Friday, April 04, 2008

An Old Spin on an Old Idea.

It's been almost two decades since the end of the Cold War, and George W. Bush is once again provoking ire with his proposal to erect a missile defense 'shield' in Europe. Some have accused this administration of initiating the renewal of the costly arms race that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the impending bankruptcy of the United States. The thing is that our president insists that it is not the case. He is on record as saying, ""We are inviting Russia to join us in this cooperative effort to defend Russia, Europe, and the United States against an emerging threat that could affect us all". What exactly is that threat? Why, of course it's the looming nuclear capability of Iran. The mere suggestion that Iran could some day acquire the ability to attach a warhead to a missile (no matter how unrealistic) is supposed to drive this new, costly initiative

But I wonder how Bush and his neo-conservative cronies plan to put Vladimir Putin's mind at rest. How can he convince Russian leaders that he is being honest and upfront about his agenda? All they have to do is look at his record. Surely his goals are immediately apparent. Perhaps his rhetoric needs just a bit of decoding. This whole business about "spreading democracy" and/or "fighting terrorists" should indeed sound a bit disingenuous. Still, I think it would be a mistake for Russia to get spooked by our little man. He's obviously incapable of putting together any strategy that could subdue a collection of Third World tribes armed with box-cutters, let alone a once (and future?) global superpower. Despite Bush's obvious predilection for lying, I believe him when he suggests that the missile defense system isn't for the Russians.

The short- and mid-range missile defense system that is being discussed has "the theoretical possibility of being successful". This was expressed by Ambassador Daniel Fried (Assistant Secretary of State, European Affairs) during a recent speech defending the decision to go ahead with the project. It consists of placing tracking radar in the Czech Republic and placing missile interceptors in Poland. Its record of abysmal failure throughout the 90's has recently been eclipsed by a sense of optimism arising from limited success over the last eight years. The hope is that these new weapons systems will render ballistic missiles ineffective. Then smaller countries that believe that they can ensure their own security with nuclear arms will be disabused of that notion. They will have to figure out something else (like suicide bombs or flying planes into buildings).

If there are any two nations that truly understand nuclear proliferation, it is the United States and Russia. Obviously they both shared a relative monopoly on this technology for many years. They waged their surrogate wars against each other with the full knowledge that if things got out of hand, they could destroy the Earth several times over. There was once a time (not long ago) that citizens of these two superpowers understood the full extent of the threat. Political activists lined up to express their disgust over the ongoing embrace of the possibility of apocalypse (see Mutual Assured Destruction). Eventually it seems that cooler heads prevailed. The two sides made an agreement called the "Treaty of Moscow", which was characterized as a "massive arms reduction", that (by 2012) would bring down our total number of nuclear warheads to a number ranging from 1700-2200 (!).

It occurs to me that we may not be taking the nuclear threat as seriously as we once were. I remember well growing up in the 1980's, trying to fall asleep to visions of Armageddon. At any moment some glitch of misunderstanding could lead to the mass launch of thousands of missiles. And the idea that a limited nuclear war could result in a strategic victory was pretty much discounted as ridiculous. Now we seem to be entering an era when tactical nuclear warfare is once again considered a viable option. This sort of attitude strikes me as increasingly dangerous. The further we get away from the realities of the horror that these kinds of weapons can cause, the more we risk a devastating conclusion to human civilization.

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