Frog Soup

Ruminations on the twilight of democracy in America.
by Monkey99


Friday, May 13, 2005

McNamara's Act of Contrition

Former Secretary of Defense McNamara puts his 2¢ in about the revival of the nuclear arms race.

Of all the utter madness of the Bush administration, this is the one that keeps me awake. Even the most pessimistic Cassandras predict catastrophe from global warming in decades, or from economic disaster or peak oil, famine, etc. in years at the earliest. Even world-wide conventional war, with millions of dead, would occur over the course of a year or two.

Nuclear holocaust would take half an hour. And it quite literally could happen at any time. As Mr. McNamara reminds us, it nearly has on several occasions, and there's usually no dramatic buildup as there was in October of 1962. It would just happen, while you're cooking your eggs in the morning, getting the kids ready for school, listening to cheesy 80s music on the radio.

If you were lucky, you'd never even know what hit you.

Yet somehow, there just seems to be this general feeling that nuclear war is so passe. So yesterday. I tell you it is not. The Cold War may have ended, but the nuclear arms race barlely skipped a beat.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Eskimo Retirement Party

The White House's Social Security lies are swarming as thick as locusts. Hell, David Corn or Al Franken could do a new "Lies" book just on the privatization push. So its kind of easy to miss a particular lie amidst the swarm. But here's one that I think is kind of significant. I see people swatting around it, but not directly at it, at least not in my readings. Its a statement Bush has made many times since veering off onto his Social Security phase-out crusade the day after the election.

He made the same statement in this year's SOTU speech, so I'll quote him dirctly from the whitehouse website:
"I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you; for you, the Social Security system will not change in any way. (Applause.)"

Actually, according to his own plan, at least any sketch of it he has allowed the public to see, this statement is a lie. For retired or nearly retired Americans, the Social Security system will change in a fundamental and drastic way. Its going to lose it's sole source of funding: payroll taxes. According to the commonly circulated but-not-quite-official White House proposal, as much as a third of payroll taxes (for starters) will be diverted into individual accounts. That money is currently used to fund retirees' benefits. Now, the missing funding, in order to keep the president's promise, will have to be made up somehow from the general budget. Either taxes will have to be raised (snort!) or, let's be serious, the money will have to be borrowed.

I hear alot of buzz about the extra borrowing, but not alot about the fact that the "grandfathered in" traditional Social Security beneficiaries will basically be standing in the same line as everyone else for their benefits. Gone will be the dedicated funding stream. And I guarantee that once the Republicans are finished cutting taxes on unearned wealth as close to zero as they can manage, they will magically metamorphize back into budget hawks. There will be nothing keeping them from cutting those benefits except a promise. Look at all the other programs Bush has promised money to, how are those programs doing?

And just as importantly, the younger generations will no longer have a stake in propping up the old system. It will essentially be an old-age welfare program.

The president is obviously trying to sell the new program to younger workers using scare stories about insolvency. On the other hand he's trying to soothe the older folks into signing off on the new program by claiming that it won't affect them, so there's nothing to be worried about. Do not believe him. I would say the older generation actually has more to worry about. At least the younger workers are ... well, young. Even if the new private accounts turn out badly, they will have plenty of time to make other arrangements. The elderly, on the other hand, will be stuck.

And once all younger workers have been peeled off into private accounts land, then we will start to hear the stories about the "Social Security queens" squandering their benefit checks (our tax dollars) at the casinos. Their benefits will be cut. I'm sure of it. Just watch.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Nuclear Arms Race Redux

The scientists who worked on The Bomb were all acutely aware that they were handing humanity the means of its own potential destruction. They worked on the project anyway because they knew that the Nazis were also working on it. Their hope was that the Bomb would force humanity to confront itself and cease its reliance on violence to settle disputes. The existence of The Bomb would forever compromise humanity's ability to resort to unbridled warfare. And this is in fact what happened. The so-called Cold War and all of the accompanying proxy conflicts notwithstanding, World War III was never fought. I know that the neo-cons refer to the Cold War as World War III and the War on Terror as World War IV, but I'm not buying either of those propositions. Measured against the level of death and destruction visited upon us by the first two World Wars, neither the Cold War nor the War on Terror deserve to be counted in the same ordinal progression as the first two. World War III, if it had occurred, would have been an all-out conflict between the two super powers: the US and the USSR. In that event, it would've been close to impossible to avoid bringing the two countries' nuclear arsenals to bear. I believe it was the existence of those nuclear arsenals that kept the two super powers from ever going down that road to begin with. So, the weapons did, to a limited extent, achieve what the nuclear scientists had hoped. But, not entirely. The Bomb didn't bring an end to human warfare, but it did prevent the kind of "all-out" warfare typified by the two World Wars.

