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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Future of Nuclear Weapons

Today's New York Times Book Review features a somewhat contemptuous review of a new book by Paul Lettow about Ronald Reagan and nuclear weapons by Jacob Heilbrunn, a conservative scholar. Without actually disputing Lettow's main argument--that Reagan really wanted to abolish the weapons that had burst upon the scene when he was in his late thirties, and hung over the rest of his life--Heilbrunn suggests that the book is another piece of liberal revisionism seeking to claim the legacy of a conservative President. I do not think that is fair; Reagan spoke publicly about his wish to abolish nuclear weapons, offered nuclear disarmament to Mikhail Gorbachev and Rekjavik (to the despair of his advisers), and frequently mentioned this goal to arms control negotiators. More importantly, however, the book does highlight a critical choice facing the world that is on the verge of a great global crisis.
Even before Hiroshima, the few leading American policy makers who knew about the advent of atomic weapons understood the need to control them in a postwar environment. The United States could not long maintain its monopoly--the basic science behind the weapon was well known, and other nations would inevitably get to work on the engineering problems involved as soon as one went off--and a whole war fought with these weapons seemed unthinkable. Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, immediately began thinking about bringing them under international control, and within two years the United States had offered the Acheson-Lillienthal Plan at the new United Nations to do just that. Stalin, who preferred to build his own atomic weapons, rejected it, and set off an atomic expolosion in 1949 (although we know now that he did not have a workable weapon for several years thereafter.) The British and French quickly decided that true great-power status now required atomic weapons as well. Officially, however, nuclear disarmament remained American policy throughout the 1950s, even though it was never seriously pursued. After the Soviet explosion, George F. Kennan argued in a memorable but little-known memo that the use of atomic weapons in an actual war could not possibly serve the interests of the United States, and that we should work for their abolition. Instead, the argument of Kennan's intellectual rival and successor at the State Department, Paul Nitze--that arms control agreements with the Soviets would have to await fundamental changes in their regime--prevailed.
Interest in arms control grew in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the danger of fallout became apparent, leading in 1963 to the test ban treaty. More importantly, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the Nonproliferation Treaty (or NPT) between 1965 and 1968, and eventually most of the world's nations (although not the French or the Chinese) signed the treaty, in which nuclear powers pledged not to transfer nuclear weapons and non-nuclear states pledged not to try to acquire them. What everyone seems to have forgotten, however, is that the treaty also included a pledge on the part of nuclear powers to work for their own disarmament. Given the importance of this issue today, the passage deserves to be quoted in full. "Each of the Parties to the Treaty," Article VI reads, "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
Building upon the spirit of the Treaty, Moscow and Washington embarked upon the SALT talks in 1969 and reached the SALT I agreement in 1972, and the SALT II agreement a few years later. Neither one, of course, even provided for an actual reduction in warheads, much less disarmament, and other nuclear powers were not involved in them. But the years of SALT corresponded with the rise of neoconservatism, which held tightly to the original Nitze view that the Soviets would only sign arms control agreements that left them in a superior position. As the 1970s wore on, neoconservatives increasingly argued that arms control agreements were a snare and a delusion, that they lulled the US into a false sense of security, and that the United States needed strategic nuclear superiority to confront the Soviets. That view dominated the first Reagan Administration. More importantly, it remains the view of the neoconservatives who dominate American foreign policy today.
In the early 1990s China and France also signed the NPT, and the whole treaty was reaffirmed by all its signatories in 1995. (India, Israel and Pakistan have still never signed.) Sadly, however, the Clinton Administration let slip the great opportunity of the 1990s to move the whole world in a new direction. Even before 9/11, the advent of the current Adminstration, which moved very quickly to denounce the ABM Treaty, signalled a new neoconservative ascendancy and an end to any interest in arms control. The Administration also embarked upon a confrontational policy with two Treaty signatories, Iran and North Korea, suspected of developing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have responded by denouncing the treaty, and, this week, claiming to have already produced nuclear weapons.
The Nonproliferation policy of the Bush administration is clearly stated in its basic national security strategy. "Rogue states," it claims, cannot be deterred like the old Soviet Union. The United States must improve its intelligence and military capabilities so as to act preemptively to prevent hostile states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place.
