up in the U.S. military’s gun sights. But Pyongyang quickly found that its conventional deterrent, coupled with the very different views found among its neighbors and the United States (Beijing rarely agreed to the most stringent sanctions, Seoul was often conflicted about risking destabilizing the North, and Japan opposed concessions), meant that it could escalate a threat, then partly back down in exchange for an economic or political reward — all without really halting its nuclear and missile progress.

The 2006 nuclear test, part of a concerted effort to draw the United States back to the bargaining table, triggered a perhaps surprisingly soft response. In essence, the United States and others gave Pyongyang a sound talking to, and then returned to negotiations. This convinced some among the North Korean elite, particularly in the military, that not only would North Korea never have to give up its nuclear deterrent, but it also could accelerate development with little risk of backlash. This thinking came to the fore again after Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008, without a clear line of succession. The situation set off intensified maneuvering in Pyongyang as various factions — including the military — sought to take advantage and gain strength.

North Korea’s attempted satellite launch last month and the nuclear test on Monday are both as much about demonstrating Kim Jong Il’s continued strength at home as they are about warning the world (and particularly the United States) not to mess with Pyongyang while the reorganization of top leaders is under way. But it is also an attempt by Pyongyang to show the world that North Korea is both willing to follow through on its threats and not afraid of the consequences (perhaps because it has seen how ineffectual the “consequences” of past actions were).

In essence, North Korea is saying that it does not need to rely on anyone else — that is has found another way to ensure the security of the Korean Peninsula from its neighbors, without relying on outside exploitation. This is, of course, not entirely true: North Korea remains heavily dependent upon China for energy, food and cash, and has grown used to periodic food and fuel aid handouts from the international community, South Korea and the United States.

But to summarize the North Korean behavior as mere attempts to attract U.S. attention or to bargain fails to take into consideration the deep-rooted insecurities of North Korea and its predecessor states on the Korean Peninsula. What the “shrimp between two whales” is trying to do is find a way to avoid being crushed or eaten. It may not fit exactly with international norms, but it has worked for Pyongyang so far.

North Korea Threatens Armed Strike, End to Armistice (Update1)
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By Heejin Koo

May 27 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea threatened a military response to South Korean participation in a U.S.-led program to seize weapons of mass destruction, and said it will no longer abide by the1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

“The Korean People’s Army will not be bound to the Armistice Agreement any longer,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a statement today. Any attempt to inspect North Korean vessels will be countered with “prompt and strong military strikes.” South Korea’s military said it will “deal sternly with any provocation” from the North.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak ordered his government to take “calm” measures on the threats, his office said in a statement today. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Takeo Kawamura, echoed those remarks and called on North Korea to “refrain from taking actions that would elevate tensions in Asia.”

The threats are the strongest since North Korea tested a nuclear weapon on May 25, drawing international condemnation and the prospect of increased sanctions against the communist nation. South Korea dispatched a warship to its maritime border and is prepared to deploy aircraft, Yonhap News reported, citing military officials it didn’t identify.

“This rapid-fire provocation indicates a more aggressive shift in the Kim Jong Ilregime,” said Ryoo Kihl Jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Kim is obviously using a strategy of maximum force.”

Markets Fall

South Korea’s benchmark Kospi stock index fell for a fifth day, the longest losing streak since February. The index declined 0.7 percent to 1,362.02. The won weakened 0.5 percent to 1,269.35 per dollar as of the 3 p.m. close of trade in Seoul.

The yield on government debt due in March 2014 rose six basis points to 4.58 percent, while the three-year yield added five basis points to 3.79 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

North Korea can’t guarantee the safety of ships passing through its western waters, KCNA said. The statement specified five islands controlled by the South that were the site of naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002.

“What they are saying is that they will take military action if there is any action taken on behalf of the program such as boarding their ships, stopping and searching and so on,” said Han Sung Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister.

‘Deal Sternly’

South Korea’s military “will deal sternly with any provocation by North Korea, based on a strong South Korea-U.S. defense coalition,” Rear Admiral Lee Ki Sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an e-mailed statement. North Korea was making “obstinate claims” about nullifying the armistice, he said.

The U.S. has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, according to theUnited States Forces Korea Web site.

South Korea yesterday agreed to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, set up to locate and seize shipments of equipment and materials used to make weapons of mass destruction.

President Lee had resisted joining the PSI until the nuclear test, even after North Korea fired a ballistic missile on April 5. His predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, had said that joining the initiative would be too provocative.

North Korea has also fired five short-range missiles in two days in a further display of military defiance. The United Nations Security Council agreed in an emergency session on May 25 to condemn the nuclear test and missile launches.

‘Cessation’ of Hostilities

Under the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, both sides agreed to “a complete cessation of all hostilities” and pledged to accept the demarcation line that has become the world’s most-heavily mined demilitarized zone.