The way that nuclear weapons prevented World War III can be described by an acronym: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The MAD doctrine was the lynch pin of nuclear weapons policy on both sides from the early 50s on. In a nutshell, each side was deterred from using nuclear weapons against a similarly armed adversary by the certain knowledge that that adversary would retaliate in kind. E.g. if we launched a nuclear strike against the USSR, she would in turn launch one against us, provided we did not eliminate her capacity to do so. Thus, we would both be destroyed. Mutually Assured Destruction. In a way, these seemingly offensive weapons, served a primarily defensive purpose. Like Germany's "fleet in being" in World War I, they were intended, by their very existence, to keep an enemy from launching an attack in the first place.

Its "through the looking glass" characteristics like this that put the "unconventional" in unconventional weapons. They defy conventional wisdom. What would you expect from something invented by physicists?

So, the MAD scenario provided a stable, albeit precarious equilibrium for over 4 decades. And there were steps taken by both sides to preserve this equilibrium, for both our sakes. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, were all attempts to provide stability.

Occasionally, one side or the other would take actions which upset the balance, such as the USSR's deployment of SS-20 medium range missiles in Europe. These weapons, although not directly threatening the US, could destroy targets in Western Europe within minutes. Thus it was a possible first-strike weapon, it could be used to start a nuclear war. Its intent was probably to fight and win a war in Europe, or at least show the West that the Soviets were prepared to do so, while hopefully avoiding escalation to an all-out nuclear war with the US. Of course once nuclear weapons begin going off in population centers, there's no telling when the escalation will stop. So, by lowering the bar for the likelihood of their use, these "theater" weapons made nuclear war more likely. The US, under Reagan, later countered these SS-20s with Pershing IIs and cruise missiles deployed in the UK and West Germany, which pressured the USSR to the negotiating table and resulted in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the eventual scrapping of all short and medium range missiles. And balance was restored, this time. But, considering the stakes, I find this kind of brinkmanship to be profoundly reckless, regardless of the happy outcome.

In my view, a far more reckless escalation in the arms race, was the US development and deployment of the Trident II submarine-based missile systems in the late 1980s. These are true first-strike weapons, designed to wipe out the Russian's capability of retaliation. Tridents can destroy their targets, even hard-targets (think: missile silos) within 10-15 minutes of launch. Well, that's great isn't it? No. The Russians are aware that they have only 10 minutes to make a launch decision, and so their systems are on even more of a hair-trigger than before. An oft-mentioned near disaster occurred in 1995 (the more observant of you will notice that that is after the supposed end of the Cold War), when Yeltsin was literally minutes away from pushing the proverbial button because of what later turned out to be a Norwegian rocket carrying scientific experiments. There have been many other close calls. By shortening the fuse, and by developing systems like the Trident II that are specifically intended to allow first-strike, we make accidental nuclear war much more likely.

And then along comes Bush.

There are two projects in particular that the Bush administration has pursued that should give us all pause. They're related, as I'll point out later. The two initiatives are:
1) National Missile Defense, also known as the missile shield
2) Next Generation Tactical Nukes, aka bunker busters or baby nukes

The missile shield is the current incarnation of the Star Wars boondoggle, only instead of using space-based means to stop incoming ICBMs, we'll be relying on missiles of our own: Anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs). The Bush administration had to unilaterally abrogate a thirty-year-old treaty, the 1972 ABM Treaty, to pursue this goal. But, hey, international law is for sissies. An oft mentioned analogy for what this system must accomplish is: trying to hit a speeding bullet with another bullet. Sounds difficult, eh? It is, but the analogy is still inadequate. Bullets can't change their trajectory or take other actions to foil an attacker, missiles can. Even the bullet vs. bullet problem is hard enough and we have so far failed in even that task. A majority of test cases have failed altogether, and those that "succeeded" have done so only by equipping the targets with GPS beacons that broadcast the target's position. Needless to say, no enemy missile will be equipped with such a beacon. Quite the opposite, it will likely be equipped with various counter-measures to deliberately foil an ABM. No tests with such counter-measures have been performed, to my knowledge.

Even if it had a better track record, its a bad thing for another reason. It destabilizes the MAD. Since those that possess ABMs will feel protected (whether they really are or not), they will feel less inhibited in using their own nuclear weapons, since the destruction will no longer be mutually assured. So we can use our nukes with impunity, secure in the knowledge that we won't suffer any retaliation. At least in theory. Want to try it out? Me neither. And neither did wiser politicians on both sides of the Cold War, which is why the 1972 ABM Treaty was signed.