The premise that small states, unlike large ones, cannot be deterred, is an entirely theoretical one. The panic reflected in the new strategy is not new. Both the Truman Administation in 1949-50, when the Soviets first exploded an atomic weapon, and the Johnson Administration in 1964-5, when the Chinese did, flirted with the idea of preventive war. It is fair to say that American policy-makers at those two moments in history had no more trust in the intentions or sanity of Stalin and Mao than the Bush Administration seems to have in the Iranian or North Korean leadership now. The Johnson Administration even tried to start a discussion with the Soviets about an attack on the Chinese nuclear capability, without result. But in both cases, we discovered, largely for lack of any options, that we could live with nuclear weapons in Communist hands. Largely because the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Americans were three of the big winners emerging from the Second World War, and were more intersted in conserving the fruits of victory than risking a new conflict, deterrence worked.
Now, however, the Cold War structure of international politics has collapsed, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a potent political force, and a decade or two of conflict will probably be required to create a new international order. Yet in my opinion, the idea that the United States will simply wage war on hostile states who try to acquire nuclear weapons is disastrous. To begin with, it is not at all clear that we could gather enough intelligence or strike with enough precision to take out North Korean or Iranian facilities. The Israeli experiment with pre-emptive counterproliferation against Iraq taught other would-be nuclear powers to hide and protect their installations. If indeed North Korea has a nuclear bomb already--something of which I am not convinced, but which is certainly possible--it is very unlikely that we could avoid the catastrophe of enemy retaliation against South Korea or even Japan. The Bush Administration is actually trying to develop new nuclear weapons of our own, partly for the purpose of taking out underground installations. But if we do break the taboo against using nuclear weapons, we will obviously increase the possibility that they will be used against us or our allies, and alienate most of world opinion.
Acheson, Lillienthal and Bernard Baruch realized in 1946 that any attempt to control nuclear weapons had to rest upon impartial principles, and so, apparently, did the negotiators of the Nonproliferation Treaty. In my opinion the same is true today. If the United States really wants to stop the spread of nuclear arms we should reaffirm the call for their abolition and pledge, in principle, to giving up our own when an effective control regime has been established. One can say without cynicism that we do not have to fear having to make good on that pledge very soon; one can also say that without such a pledge, in an ideologically fragmenting world of which the United States has already lost ideological and moral leadership, no non-proliferation regime of our own choosing is likely to command international support.
Such views, I think, will become commonplace after a few nuclear weapons have gone off in anger. The United States has no reason to wait until then to adopt them--all the more so since, with the possible exception of Israel, no nation has more to fear from their continued existence at this moment in history than the United States. Our conventional military supremacy is both greater in scale and more useful in practice than our nuclear weapons. We need to make the nuclear weapons that already exist, especially in Russia, more secure. We need to try to reduce their spread. The political will to accomplish these critical tasks will be much greater around the world if we can offer humankind the prospect, of which Ronald Reagan genuinely dreamed, of a world without nuclear weapons, rather than in world in which the United States, the first and only nation to drop them in anger, will always jealousy guard the right to do so again.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Iraqi Elections

There was certainly something inspiring about the Iraqi people--or at least, a substantial portion of them--taking their destiny into their own hands last weekend, and the election is obviously going to move the situation in Iraq off center pretty quickly. It will probably offer the United States an opportunity to move in a new and possibly more hopeful direction. Whether we shall take that opportunity, however, and whether events will vindicate the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, remains to be seen.
The election's most important result, apparently, will be to confirm that there are three Iraqs, not one. The Kurds, the most sympathetic to the American presence and American aims, not only voted for the Assembly but staged an informal referendum on independence, which is expected to carry handily and send some shock waves through the whole region. The Sunnis generally did not vote, especially in the strongholds of the insurgency, indicating that the election did nothing to pacify them. But the Shi'ites voted for a broad-based slate that apparently will be the overwhelming winner, swamping the contending state led by Prime Minister Alawi. That, really, is the story of the election: the assumption by the majority Shi'ites, whose participation in the insurgency has only been intermittent, of political power in Iraq for the first time.
The next critical point involves the future of Alawi. In any true parliamentary democracy such an election result means a change of government, and even though the newly elected Assembly isn't a sovereign body, many Shi'ites will expect the same. This will test the Bush Administration and could destroy the credibility of the election, if we refuse to allow Alawi to give way. If he does step down, we will presumably be dealing for the first time with an Iraqi leader who is not primarily an American client, and who may make uncomfortable demands such as a pledge not to establish American bases or a timetable for an American withdrawal.
