We are having one of those brief but glorious moments when our attention is focused on foreign affairs, so let’s hare right after the sucker. Much in the news is the charmingly misleading headline that says, “Bush Proposes Deep Cuts in U.S. Nuclear Arsenal.” If true, that would be welcome news indeed, but that ain’t what his proposal is about. What George W. Bush actually said was: “To heck with the A.B.M. treaty – we’re going to build Star Wars.”
The one Bush proposal with no downside is to “take as many weapons as possible” (all Bush’s proposals have this maddeningly vague lack of detail) off high-alert, hair-trigger status. Let’s hear it for Bush on that one. Unilateral reductions in the number of missiles also sounds like a peace proposal, but it doesn’t work out that way. Because he is also proposing to build the infamous Star Wars, the Russians, who now want to cut their nukes, are not going to agree to missile reductions.
Star Wars, you may recall, was the brainchild of Ronald Reagan, and in an effort to distance it from its origins in a couple of old movies that Reagan had seen, it was christened the Strategic Defense Initiative (S.D.I.) and then the National Missile Defense (N.M.D.). But it’s still Star Wars, and it’s just as expensive and just as unlikely to work as it ever was, in addition to its drawbacks in the diplomatic-strategic arena. Basically, what we’re trying to do is build a bullet that will hit another bullet, with no warning of when the initial bullet was fired, at a closing speed of 10,000 mph. We’ve been working on this since 1983, have spent billions of dollars, and still don’t have anything that works.
Let me just remind you of some recent news. It’s quite true that we managed to send a man to the moon, but the folks at NASA have lately been on a losing streak, including the zillion-dollar thingie they sent up, only to have it fall apart because some of the contractors were working in feet and inches while others were working in meters and millimeters, and no one noticed. Oops.
As The Guardian points out, there are many reputable scientists who believe that the cost of Star Wars will never justify the reliability. What’s missing here is some clear cost-benefit analysis, not to mention risk assessment, since Star Wars is still premised on the paranoid notion that some mad North Korean will throw a nuke at California.
Meanwhile, Russia remains dependent on nuclear deterrence for its sense of security and is already willing to cut deeper than Bush proposed in I.C.B.M.s. (Many arms experts think we can realistically hope to get both countries down to about 300 nukes before hitting a wall of paranoia on both sides.) Bush proposed cutting back to 1,500, but the Russians have already proposed 1,200. Zbigniew Brzezinski, as cold an old Cold Warrior as you can find, thinks that Star Wars is a lousy idea precisely because of the false assumptions it makes about Russia.
Here we are trying to become what The Guardian calls “an international gated community, building exclusive protection from threats that are largely the product of paranoia,” when what we are going to do is drive the Russians into a frenzy of paranoia. Not to mention the Chinese, who react very badly to the idea of Star Wars. (For a fascinating history of Star Wars to date, I highly recommend Frances Fitzgerald’s book, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War.)
You may have noticed that it is not just our former enemies in Russia who go off the charts when we talk about building Star Wars. So do our allies. Bush has proposed including them under this pie-in-the-sky “nuclear umbrella” as a way of shutting them up, which is not likely to work. They are able to see this batty proposal without the impediment of our domestic politics (candidates carefully positioning themselves for November), our military-industrial complex, and our Congress’ happy appreciation of the fact that with a barrel of pork as big as Star Wars, every district in the country can get a piece.
If you aren’t in that crowd of superannuated Cold War hawks whom Dubya Bush has thrown in with – Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle, George Schultz and the rest – Star Wars does not look like a nice defensive way to break free of the mutual-assured-destruction trap. It looks exactly like an attempt to find a risk-free, first-strike offensive capability.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her new book from Random House, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her at [email protected]