North Korea may be preparing to reprocess spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported earlier today, citing an unidentified South Korean official. Steam has been rising from the facilities, the newspaper said.

Kim is 68 according to research groups including the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, while the regime says he is a year younger. He likely suffered a stroke last August, according to U.S. intelligence officials, and disappeared from public view before presiding over a parliamentary session in April, when he looked gaunt and aged.

To contact the reporters on this story: Heejin Koo in Seoul at

Monday, May 25, 2009

North orea--The World's Nuclear War Head Boutique

I got the sad news on Saturday that North Korea had detonated a nuclear devise underground. It was rated as a nuclear weapon equal in destructive power to the 20 kiloton bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6,1945.

Such a nuclear weapon is not cheap or easy to build. One has to ask the question as follows:

"How does a bankrupt state with people living in starvation and without even the money to pay to keep the electricity going, get the money and technology to build such a weapon?"

Conventional wisdom is that Pakistan was supplying them with the technology in the past. Since the infamous Khan network was allegedly disbanded and the leading nuclear physicist placed under house arrest, that source of money and technology has appeared to have dried up. Or has it?

Iran is always another suspect. Why do they need North Korea if they are developing their own nuclear weapons?

A lot of people take comfort in the fact that the North Korean regime is a group of low-level delinquents putting on a show. All that is needed is a big enough payoff to calm down the broke regime. President George Bush tried that for a while. He had some good progress with the nuclear weapons program being stopped and even reactors shut down. When the US failed to keep up the payments and take North Korea off the list of states sponsoring terrorism, the agreement collapsed and we have this new show of their prowess with manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Let us "think out of the box" and consider another far more sinister scenario. Iran recently fired off a rocket with a 1200 mile range. This sent shutters through out the world and even caused the gold price to go up. In the old days of Nazi Germany and the Cold War, weapons were delivered with rockets, No more. The minute you fire a rocket into the atmosphere, satellites all over the world see where it is coming from and where it is going. It would be relatively easy to perhaps shoot the rocket down or to fire a retaliatory strike.

In the future if some rogue state or terrorist group decides to detonate a nuclear weapon on a city or other target of high strategic value, you will see the scenario that Tom Clancy put forth in his 1992 book The Sum of All Their Fears. In this book terrorist smuggle a small tactical nuclear warhead into the US and detonate it in Denver during the Super Bowl. The results were 200,000 casualties.

Dr. Robert Zubrin wrote an excellent book called Energy Victory. The main theme of the book was a plan to make the US energy independent based upon the model that worked well in Brasil. Dr. Zubrin devotes several chapers of this excellent book to terrorist groups and rich oil interests in the Middle East who are supported by oil money. This is our first clue.

Our second clue comes from a grudging admission made sometime ago by the US government. They admitted that 22 teams of highly-specialized scientists are on standby all over the US. If a nuclear weapon is detonated in the US or in an allied country, a team would be dispatched. Their primary job would be nuclear forensic work. The goal of this exercise would be to determine where the nuclear weapon came from so retaliation could be carried all. All of this is administered through the US Department of Energy. The career civil servant in charge of preventing nuclear terrorism admits that he does not sleep well at night. To spend this much money and devote this many personnel to such a project, it would appear that the US government considers such an attack inevitable.

Where is all of this leading? Quite simply, someone put up the capital to turn North Korea into a factory for nuclear war heads. As long as the US was "paying off" it was easy to take the money and avoid the risk of nuclear anihalation if one of their bombs was used against a city, for example.

Now the North Koreans see that they can make unlimited sums of money by making nuclear weapons for other clients around the world who would pay huge sums of money for such a weapon. They think that their old ally China will protect them from nuclear retaliation, even if one of their weapons is used. They are blinded by greed and making a fatal miscalculation. Sadly millions of people could suffer and die because of this amoral state.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Argentina The Super Power That Never Was

Argentina: The superpower that never was
By Alan Beattie
Published: May 23 2009 01:32 | Last updated: May 23 2009 01:32
Everyone remembers the world-changing events of the morning of September 11, 2001. Everyone remembers the planes commandeered by terrorists slamming into the twin towers of the Centro Mundial de Comercio in Buenos Aires. As the richest country on earth and the modern world’s first global hyperpower, Argentina was a prime target for malcontents revolting against the might of the western capitalist order.

Fewer recall the disaster that befell the United States of America three months later. Fewer recall the wrenching moment when the US federal government, crushed by the huge debts it had run up borrowing abroad in pesos, announced it was bankrupt. The economic implosion that followed, in which thousands of jobless, homeless Americans slept rough and picked through trash tips at night in Central Park, shocked only those still used to thinking of the US as a first-world country.

More from Reportage - Nov-24

Well, no. It happened the other way round. But that was not inevitable. And the crisis that has hit the US – and then the entire global financial system, threatening to plunge the world into another Great Depression – should be a warning. The US could have gone the way of Argentina. It could still go that way, if the painfully learnt lessons of the past are forgotten.

