CNN and Yellow Journalism, “U.S. bomber flies over DMZ”

CNN headline B-52 bomberOn 1/10/2016, at 10:10 a.m. EST, the CNN front page displays an article link, “U.S. bomber flies over DMZ”. The article itself quotes the United States Pacific Command to state, “A B-52 bomber jet from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam flew over Osan, South Korea, on Sunday “in response to a recent nuclear test by North Korea,” United States Pacific Command said. ”


  • The distance between Osan and the Demilitarized Zone, the “DMZ”, is, at the shortest, 50 miles.
  • Osan is south of Seoul.
  • A flight over the DMZ itself would be an act of war.
  • There was no act of war.
  • No other media made this mistake. It originated at CNN. It was not a careless copy.

This is not a one-off for CNN, who have an unusual attraction to the phrase, “the next war will…”, where the text anticipates not a brush war, but a major conflagration that would leave a good part of the world in a bad state, if not ashes.

CNN have absorbed too much of William Randolph Hearst. The headline, “U.S. bomber flies over DMZ”, is a classic example of yellow journalism. Quoting Wikipedia about Hearst,

Moving to New York City, he acquired The New York Journal and engaged in a bitter circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World that led to the creation of yellow journalism—sensationalized stories of dubious veracity.

Joseph Pulitzer was a good guy. Hearst was not; he was a rich guy. There is a difference.

CNN, even with your thirst for profits, you can do better.



North Korea’s Hydrogen Bomb, Baloney!

Reuters. North Korea says successfully conducts first H-bomb test.

This is total nonsense. All successful hydrogen bombs are derivative of one element: the Teller-Ulam design, which is a method of coupling the energy of a fission “bomb” to a mass of heavy hydrogen (deuterium), so as to initiate nuclear fusion, the “energy of the sun.” No alternative to this design element exists.

It’s very hard to do. In building a nuclear weapon, there are intellectual levels. At one level is what is commonly known as “technology.” For example, the machining of plutonium, which is mechanically unstable, switching spontaneously between different allotropes, is difficult. Construction of a power supply to detonate an implosion array is also difficult. But the most difficult part of these achievements is the first time. The construction of a fission weapon is, as proliferation has shown, a replicable achievement.

The higher level, the stuff of genius, is  mathematical physics. The design of a nuclear weapon is not simply the shape of a gadget sitting on a shelf. It is the evolution of the device under phenomenal dynamical forces over several hundred microseconds. With a hydrogen bomb, the problem of intellect becomes acute. For the H-bomb, we had Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. The Russians had Andrei Sakharov, and the public knowledge that it could be done. The subsequent independent development by the Britain, France, and China may be considered independent, but people talk.

Perhaps North Korean scientists will hear some talk. But the proof is in the pudding. In this case, the stretching of the truth most likely takes the form of putting some deuterium  and tritium gas, or solid compound of, in the center of the plutonium pit. This enhances the performance of a fission pit, reducing the critical mass, facilitating miniaturization. This is  a boosted fission weapon.


South China Sea Tense

Reuters reports the protest of Vietnam with the first military flight to an island in the Spratleys. The inaugural post of this blog,  The Nine Dotted Line, suggested 2025 as a due date for exercise of full sovereignty by China in the delineated area. You may wish to look at the Pivot to Asia series:

The time for a showdown is not yet. China has succeeded in a reprise of the ancient policy of surrounding herself by vassal states, which are at least temporarily paralyzed from action by economic ties. Quoting from Historical Background and Henry Kissinger,

Those dynasties were the custodians of a principle well explained in Chapter 6 of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Quoting,

“In this view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states. Every known society was conceived of as being in some kind of tributary relationship…”

An actual tributary relationship of all of the other societies in the world is in the realm of fantasy, but the system nevertheless accommodated. Tribute was replaced by honorific. In some cases, vassals were acquired by corrupting them with showers of goods. Since until the Opium Wars, China had a trade surplus, this was easily afforded. Modern comparisons may bear.

Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong is doubtless aware of that history, and adapted it to modern use. He states (Reuters, 10/17/2015), “We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts”.

This does not imply that China will pay other countries to transit the disputed area while flying the Chinese flag from the mast. But it suggests some input of ancient sophistication that contrasts sharply with the hair-trigger posturing of other countries. It also suggests some realization of the novelty of sovereign claims on a sea.