Missile defense is not a new issue, and has been pushed by interested parties in the Pentagon, defense industry and conservative intelligentsia for decades. A NMD bill was passed by Congress in 1999 with broad (and veto-proof) support from both parties. But no mandate was made on actual deployment, and in fact Clinton deferred on deployment until such a system was technologically feasible and the Russians and Chinese would agree to amendments to the 1972 treaty. But that was Clinton. The Bush administration pulled NMD right on to the front burner. And in December of 2001, Bush announced unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. And work on NMD has proceeded briskly. Not that we yet have anything to show for the tens of billions we've poured into it. The thing still could not knock a real missile out of the sky without cheating. In last year's defense budget, Senator Boxer proposed a common sense amendment that would prevent deployment of a missile shield until it could actually be proved to work. The measure was rejected and with some notable Democratic turncoats providing cover. Zell Miller, no surprises there. Lieberman, we've come to expect this kind of thing from him. Bayh, Landrieu, and both Nelsons, all regular fence hoppers, still no real surprises. And then ... drum roll ... Clinton.

Way. To go. Hillary.

And the missile shield, ultra-expensive, broken piece of shit that it is, is currently being deployed in Alaska. Lets be clear. Its not that it hasn't been tested so we don't know if it works. It has been tested. And it doesn't work. Its like taking a car out for a test drive and it bursts into flames, and the wheels fall off. "I'll take it! How much?"

And as far as this renewed interest in tactical nukes, described in the Nuclear Posture Review leaked in March 2002 as "more usable", they are obviously destabilizing. They make actual use of nuclear weapons in a war (i.e. nuclear war) much more likely. What we're talking about here are small nukes that can be delivered by fighter-bombers, howitzers, land mines, etc. These suckers are meant to be used. They could've taken care of Fallujah in an hour instead of a month, that's the plan.

I promised to tie the two threads together, so here goes. Even the most ardent hawk cannot claim with a straight face that a missile shield will protect us from a massive strike from the Russians. Few would even claim that it would keep us safe from the Chinese. Everyone agrees that the purpose of the shield is to protect us from so-called rogue nations. Small fry nuclear states, with only a few handful of nuclear weapons at most. Lets go back to the MAD doctrine, for a second. The reason that the Soviet Union, and later Russia, with all of its thousands of nuclear warheads, hasn't attacked us after all these years (assuming they wanted to), is because they were assured that we would respond massively, destroying them. If the Russians with their thousands were deterred, why would a rogue nation with only a handful attack us? Because they're madmen? Please. Whatever you may think of Hussein, or Kim, or the Iranian theocrats, they're not stupid. Even if they had nukes, and missiles capable of striking in the US, they wouldn't commit suicide. And non-state enemies, like al-Qaeda, would be far more likely to use other more "hand-rolled" methods to nuke us, say by a nuke stashed in a truck, or a ship, or an apartment, etc.

No, the missile shield is indeed meant for rogue nations. But not to prevent a first strike against us. I can think of no reason why even a "rogue" adversary would launch a nuke against us, knowing that we would respond with our nuclear weapons ...

... unless we were already using nukes against them.

And that is what I think the purpose of the missile shield is. To allow us to launch a first strike, probably with tactical nukes, against a lightly armed nuclear adversary. Like North Korea, or Iran.

I just don't see any other way of looking at it. Do you?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Blogging the Unbloggable

My political consciousness probably first coalesced around the issue of nuclear (not nukular) weapons. My father is a physicist and worked at Los Alamos when I was in elementary school in the 70s. If the name sounds familiar, its the town in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed. In fact, the whole town was created in the 1940s for the sole purpose of working on The Bomb. The Lab, as its called, is still its main industry.

My first impression of nuclear weapons was that they were pretty cool. What can I say? I was a little boy, and things that blow up are cool. I'd collect pictures of bomb tests from the 50s. And there was something aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, about them. Let's call that my Little Doctor Strangelove phase. As I grew older and found out more about them, and what they did, I grew a bit less enamored of them. And at a certain point I became downright horrified (which, by the way, is the correct emotion, it just took me awhile to come around to it). I can't remember what it was exactly that turned me around. I know I read Hiroshima by John Hershey when I was fairly young, maybe that was it. I even had night terrors a few times. I can vividly remember more than a couple nights, not being able to get to sleep because I was convinced that we were about to be obliterated. I sat in the darkness in my family's living room waiting for the flash, my breathing quickened, my heart palpitating. Terror.