A short century ago the US and Argentina were rivals. Both were riding the first wave of globalisation at the turn of the 20th century. Both were young, dynamic nations with fertile farmlands and confident exporters. Both brought the beef of the New World to the tables of their European colonial forebears. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, Argentina was among the 10 richest economies in the world. The millions of emigrant Italians and Irish fleeing poverty at the end of the 19th century were torn between the two: Buenos Aires or New York? The pampas or the prairie?

A hundred years later there was no choice at all. One had gone on to be among the most successful economies ever. The other was a broken husk.

There was no individual event at which Argentina’s path was set on a permanent divergence from that of the United States of America. But there was a series of mistakes and missteps that fit a general pattern. The countries were dealt quite similar hands but played them very differently. The similarities between the two in the second half of the 19th century, and in fact up to 1939, were neither fictional nor superficial. The “lords of the pampas” – young Argentines strutting the salons of Europe between the wars – pop up in accounts of the time as an equally prominent type as the swaggering Americans playing at European decadence in Berlin and Paris.

For a long while the two countries were on parallel paths. The states that later became the US declared independence in 1776 and became a new nation in 1789. The vice-royalty of Argentina, part of the Spanish empire, was overthrown in 1810 by rebels inspired by the American revolution; in 1816, Argentina became an independent republic.

Both faced an internal struggle between those that wanted a centralised nation and those that wanted power reserved for the individual states or provinces. In the US, the separate colonies had existed long before the idea of uniting them and it was not guaranteed that a republic would succeed. The negotiations that led to the writing of the constitution were tortuous and often bad-tempered, and the different denominations, traditions and constitutions of the previous colonies all too evident. Only five of the 13 founding colonies, later states, even bothered turning up to the first drafting meeting, in 1786. Battles had to be fought to make flesh the national motto “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”). That motto appears today on US coins, but at the time of independence in 1789 dozens of different currencies were circulating. A national bank and a single “national debt” – making the federal government responsible for the debts of the states – were not created without fierce opposition.

In Argentina, it took decades of struggle before a constitution was adopted in 1853 with a system of sharing tax revenue between the centre and the provinces. But continual tensions were not settled until the suppression of an armed uprising in the province of Buenos Aires in 1880, handing more power to the centre. Domingo Sarmiento, who had tried to forge Argentine national unity while president between 1868 and 1874, said he would settle for an Argentina whose inhabitants were not killing each other.

On the face of it the economies of the two countries also looked similar: agrarian nations pushing settlement westwards into a wilderness of temperate grasslands. In both nations, the frontier rancher – the gaucho and the cowboy – was elevated into a national symbol of courage and independence. But there were big disparities in the way this happened. America chose a path that parcelled out new land to individuals and families; Argentina delivered it into the hands of a few rich landowners.

From the founding of the colonies, America was fortunate to have imported many of the farming practices of northern Europe. The farmers of “New England” came largely from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, bringing with them the tradition of skilled farmers on small homesteads. Argentina, by contrast, had a history of a few rich landowners on great estates left by the Spanish and the aristocratic elitism that came with it. It also had a labour shortage. Mass immigration to Argentina came later in the 19th century, but the country had to push forward its frontier with a skeleton staff.

Both countries opened up the west, the US to the Pacific and the Argentines to the Andes, but not in the same way. America favoured squatters: Argentina backed landlords. Short of cash, Buenos Aires found the best way to encourage settlers was to sell in advance large plots in areas yet to be seized from the native Americans. But once the battles were won the victors were exhausted, good farm labourers in short supply and the distances from the eastern seaboard to the frontier vast. Most of the new landowners simply encircled wide tracts of grassland with barbed-wire fences and turned them over to pasture.

Thus was privilege reinforced. European emigrants to Argentina had escaped a landowning aristocracy, only to recreate it in the New World. The similarities were more than superficial. In the 1860s and 1870s, the landowners regarded rural life and the actual practice of agriculture with disdain. Many lived refined, deracinated lives in the cities, spending their time immersed in European literature and music. The closest they came to celebrating country life was elevating polo, an aristocratised version of a rural pursuit, to a symbol of Argentine athletic elegance. Even then it took an elite form: the famous Jockey Club of Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century some were sending their sons to Eton.

America’s move westwards was more democratic. The government encouraged a system of smaller family holdings. Even when it did sell off large tracts of land, the potential for a powerful landowning class to emerge was limited. Squatters who seized family-sized patches of soil had their claims acknowledged. US cattle ranchers did not spend much time boning up on the entrance requirements of elite English schools. And as well as raising cattle, the western settlers grew wheat and corn. By the 1850s, the US was importing a quarter of a million immigrants a year.

Immigrants came to Argentina as well, but they came later and with fewer skills – largely low-skilled Italians and Irish. In 1914, a third of Argentina’s population was still illiterate. America imported the special forces of British agriculture, and in addition a large number of literate, skilled workers in cloth and other manufactures. Meanwhile, Argentina had more land than it could efficiently work. But it was well into the 20th century before the rot in the foundations was apparent.