The eventual cost to China of militarization of the region will greatly exceed the value of the oil that lies beneath. The coastline of China proper is 14,500 kilometers, which is not much less that the U.S. But the geography gives a sense of congestion, with (in Chinese eyes) many potentially hostile neighbors. Sadly, the calculus of threats, discussed in Threats to Russia, also applies to China.

The news media, intentionally or not, exaggerate. CNN, in particular, constantly raises the specter of war. It catches the eye, it raises the blood pressure, and it’s good for readership. It exploits the tendency of the inattentive individual to focus on a single point in time.  With perspective, we can do better.

The engineers who design weapons systems, “weaponeers”, have a saying, “Quantity has a quality all it’s own.” Eventually, China’s numerical dominance in the disputed area will become overwhelming. The U.S. has been concerned about the Iranian development of swarm tactics for use in the Strait of Hormuz. Countermeasures have been developed, but the capabilities and potential of China are vastly greater than that of Iran.

The most likely methods of eventual employment by  China are the fire hose, the boarding party, and the tow rope. An unarmed U.S. “Freedom of Navigation” mission, mysteriously damaged by a mine,  could be on the end of the rope. The Chinese might treat the crew well and after a suitable interval of technology piracy, return the vessel, in tiny pieces neatly boxed.

The softest of military posturing,  combined with claims by China, is all that is required to  to deter commercial investment in competing oil ventures. The risk cannot be annulled by the military postures of other states that are party to this spat, even that of Vietnam, which is the most aggressive.

Vietnam  has a formidable submarine fleet. To use it against China would result in an economic disaster. Such action might result in a brief hot war, as inconclusive as the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. But titular “victory” would be hollow, as Vietnam’s economy serves mostly as a subcontractor to China’s.

Thus far, China’s policy has successfully progressed towards annexation of most of the area behind the Nine Dotted Line. Like the theologians of Iran’s holy city of Qom, China has a long time horizon. It would be out of character to make the mistake of any action that has less than the ultimate of sophistication.



Saudi breaks relations with Iran

The 1987 Mecca clash involving Iranian pilgrims has been well documented, particularly by Martin Kramer. An incident in 1986, illustrative of the then-fresh drive to export revolution, has received less attention, but it is mentioned in a Jack Anderson column dated May 24, 1991.

The Saudis were tipped off, and the Pasdaran slaughtered as they attempted to debark the plane with their weapons. The paucity of information, compared to the 1987 incident, seems due to the lack of propaganda value to either side. It is the clearest example of the post-revolutionary drive to export to Saudi Arabia.

For open source analysis, the insight in the current event lies not in that Saudi Arabia has broken diplomatic relations, but in the Iranian reaction to the execution of Nimr al-Nimr.   Iran’s Khameni warns of divine vengeance, but the words are not themselves unusual. What is telling is the mobilization of cadres to sack the Saudi embassy.

It suggests that Iran is still in a post-revolutionary stage, or the Iranian religious establishment is eager to insure that it remains so. Mob violence is a useful exercise, particularly when it exercises the synchronous emotional outburst characteristic of Shiite culture.

In the post revolutionary stage, as in France when Napoleon seized power, there remains the potential to raise a large army, with potential for aggression. The Iranian religious establishment is not homogeneous. There are doubtless some who wish to exercise this potential before Iran’s society has evolved beyond it. An obvious, almost-soft target is Yemen.

An ayatollah to watch is Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, whose views are so extreme as to be horrible by Western standards. He is not generally popular, but the labyrinthine power structure facilitates powerful, albeit indirect, projection. His position would be enhanced by violent conflict.






Threats to Russia/ Syria Involvement

Reuters: The U.S. is now a threat to Russia. The Russian document itself says, “The strengthening of Russia happens against the background of new threats to the national security, which has complex and interrelated nature,…” 

Simplicity is beguiling, but the best approach to  interpretation of this complex and interrelated problem is roundabout. Eventually, this leads to Syria.

When Country A assesses the threat posed to it by Country B, the appraisal is always worse than what the presumed aggressor thinks. Unless disarmed by strong cultural bonds, there is always the hypothetical fear, verging on real fear, that one’s frenemy would like to do you in. There is one objective reason, and one subjective, why this is always the case.

