James K. Galbraith

The Paramilitary Mind


In 1976 at the height of the Irish troubles I called on Conor Cruise O’Brien, then serving as Minister of Posts in the Irish Republic; his offices were in the Dublin Post Office of 1916 fame. I was on my way to Belfast, for no very good reason. In our brief meeting, O’Brien reflected bleakly on the fragility of peace efforts. It was so easy, he said, to bomb the negotiating table.

Now let us understand that people with the mentality of paramilitaries are, today, actually running the government of these United States. They have perfected the dual identity that once characterized the Ulster Unionists and the Protestant gangs, or Sinn Fein and the IRA. In public, they present themselves as world political leaders, as participants in the democratic forums of our own country and in the deliberative bodies of the world. And yet meanwhile, below the table, the same people direct an apparatus of violence in single-minded pursuit of their goals.

Thus on Iraq and at the United Nations our leaders speak of weapons of mass destruction. But it is plain that no amount of Iraqi disarmament could ever satisfy Mr. Bush. He is bent on war and on the destruction of the Iraqi regime. War may begin at any time. Let us hope that the professional soldiers assigned to the task complete it as they undoubtedly wish–quickly, with as few military casualties, civilian death and physical destruction as possible. They will do their best, we may be fairly sure, in a situation they did not choose.

For the rest of us, the larger problem comes later. We will have to come to grips with an empire we do not want, with commitments we may not be able to escape. Will we soon depart from an Iraq that, under real democracy, would likely become an ally of Iran? Once our oil companies are in place? Given the implications for Israel? You tell me.

The exercise of preventive war, once undertaken, has momentous implications. We now know that North Korea has several routes to the atomic bomb: plutonium that may be reprocessed; Uranium-235 that may be separated with high-speed centrifuges acquired from Pakistan. They will take our willingness to fight one preventive war as willingness to fight another. The inevitable response? Production and dispersion of nuclear bombs.

The logic is implacable. North Korea, following America’s lead on so many other matters, has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Korean bomb will probably exist in quantity, beginning within a matter of weeks. Once it does, nothing stops them from selling it.

And what, do you suppose, the Iranians are thinking? Wouldn’t a few of those bombs be handy in defense of the Islamic Republic? North Korea needs the money. Iran has the money. Go figure. Imagine a quasi-permanent U.S. occupation force in Iraq, under our present political leaders, next to a nuclear Iran.

Neither Iran, North Korea, nor even Iraq is an irrational state, bent on inflicting gratuitous and suicidal harm to the cities and civilians of the United States. In this respect they do not resemble the hijack squads of September 11. But we’ve already sent a clear message to the others: Saddam’s problem was that he did not get the bomb soon enough. The best prospect for safety lies in a deterrent of one’s own.

And yet, there is a problem with this reasoning. It presupposes a rational caution on the part of American leadership. It presupposes a leadership that will not respond with an even higher level of violence.

We now know–but far too few Americans really understand–that there was a long stretch of U.S. history when only threads of sanity in the high civilian leadership (Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and their advisers including Robert McNamara and my late friend, Walt Rostow) protected us from launching pre-emptive nuclear war against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Does that sanity still exist today? The example we’re setting in Iraq will not be reassuring, either to North Korea or Iran.

In January of this year, I had the privilege of listening to McNamara describe, in hair-curling detail, what he had learned only a few months before about the disposition of Soviet tactical atomic weapons on Cuba in October, 1962. There were scores of them. Had we invaded Cuba then–as we were prepared to do and but for a lucky caution would have done–the holocaust would have started not with missiles but with torpedoes, fired from Soviet patrol boats at the invading fleet. Back in Washington at that time, nobody knew.

The lesson: In the nuclear age, you have to live with your enemies. You cannot safely destroy them. We are alive today in part because, forty years ago, our leaders understood this. But today, it appears they no longer do. They are taking us not just to war, but in all likelihood to a sequence of wars and war threats. Each will be one step closer to the atomic edge. The paramilitaries have bombed the negotiating table. It will take a long time to rebuild it, if we ever get the chance.

James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School.