. . .

Hyperbole about the “unprecedented” nature of the 21st century globalised economy is misplaced. There was huge integration in markets for goods, capital and (particularly) people during the first “Golden Age” of globalisation, roughly dating from 1880 to 1914. Peace in Europe coincided with the growth of cities and with them urban consumers. A global trading system swiftly developed as transport costs dropped sharply.

It was a great time to be a New World farmer. A canning industry already existed, having been boosted by the need to provision soldiers in the American civil war. Canning was supplemented by other new industrial processes such as freezing and refrigerating meat. American and Argentine farmers saw the markets of Europe open wide and clear in front of them.

Production expanded massively. Fresh American beef appeared with frequency on the tables of Europe. Established supply chains meant that concentrating output in a few areas such as cattle and wheat seemed the logical thing to do. By the end of the 19th century Argentina’s economy, per head of population, was higher than that of France and a third higher than Italy’s. The export boom could have kept Argentina up in the pack, but much of the money was captured by landowners who generally either spent it on imported consumer goods or bought more land with it.

Economies rarely get rich on agriculture alone and Britain had shown the world the next stage, industrialisation. America grasped that building a manufacturing industry would allow it to benefit from better technologies, while trying to squeeze a little more grain out of the same fields would not. It was not as if Argentina consciously rejected the same course. It could scarcely avoid growing its own manufacturing industry. But when industrialisation did come, prevailing prejudices ensured it was limited and late. Argentina’s elites saw no reason to risk their status and livelihoods in the fickle new sphere and anyway there were not enough new workers to fill the factories. Argentina brought the same tendencies that it had to the ossified agricultural sector, preferring cosy, safe monopolies to the brutal riskiness of competition. Its wellbeing rested on farm prices holding their own against the prices of manufactured goods, and on global markets remaining open.

The 20th century was a time of markets opened and snatched away, a time that rewarded rapid reactions to unprecedented events. An economy like America’s, with a nimble industrial sector, was well placed to take advantage. An economy like Argentina’s, grown fat and complacent, endlessly borrowing foreign money to pump out grain and corned beef to foreign markets, was not. The Great Depression after 1929 drove a wedge between the two countries that would later cleave into a gulf between democracy and dictatorship. Between 1880 and 1914, the US political system was reacting to change and addressing at least some of the demands of the discontented. But Argentine politics remained dominated by a small, self-perpetuating elite.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected president amidst crisis and despair in 1932, took few chances. He saw that reform was needed and met the Depression head-on with the New Deal, a somewhat experimental set of policies distinctly at odds with the hands-off doctrine of the Golden Age. It was not until the build-up to war in 1939 revived demand for factory output that the economy truly recovered. But the political impact of the federal government’s efforts was undoubtedly felt. The system was capable of absorbing new ideas. The system could renew itself. The system did not crash.

By contrast, Argentina suffered a deep crisis that ran throughout its narrow political class. With a pathological dislike of anything that smacked of socialism, it appeared paralysed by the slump. Exports of beef and wheat were particularly hard hit – by the end of the 1920s, meat exports to continental Europe had fallen by more than two-thirds from their level in 1924.

The Depression brought FDR and a more active federal government to the US. To Argentina it brought dictatorship. Nationalism and self-sufficiency became attractive; hapless democratic governments passing power ineffectually between each other did not. The man who came to embody the new doctrine, Juan Perón, was one of the leaders of a military coup in 1943. He became president in 1946 and projected an assertive, disciplined nationalism. He encouraged a cult of personality and urged Nazi-style economic self-sufficiency and “corporatism” – a strong government, organised labour and industrial conglomerates jointly directing and managing growth. These ideas came to the US, too, but few took them seriously.

Argentina believed that its travails had been caused by becoming an economic colony – exporting low-value commodities and importing higher-value manufactured goods. There was some truth in this, but the solution, to industrialise at the cost of cutting off the economy from the rest of the world, was not the right answer.

. . .

In 1944, a meeting at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, created the eponymous system of fixed exchange rates and controls on capital. The footloose money of speculators was to be subordinated to the production of real goods and services. To oversee the system, the conference created the International Monetary Fund. The US and the Europeans also began talks to reduce trade barriers, to undo the panicked protectionism of the Depression.

Argentina headed blindly off in the other direction, rejecting the tenets of open trade. Perón referred to foreign capital as an “imperialist agent”. Rather than face its own problems, the elastic Argentine sense of victimhood stretched to include other, successful economies. Argentina’s obsession with itself was shared by few. Once the US was satisfied that Argentina was unlikely to ally itself with the Soviet Union, it turned its attention to preventing other Latin American states doing so.