Meanwhile, however, there is no evidence that the election hurt the insurgency as yet. Attacks continue at a high rate and seem to be increasing in effectiveness, even though no more American armored vehicles have been reported as destroyed. The Sunnis, in short, still have to be pacified by force, and the destruction of Fallujah has certainly not had a decisive effect. The election hasn't ended the insurgency, any more than the 1967 South Vietnamese election (which actually had much less decisive results, as Generals Thieu and Ky won less than 40% of the vote) put an end to the Viet Cong. And if a new Shi'ite dominated government takes over, it may not have much appeal for the Sunni masses.
What could change is American strategy for creating a counterweight to the insurgency, police and security forces that can begin to reduce it. So far, apparently, we have tried to form a non-sectarian, government-run army and police force trained by Americans. This has not worked; the forces are vulnerable to constant insurgent attacks and have frequently refused to fight--very much like the South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. The only reliable anti-insurgent Iraqis have been, significantly, Kurdish militias.
Although the press has not paid much attention to this, Shi'ite militias have also been forming and training--some with Iranian help--all around the southern part of the country. They erupted onto the front pages twice last year when Moqtar Al-Sadr took the offensive in Shi'ite cities, but American forces beat him back and he has not renewed the struggle. His, however, are far from the only such units. The question before the Americans is whether we should allow a new government to start relying upon these indigenously recruited forces, along with the Kurds, to secure Shi'ite areas (as they are apparently already doing, given the relative quiet there), and eventually, perhaps, to try to start rolling back the Sunni insurgency--initially, one would think, in Baghdad. Alternatively--and this in my opinion would be by far the most promising strategy--the new government, having established itself in Shi'ite areas and shown that it disposes of some reliable forces, might call upon the leadership of the insurgency to negotiate a truce and a plan for an Iraq based on three regions.
Such a solution will not meet the original objectives of the Bush Administration. The Shi'ite government is likely to give Islam a big political role, Iran will have scored a victory by helping establish a Shi'ite government in an Arab state, the new government is most unlikely to endorse a permanent American presence, and American contractors may well find it impossible to work safely in Iraq for many years to come. Nor will the new government be likely to open friendly relations with Israel, the promise with which Achmed Chalabi apparently wooed the Pentagon. But the Shi'ites will have secured their freedom and an expansionist dictatorship will be gone, and that, one should think, would strike most of the Middle East as a step forward.
That, of course, is an optimistic scenario. Nothing, to begin with, will improve matters in Iraq until some progress is made against an insurgency that still seems to be increasing in strength and making basic economic recovery impossible in most of Iraq. The country may easily descend into a long and bloody civil war among the three major factions, while terrorists trained in Iraq fan out around the Middle East and around the world. Middle class Iraqis have already been fleeing the country in droves, and it may be a long time, if ever, before the lives of the Iraqi people return to anything close to normal. The American military will have suffered severe human and material wear and tear, and it will probably be impossible to build any international consensus for a war with Iran or North Korea. (That, of course, is not a bad thing--either war would be far more disastrous than this one--but meanwhile, the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration are holding firmly to the idea that one must never negotiate in good faith with dedicated adversaries and ruling out any diplomatic solutions to the Iranian or North Korean problems.) Another possibility is that the Administration will simply refuse to let an Iraqi government that does not endorse our objectives come to power--the same thing that the Johnson Administration did in Vietnam in 1964-65, leading eventually to the imposition of military rule, since no civilian leadership really wanted an American-led war. President Bush, however, has said more than once that we will endorse whatever decision the Iraqi people make. He will have a difficult decision to make if they cannot agree on a single decision.
Americans have always rejoiced when other nations regained their freedom--even those like myself who are generally dubious that foreign nations, like our own, can or should take the initiative in liberating others. We still have no idea, however, if the long-term outcome in Iraq will be grounds for rejoicing. The destruction of a government, as Colin Powell tried to warn George W. Bush, is a huge, risky undertaking, however noble one's ultimate goal. What neoconservatives have never understood is the interest of the world's leading power in promoting stability, as opposed to anarchy, and defending, not attacking, international law and international order. Buoyed by the fantasy that Ronald Reagan's policies alone decisively brought down Communism (even though the identical policies had failed to do so in earlier decades), they have boldly set about to topple a whole series of regimes. The world looks on in horror as the United States scours the world for dragons to slay. We need opposing voices here at home to insure against the contingency that this policy simply will not work.