Sounds pretty irrational, right? And in a way, yes. The fear that nuclear missiles were on their way that very night, was irrational. I had no reason to think that that was so. But, I would argue that the fear that missiles could have been on their way was not only rational, but that it represented what the alcoholics call "a moment of clarity". The cold fact is that for the past 50 years or more we have lived in a world where massive numbers of unimaginably destructive weapons, and an almost robotic system for delivering them at a moment's notice, have been poised on a hair-trigger. Its really rather remarkable that we've survived. So, what that little boy was experiencing in his darkened living room, in the middle of the night, in New Mexico back in the late 70s, was the sudden realization that his life was in danger. In biology they call this the Fight or Flight reaction. But you can't fight these weapons, at least not in any way that a sudden burst of adrenaline will help. And there is no place on earth that one can go to be safe from them, so there's no running. They thus present humans with a situation that they're biologically (or psychologically) very unsuited to deal with. So we don't deal with it. Not most of us. Even those that are somewhat cognizant of the facts, don't accord it nearly the attention that we should on a daily basis, considering what the stakes are. Its like deciding what socks you're going to wear, or what you're going to cook for dinner, while you're strapped into a guillotine. We're all rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and the iceberg has been right in front of us the whole time, getting closer, and closer.

My consciousness of these facts of life grew slowly through high school, though I never really did anything about it. My thoughts on the subject finally matured when I read Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of Earth" as a sophomore at UMass-Amherst. It hit me like a body blow, and I walked around in a fog of semi-depression for about a week afterward. That said, I highly recommend it and I think it should be required reading for all inhabitants of our planet.

I was at my most active, politically, while I was at UMass in the late 80s. Since the period of activity was relatively short, maybe I was more hyper-active than really active. Anyway, I was involved in campus protests against DoD-funded research at the University. I was arrested several times. I canvassed for awhile with the Nuclear Freeze. That was a real exercise in butting my head against a wall. We canvassed in Massachusetts and Connecticut, two fairly Democratic states, and we got our maps from Greenpeace. And in many neighborhoods where they did extremely well, we were met with open hostility. I guess saving the whales is one thing, but undermining America's defenses is another. There were maybe a small handful of people that I think I really reached. But, mostly I was lucky to be met with just ambivalence. Plenty of doors were slammed in my face. I remember one guy told me, "I'm a right-winger. We'll be seeing you, pal." Slam. I found the whole experience to be depressing.

Not long after that I sort of spun out, and went on ... I don't know, kind of an unreality trip. Chemicals were involved. Lots of them. Grateful Dead shows, hitch-hiking around the country, etc. "Not dealing", in other words. I eventually settled down, re-entered society. Got a job. Got a better job. Went back to school. Got a family. Found a good spot for my deckchair, one where the iceberg wasn't quite blocking the sun. And joined the ranks of sleepwalking people, oblivious to the fact that we are poised on the edge of a cliff, or knowing but trying not to think about it. I no longer sit in a darkened living room at night with heart palpitations. But I believe my body's fight or flight response has been on a low simmer the whole time. And has manifested as various neuroses, nervous habits, nail-biting, whatever.

There really is no response that is wholly adequate for the gravity of the situation. There is no danger that any animal has knowingly faced that is as great and as immediate as that is posed by nuclear weapons on high-alert (they've always been on high-alert, and still are). Its no wonder that we have failed so miserably in dealing with this danger. It really is unthinkable. Some people, like Mr. Schell, have made valiant attempts to get us to confront it. But so far the number of people that have been motivated to change this situation has yet to reach anywhere near critical mass (pardon the metaphor). I found it very difficult to get people to appreciate the situation back in the 80s when it was still at least generally understood that a situation existed. I imagine that if I tried canvassing on this issue today I'd be met not with venom, but with quizzical stares. Isn't the Cold War over? What's this wacky liberal talking about?

And yet, despite what the general public may believe, the nuclear arms race has not only not gone away, it is experiencing a revival. And I believe we are in greater danger of experiencing a nuclear holocaust today than at any time in the past 40 years. There have been so many alarming things that have occurred in the past 4 years that its hard to keep track of them all, but one thing that the Bush administration did early on that caught my attention like fingernails on a chalk board, is its renewed commitment (eagerness even) to ready America's nuclear weapons for use in war. I'll discuss this in another post.

And so, here I am now, still strapped into that guillotine with the rest of you, the blade still suspended over our collective necks. And I'm paying my bills, like most of the rest of you, and commuting to and from work, and debating whether I should mow my lawn today or tomorrow.