The US had emerged from the second world war with both moral and financial credit from Europe. For the next 30 years the US economy was raised by the tide of trade, technology and growth that lifted all the western European countries together. Some referred to the three decades after 1945 as the second Golden Age. The world economy was less integrated than during the first, but the benefits of growth were more widely and sustainably spread.

Meanwhile, Argentina pursued industrialisation within one country. Tariffs averaged 84 per cent in the early 1960s, at a time when barriers between many advanced countries were being reduced towards single figures. It also taxed exports: Argentina had been one of the most open economies in the world in the late 19th century, but now its exports shrank to equal just 2 per cent of its national income. In the US, by 1970, the equivalent figure was nearly 10 per cent and rising fast.

Peronism endured, and indeed endures: Argentina’s current president calls herself a Peronist, and so did her predecessor, who happens to be her husband. One reason is that, in a limited way and under its own distorted terms, it succeeded. The state had become strong. The government owned and ran not just natural monopolies such as water and electricity but anything that looked big and strategic – steel, chemicals, car factories. The economy did industrialise. But it was still falling behind. In 1950 Argentine income per head was twice that of Spain, its former coloniser. By 1975 the average Spaniard was richer than the average Argentine. Argentines were almost three times richer than Japanese in the 1950s; by the early 1980s the ratio had been reversed. Argentina’s was a fragile and superficial progress that masked relative decline.

Workers flood Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, on August 31, 1955 to show their support for President Juan Peron, who had offered to resign.
Since exports had been discouraged, Argentina again and again ran into balance of payments problems. Though Perón was forced out in 1955 (he would later return), Peronism survived. The lavish promises of social welfare made by Perón to the urban workers meant that the government was often in deficit. And when the stability of the Bretton Woods system broke down in the early 1970s as even the US struggled to make its budget balance, Argentina’s defining trait came to the fore. Argentines might not have known how to build, but they most certainly knew how to borrow.
No countries except net exporters of oil did well in the 1970s. Even America had double-digit inflation, but at least it could continue to borrow in dollars. The pretence that Argentina was still a first-world country should have disintegrated in the 1970s, when swelling oil prices and economic dislocation battered even seaworthy governments, and Argentina was thrown repeatedly on to the rocks. In rich countries, the 1970s generally presaged a move to more free-market administrations and policies, as faith in the ability of governments to guide the economy disappeared. In the US, this eventually meant appointing the tough-minded Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve. The advanced countries experienced strikes, demonstrations and petrol shortages, but they survived and stabilised.

Argentina slid instead towards military dictatorship. An army junta took over in an out-and-out coup in 1976, just as the White House was again changing hands peacefully and constitutionally. After the disastrous misadventure of seizing the symbolic but economically worthless Falkland Islands from the British, the junta too collapsed.

A “lost decade” of stagnation and strife followed. Hyper inflation wiped out the value of lifetime savings in a few months. Osvaldo Soriano, an Argentine author, writing in 1989, noted that during the time it took him to type the piece, the price of the cigarette that he was smoking went from 11 to 14 australes (a new currency that lasted a matter of weeks).

. . .

In the 1990s, many fragmented markets around the world once more dissolved into one. Like the Golden Age of the late 19th century, the lurch forward of globalisation was helped by a shove from new technology, this time in information and tele­communications rather than ships and railways. As in the Golden Age, the US and Argentina were both leaders of the charge. And as before, the US weathered the storms of change while Argentina, having promised a heroic rise, once again succumbed to a fatal flaw.

On this occasion the hubris was embodied in the government of Carlos Menem. Although from a Peronist background, Menem edged away from economic isolationism, deciding there was one useful thing Argentina could import from America: credibility. He linked the Argentine peso irrevocably, or so the intention was, to the US dollar. This was a high-risk course. Argentina had got used to printing as much domestic currency as it liked. It now had to earn dollars with an economy that had forgotten how to export. It also required public spending to be controlled. It required, in fact, Argentina to stop acting like Argentina.

For a while, it seemed to work. Inflation dropped and the economy stabilised. The IMF, desperate to find a model globaliser to parade to the developing world, unwisely began touting Argentina as an exemplar. But once again Argentina proved a delinquent, better at borrowing than earning. As capital markets dried up after 1998 investors started pulling dollars out of the country and so the supply of pesos had to fall too. In countries that controlled their own currencies, like the US, the severity of the worldwide economic slowdown in 2001 could be minimised by rapid cuts in interest rates, the price of money. The US Federal Reserve slashed the cost of borrowing in 2001, ensuring that the American economy would endure only a brief recession despite huge falls in the inflated share prices of technology companies.