  • Objective: Risk of the unknown. Country A does not know the intimate thoughts of Country B. This is akin to the inability to truly know the mind of another, which is why when somebody flips out and murders somebody, his friends are so surprised.
  • Subjective: Every country holds itself in higher regard than other countries do. So even if Country B poses a real threat to Country A, Country B may discount it, as incompatible with the True Virtue of Country B.

This is the U.S. and Russia since Yalta, with either country as A or B.  Let’s not get sidetracked by Stalin’s genocides or Soviet repression.  The actual moral qualities of the two societies are not part of this discussion. The facts of history, and that the Soviets nevertheless considered themselves our moral superiors, highlight the essentialness of a  relative framework.  For most of that time, the mostly identical policy of each side was MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. This alone brings into question the sanity of human race, though more recently, MAD has been overshadowed by religious madness.

When Country A perceives a threatening action or policy of Country B, there are inevitably several explanations, which are not exclusive of each other:

  • Country B would like to do in Country A.
  • Country B would like to diminish Country A.
  • Country A has a paranoia.
  • It’s incidental to a policy with another motivation.

Since these factors occur in any strength of combination, op-eds that make the choice typically reveal more of the mind of the writer than the actual situation. In a piece for Reuters, John Lloyd, referring to Putin, writes “But tactics get you so far. He can certainly tweak the American nose, painfully. But what’s the strategy? “ The literary trope of giving the U.S. a nose is loaded with meaning that may be carelessly swallowed without tasting.

It’s not controversial to think that Putin would like to diminish the U.S. role in the world. Rivalry and apprehension have been the dominant sentiments of most of the post-war period. With Perestroika, they faded. They were primed for reappearance by the 2007-08 financial crisis, which extinguished the West as a beacon to Putin, the current author of modern Russia.

The Russians saw Western conspiracy in Euromaidan, which the West regard as an authentic popular movement. To the Russian inner circle, popular movements are anathema, justifying nothing. And so the sentiments came back to life in Russia. As the saying goes, it takes two to tangle. The Russian reaction was military, first with the annexation of Crimea, followed by thinly concealed efforts to peel off eastern Ukraine, mainly by private armies supported by Russia, but also with direct Russian involvement.

To the Russians, the first aggression was covert Western instigation. To the West, the first aggression was something we haven’t seen before, a “private brand” version of the Russian military. Past custom made “who started it” an important current and historical question, the thing everybody argued about incessantly. This time, it has faded. Buried by the modern op-ed blizzard, the fade makes this recapitulation actually useful and interesting.

It actually goes back even further. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians expected a warm embrace. Russia is for the most part the estranged relative of Western civilization. But Russia was spurned, and unable to accept the reasons. In  rule of law, commitment to democracy, and business practices, Russia was and is a big, dark, scary place. And although a multicultural country, it has a strong tinge of ethnocracy, giving herself the umbrella for Slavs beyond the borders of the state. The UN/NATO resolution of the Kosovo conflict, a product of Western multiculturalism, was interpreted as an ethnic war on Slavs.

And who can forget the Bush Administration’s Caspian Oil Pipeline? This is brought up strictly as a foreign policy gambit, without any suggestion of conflict of interest or impropriety in the Bush Administration. Bush and Cheney, both oilmen, understood that of all fungible commodities, oil is the most intertwined with foreign policy. They could not have excused themselves from playing the then-relevant version of the Great Game, which was to pipe oil around Russia, instead of through it. And Vladimir Putin, inspite of hotdogs at the Bush Ranch, could not have excused himself from noticing it. In American slang, he might have though Bush was trying to cut Russia off at the knees.

Russia is immeasurably better than it was, but not good enough for the West. But does it have to be? After the 2007 financial crisis, China’s version of Plato’s Republic replaced the West as the dream in the gleam of the Russian eye. This is why Putin mints billionaires, as a recapitulation of our own Robber Baron period. I doubt it will work, but it’s an improvement on the Ukraine Model, which should be called “Sticky Fingers.”

Socially, this is analogous to the unattractive bride and the exploitative suitor, doing what comes so naturally they don’t know they’re doing it.

To be continued shortly.