Saturday, 10 July 2010

It's all Nonsense!

A respectable professor builds his great pyramid. Then the robbers come to raid it.

Previously I discussed Garry Wills’ view that post-war American politics could be reduced to one fact – the Bomb. Now a book arrives which says that all this apocalyptic talk about nuclear weapons is baloney: nuclear weapons were “irrelevant…in the Cold War…[and had] little impact on post-war geopolitics” (North Korea and the “ill-fated adventure in Iraq” are cited as examples); while the weapons themselves have “little military value.” 

The author’s problem? The inflation of the danger in the public mind; and the distortion of public policy, as a consequence.

As you know, I disagree with Wills. Yet the arguments of John Mueller (admittedly paraphrased in a review by Richard Lea, TLS 02/10/2010) are not convincing either.

Were nuclear weapons really irrelevant in the Cold War? They almost blew us up in 1962 (see Chomsky for just how close we came). And they were a deterrent during this period – for the Soviet Union. Moreover, remember Gorbachev’s suggestion to Reagan, that they scrap all nuclear weapons? I believe Reagan was enthusiastic until his advisors told him what these were actually for – the projection of power, mainly in the Third World.

The U.S. has a deep and abiding commitment to the strategic arms race… There are two fundamental reasons. The first is that an intimidating posture is necessary to ensure that intervention can proceed with impunity under the “nuclear umbrella”; it is for this reason that not just conventional forces, but a strategic weapons system as well, are required for intervention and subversion, the operative “Cold War policies.” 

Chomsky goes on to quote Eugene Rostow, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency:

“the center of a web of relationships which define the political as well as the military power of the United States… [they] provide a nuclear guarantee for our interests in many parts of the world, and make it possible for us to defend these interests by diplomacy or by the use of theatre military force.”

Little impact since the fall of the Berlin War? It is clear that Iraq would not have been invaded if it had actually possessed nuclear weapons – they are useful defence against the all-powerful United States, and NATO. Thus the (rational) desire of states like North Korea and Iran to acquire them.

Elsewhere in the review Mueller is paraphrased as saying, “the policies designed to prevent their spread have been at best counterproductive and at worst more deadly than the weapons they aim to control.” Israel, India, Pakistan? The book assumes that the Iraq War was to prevent that country acquiring nuclear weapons – this justification is now a busted flush (see Thomas Powers, for recent comment).

What is going on here? I will need to speculate.

One problem, particularly in the arguments cited above, is that the analysis is based on the prevailing assumptions, which form part of the educated comment in both our media and academic worlds. However, once those arguments are scrutinised they appear weak and incoherent. The conclusion follows automatically! Because the rationale given for nuclear weapons is weak, we were mistaken all along, and we didn’t need Trident or the Minutemen. But… what about those assumptions? It is these we need to investigate; and then we discover that a realistic and strong rationale may exist for this weaponry after all.

There is also a different kind of problem. The author believes the danger of nuclear weapons has been inflated. This is quite possible. He therefore takes the worst-case scenarios, what he regards as the public’s perception, which he then demolishes to prove his point – look! they are not that important, and we have been deceiving ourselves.

There is a tendency in this type of analysis to over-exaggerate the contrast. Rather than just showing the hype, from the press and government, you need to prove that it was all hype, while you hold all the hard facts – thus you divide the world into an us and them, into Communists and Free Marketeers. Of course, a more nuanced analysis would first question the official view about nuclear weapons, their purpose and meaning, and then contrast it with the media’s representation. By questioning the official position you might get to understand the government’s reasons for having nuclear weapons, which in turn would show their real significance, and what the media misses. Thus instead of some binary opposition, this somewhat more complex view, putting nuclear weaponry into its proper perspective, would ground the analysis. And it would bring out both the official inflation and the actual impact. Take this:

…if a 1kT fission bomb, the variety tested by North Korea I 2006 and 2009 were detonated by a terrorist grouping the middle of Central Park, it “would not be able to destroy any building on the park’s periphery” (the reviewer approves of the author’s “wry humour”).

Talk about a straw man! What terrorist group would explode a bomb in Central Park? Now in Times Square… it may not wipe out all of Manhattan, but it will kill a lot of people, and close New York for a while – a day, a week, two weeks…

And why reference North Korea? Are they giving bombs to terrorists? If that’s the belief, then the author has misunderstood that regime’s reasons for wanting the bomb.

What is the impact of Mueller’s analysis? Will Wills' pyramid fall? Unlikely, because its views are so extreme, and because they miss the political realities, they have neither truth nor common sense on their side. Their one chance is catch the evangelists in our midst, but like most cults the chances are they will be a small group, to whom no-one listens. In other words, a coterie of academics, safely ensconced in the Academy.

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