Demonstrators protesting Argentina’s economic crisis bang pots and pans outside the Supreme Court building in Buenos Aires on January 31, 2002.
In Argentina, a shortage of dollars in its reserves drove up interest rates to punishingly high levels, crushing businesses and bankrupting families. In December 2001 the IMF pulled the plug, forcing Argentina into the largest government bankruptcy in history. Income per head dropped by nearly a quarter in three years. Five presidents came and went within two weeks. The country became a laughing stock.
Yet at dozens of different points over the previous two centuries it could have been the other way round. In fact, it still could. During the second Golden Age of globalisation, the US too was not immune from the deception that everything was fine as long as it could keep borrowing. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the American economy ran an ever larger trade deficit, financed by borrowing from abroad. But what sparked the financial crisis in the US was the way that borrowing was being financed domestically. Decades of deregulation had produced ways of borrowing and new financial assets so complex that not even the banks that sold them really understood what they were doing. Critics were dismissed as doom- mongers and a property bubble was allowed to inflate absurdly. Mortgages were extended to people with bad credit histories – the Argentines of the US housing market.

If the US fails to recognise the flaws and correct them, as it painfully learnt to do in the Great Depression, the trajectory of its future wealth and power will be lowered. Its rise was not preordained, and neither is its continued pre-eminence.

Argentina, meanwhile, remained true to form. Having initially announced with familiar hubris that the country would be unaffected, its government decided that a good way to deal with the loss of investor confidence would be to appropriate the country’s private pensions.

All in all, it would be wise to keep betting on the US finding the right way out of the financial crisis and Argentina continuing to harm itself. Of the two great hopes of the western hemisphere in the late 19th century, one succeeded and the other stalled in the 20th. It was history and choice, not fate, that determined which became which. It is history and choice that will determine which is which in a century’s time.

Alan Beattie is the FT’s world trade editor

This is an edited extract from ‘False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World’ by Alan Beattie, published next month by Viking, £20. To buy the book for £16 call the FT ordering service on 0870 429 5884 or go to

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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Friday, May 22, 2009

In Other Words: Baltic Ghosts
By Nick Bravin
Page 1 of 2

May/June 2009

Lithuania is investigating Jewish Holocaust survivors as war criminals—and using their own memoirs as evidence against them.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Margolis
Caught in time: A young Rachel Margolis.
Yitzhak Arad escaped to the forest at the age of 16, days before the Jews in his native Lithuanian village were massacred. He is proud he joined the Soviet partisans to fight the Nazis and their collaborators. For a Jew, just to survive the Holocaust was a victory, he says; to tell about it was an obligation. That’s why Arad wrote his memoir, The Partisan: From the Valley of Death to Mt. Zion, published in English in 1979.

The book is a raw account of an orphaned teenager fighting the Nazis in desperate conditions after the murder of 40 members of his family. Arad describes his main activities with the Soviet partisans as blowing up German military trains, and he also details some of the grislier aspects of forest warfare. In one passage, he describes a “punitive action” against the village of Girdan, where two partisans had been killed: “We broke into the village from two directions, and the defenders fled after putting up feeble resistance. We took the residents out of several houses in the section of the village where our two comrades fell and burned down the houses. Never again were partisans fired on from their village.”

“It was a cruel war,” the 82-year-old Arad recalled recently. “We did the best we could to survive.” He dedicated his memoir to those who fought with him and died along the way—his “heroic friends.”

But when Lithuania’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius, read Arad’s book, nearly 30 years after its publication, he didn’t see a hero. He saw a possible war criminal. And in September 2007, when the prosecutor’s office publicly announced an investigation into Arad, it was clear The Partisan would be Exhibit A against him. More war crimes investigations of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors have followed, and in each case, memoirs are playing a central role.

These events are all the more shocking to those who remember that the country was once a sort of Jewish promised land. Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, was known as “the Jerusalem of the North.” About one third of its population in the 1920s and 30s was Jewish. Yiddish was in the air then. Synagogues welcomed the faithful. Cafes overflowed with young Jewish painters, writers, and poets. Vilna, as the city is called in Yiddish, was the seat of intellectual, spiritual, and artistic life for Eastern European Jewry.

All of that is long gone, destroyed by the Nazi war machine with the active assistance, in a dark chapter for Lithuania, of many local collaborators. Vilnius today has only one synagogue. Lithuania’s once flourishing community of more than 200,000 Jews—over 90 percent of whom were annihilated during the war—is now about 4,000. All that is left are the Holocaust survivors’ stories, and now those, in the case of Arad and several others, are being used against them.

How a country that was once a center of Jewish life has now begun targeting the few remaining victims of history’s worst crime is a story of foreign occupiers, former Jewish partisans, and modern-day Lithuanian ethnic nationalists. But more broadly, it is a story of books, memory, and a small country’s ongoing struggle to make sense of its tangled, bloody historical narratives—a struggle facing all of Eastern Europe.

* * *

In a strange twist, this whole affair began with a good-faith effort to heal those deep, lingering ethnic divisions. In 1998, President Valdas Adamkus created a high-level commission to try to establish the “historical truth” about Lithuania’s horrific occupations during the 20th century: first by the Soviets from 1940-41, then by the Nazis from 1941-44, followed again by the Soviets from 1944-90. The commission attracted a prestigious collection of international scholars, including Arad, who had gone on to become a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and director of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center. However, as the commission began excavating the layered narratives of guilt and suffering from this period, ethnic tensions flared.

The biggest obstacle for Lithuanians in confronting their history is the now well-established fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Lithuanians voluntarily participated in the Holocaust. Many of the country’s Jews were shot by local police and by a special unit of Lithuanian killers incorporated into the Nazi SS. Since its independence in 1990, only three Lithuanian collaborators have been charged with war crimes, and none was punished.

“The genocide of the Jews is the bloodiest page in the country’s history,” said Saulius Suziedelis, a Lithuanian historian and member of the presidential commission. But for many Lithuanians, he said, “just to mention that obvious fact turns them off because they want to talk about their own victimization.”
That victimization came during the brutal Soviet occupation. It was marked by the repression of Lithuanian culture, the deportation of many thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia, and the murder of Lithuanian independence fighters. The Soviets strictly controlled information and wrote Lithuania’s history books. Today, as the country struggles to write its own narrative, most Lithuanians see the Soviets as the real villains of World War II. “The Spielberg view of the war is totally irrelevant to [Lithuanians] because that was not their experience,” Suziedelis said. Instead, Lithuanian Jews, who allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, are today often regarded as deserving of punishment for Soviet crimes.

This is certainly the view of many Lithuanian “ethno-nationalists,” according to Antony Polonsky, professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University. In 2006, after the presidential commission published interim findings for a report that Polonsky called “a devastating account of the Lithuanian involvement in the mass murder of the Jews,” these firebrands mobilized, he said. They took to the pink-tinted pages of the right-wing Respublika newspaper—Lithuania’s second-leading daily, which has been sanctioned for running anti-Semitic material. Their target was Yitzhak Arad. In an April 2006 article, Respublika published portions of his memoir and denounced him as a murderer and war criminal. The following month, Lithuanian prosecutors opened their investigation into Arad.

Some might dismiss this timing as coincidence. But not Rytas Narvydas, head of special investigations for the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, which investigates and memorializes past state crimes. He and the lead prosecutor, Valentukevicius, acknowledge that the Arad investigation started in response to the Respublika article. When asked whether anti-Semitic elements in Lithuania had manipulated the war crimes prosecutor’s office, Narvydas conceded, “It does happen from time to time.”

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Secretary Oskaras Jusys criticized the prosecutor for getting pushed around by “outside” elements and said the investigations never should have been opened. “The mistake was made by the prosecutor’s office from the very beginning,” he said. “Their mistake was to go ahead without clear evidence.”

The Arad case “created so much damage” for Lithuania, Jusys said, referring to the significant diplomatic pressure imposed by the United States, the European Union, Israel, and international Jewish groups. Lithuania’s foreign minister and president appealed personally to the prosecutor to drop the Arad investigation, Jusys said, and in September of last year the case was closed. But in the meantime, prosecutors had opened investigations into several other Holocaust survivors. “We have been able to clean one mess,” Jusys said in frustration, “and now other things are happening again.”

* * *

The most public of the ongoing investigations involves Rachel Margolis, an 87-year-old former biology professor living in Israel who joined the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius ghetto. Here, too, a book is at the heart of the case. In Margolis’s memoir, published in 2005 in Polish (and later in Russian and German), she recounts a partisan raid on the village of Kaniukai on January 29, 1944. Facts about the raid are heavily disputed, including whether the villagers were acting in concert with the Nazis, but the war crimes prosecutor alleges that 46 people were murdered, 22 of them children.

According to Margolis’s memoir, she did not take part in the Kaniukai raid, but her longtime friend and fellow partisan, Fania Brancovskaja, did. Now an 87-year-old librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, Brancovskaja was attacked in print last year by the ultraright-wing nationalist newspaper Lietuvos Aidas. It labeled her a murderer, called on investigators to charge her with war crimes, and demanded they summon Margolis as a witness. And, last May, Lithuanian prosecutors publicly announced they were seeking to question the two women.

The heightened scrutiny of these investigations clearly frustrates Valentukevicius, the prosecutor, as does having to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism. When asked about it recently, he raised a copy of Lithuania’s procedural code and said he’s just doing his job—investigating all war crimes allegations as the law requires. But with dozens of potential cases of Lithuanian collaboration yet to be examined, the decision to focus on Jewish Soviet partisans has attracted suspicion.

So has the very public nature of the prosecutor’s investigation. Faina Kukliansky, Brancovskaja’s attorney and an ex-prosecutor, complained that the former partisans are being tried by “innuendo” in the court of public opinion because prosecutors lack any evidence to try them in a court of law. “Everything has been done with a wink and a nod,” she said.

Many critics agree and say it is no coincidence that nationalists sought out Margolis’s memoir, a light seller at best. Prior to its publication, Margolis had detailed aspects of Lithuania’s history that many would rather ignore. She helped publish works on the Holocaust, including the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a searing account of the heavy participation of Lithuanians in the murder of 50,000 to 60,000 Jews in the Ponary forest outside Vilnius. The 2005 English edition of the book, for which Margolis wrote the foreword, was edited by Yitzhak Arad.

Margolis has not returned to Lithuania since prosecutors came looking for her. Brancovskaja met with prosecutors last May to explain that she was recovering from an operation at the time of the Kaniukai raid and had not taken part in it. Margolis sent her old friend a letter backing up Brancovskaja’s account, and said her memoir should be regarded as literature, not historical fact. That may be true of all memoirs, but the distinction takes on a special significance in the context of the Holocaust, where survivors write to bear witness and deniers have long seized on small inconsistencies to discount the larger event.

For his part, Arad stands by the accuracy of his account as vehemently as he denies committing any war crimes. “I am proud of what I did during the wartime,” he said. “If I would feel I did something not to do, I wouldn’t write a memoir.”

As during the Arad affair, the world is watching Lithuania’s investigations of the elderly Jews who fought with the Soviet partisans, and Brancovskaja and the others will likely escape war crimes charges. But charges may never have been the point. The prosecutor’s simple act of initiating the Arad investigation was enough to derail the half of the presidential commission researching Nazi crimes and Lithuanian complicity in them. It has not published anything since 2006. This may be the investigations’ most enduring harm.

“You have to do what’s right, not what’s easy,” said David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University and founding chief prosecutor for the U.N. war crimes court in Sierra Leone. “Some people in society may not want these things found, and in the short term, that may seem like a solution. But in the long term, 25 years from now, they’ll still be arguing about this.”

Other consequences are more personal. The relationship between Brancovskaja and Margolis, a friendship that started before the war, has suffered. The two women have been divided by a 65-year-old memory and a passage in a book. “It is very painful what they are doing,” Brancovskaja said, sitting in the Yiddish library surrounded by the many volumes she tends. But then she added, “I have lived through so much. This is not the worst.”

Seven Tips For Making Conversation With A Stranger

I posted before about tips for knowing if you're boring someone and tips to avoid being a bore. But while it might be fairly easy to avoid topics that are likely to bore someone, it's much harder to figure out what to say if you want to be interesting. Making polite conversation can be tough.

"So where do you live?"
"Really. I live on the Upper East Side."
Painful silence.

Here are some strategies to try when your mind is a blank:

1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather. "How do you know our host?" "What brings you to this event?" But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn't a good time to complain.

2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, "Did you hear that Justice Souter is stepping down from the bench?" or whatever might be happening.

3. Ask open questions that can't be answered with a single word. "What's keeping you busy these days?" This is a good question if you're talking to a person who doesn't have an office job. It's also helpful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) -- preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): "What do you do?"

A variant: "What are you working on these days?" This is a useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can't remember.

4. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, "Where are you from?" an interesting follow-up question might be, "What would your life be like if you still lived there?" If you ask, "Do you have children?" you might ask, "How are you a different kind of parent from your own parents?" or "Have you decided to do anything very differently from the way you were raised?"

5. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. "What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?" These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

6. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it's not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information ("Did you know that one out of every seven books sold last year was written by Stephanie Meyer?") react with surprise. Recently, I've had a few conversations where the person I was talking to just never reacted to what I said. I was trying to be all insightful and interesting, and these two people reacted as though everything I said was completely obvious and dull. It was unsatisfying.

Now, what to do if a conversation is just not working, and there's no way to use the "Excuse me, I need to go get something to drink" line? Recently, at a dinner party, the guy sitting on my right side was clearly very bored by me. He explained to me at length about how happiness didn't really exist, but after setting me straight on that subject didn't want to talk about it anymore, and after a few failed attempts at other topics, after an awkward pause in the conversation (my fault as much as his), he said, "Um, so where are you from?" It was such a listless, uninspired effort that I leaned over, put my hand on his arm, and said meanly, "Now, Paul, surely we can do better than that!" and changed the conversation. (It is moments like that that make me happy that I basically gave up drinking.)

So what can you do when the conversation is such a struggle?

7. A friend argues that you should admit it! "We're really working hard, aren't we?" or "It's frustrating -- I'm sure we have interests in common, but we're having a difficult time finding them." Clearly this is a desperate measure, but my friend insists that it works. I've never had the gumption to try it, I have to admit.

What are some other strategies for starting an interesting conversation with a stranger? What have I overlooked? On a related note, here are some tips if you can't remember someone's name.

* I'm a huge fan of Twitter, in part because it has helped me find so many great writers and great information, and one person -- and blog -- that I discovered on Twitter is Gwen Bell. She writes about branding, social media, and creativity, and always has fresh, interesting things to say.

I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month's posts to about 20,000 subscribers. If you'd like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format -- trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write "newsletter" in the subject line. It's free.

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