Shooting stars

Published : Jun 09, 2001 00:00 IST

Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Frances Fitzgerald; Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001; pages 592, $17 (paperback).

ON April 21, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev turned to Colin Powell, then an aide of the U.S. National Security Adviser, and asked: "What are you going to do now that you've lost your best enemy?" Gorbachev's unilateral disarmament of Soviet nuclear forces in Europe and Asia disrupted the logic of five decades of U.S.-USSR relations. Phrases like detente, mutually assured destruction and window of vulnerability were made redundant, not only by the previous year's Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty (where the Soviets had to eliminate 1,280 warheads, while the U.S. had to remove only 429), but also by the USSR's massive display of concessions at the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan (not to speak of Gorbachev's January 1986 proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000).

Gorbachev's aside to Colin Powell was not only in jest, for the USSR had undone the logic of detente and it had therefore made redundant the chimera of dominance sought by the U.S. Over the five decades of the Cold War, but for a brief interlude in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the principal form of interaction between the U.S. and the USSR was by way of negotiations to prevent annihilation: what was known as mutually assured destruction or MAD. During his last few weeks in office President Eisenhower bemoaned the growth of a military-industrial complex: the military and its contractors argued for more and more resources and power by the fabrication of fear about Soviet military might. Gorbachev's remark to Colin Powell was apropos of the military-industrial complex that has, since the mid-1980s, sought to find a determinate enemy to ensure its growth, but also to justify in ideological terms the maintenance of U.S. global hegemony.

Indeed, two years after the Moscow meeting, Colin Powell became the leading U.S. military figure, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Faced with recalcitrance under President George H. Bush, Powell argued that the USSR was a reasonable adversary and that "terrorist" or "rogue" states did not pose a ballistic threat to the U.S. "Based on my knowledge of how the Soviets manage their nuclear systems and the safeguards they have," he said in 1990, "I'm fairly comfortable that those weapons will not get into improper hands. [If they did] the systems they have to protect those weapons would make them pretty much unusable." A few months later Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Army invaded Kuwait and provided the U.S. with the proper justification for the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal despite the dismemberment of the USSR. The "rogue" state (North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran) emerged not only as the leading enemy of the U.S, but also as the main rhetorical justification for the continuation of the U.S.' nuclear military. Now Colin Powell is the Secretary of State under George W. Bush and it is his job to travel the world and convince the allies not only that the U.S. requires its promethean arsenal to clobber its enemies, but that it also needs a vast Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defence network to protect its military and population.

OF all the things that have bewildered the world about the first hundred days of the reign of Bush the Second, nothing is as strange as his promotion of the anti-ballistic missile defence piece. With this one gambit, Bush the Second has provoked anger and unease in most of the world's capitals, although New Delhi's Hindu Right government was eager to please its Washington overlords. Since the appearance of missile defence in the U.S. political world through Reagan's famous 1983 "Star Wars" speech to promote his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the anti-missile defence idea has not made much technological or military progress. But, as Frances Fitzgerald shows us in her new book, the SDI idea gave Reagan the necessary political and geo-strategic capital; perhaps, we may surmise, Bush the Second hopes to garner similar gains with his assertive promotion of the theatre defence shield (what some have called Son of Star Wars, to honour both the cinematic heritage of Reagan and the dynastic one of Bush). Reagan crafted himself (or allowed his advisers to craft him) as the defender of the "free world" against the armageddon of nuclear warfare. Detente required the two regimes to hold their various populations in mutual hostage against the threat of a first strike; if you hit me, I will respond with overwhelming force. Reagan drew from the immorality of this position: just as he erroneously claimed to have freed the U.S. hostages from Iran, he wanted to build a missile shield to free his population from being held hostage to the threat of nuclear annihilation. In February 1983, the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared a paper for Reagan which argued that defences were "more moral and therefore more palatable to the American people," and because defences "protect the American people, not just avenge them." The logic was unimpeachably brilliant. In his 1983 Star Wars speech Reagan called "upon the scientific community in this country, who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete."

But it was also merely rhetoric. Reagan was forced into the moral language mainly by the vast anti-nuclear (mainly anti-INF) movement across Europe and in the U.S. (the "freeze movement"). His own administration was teeming with advisers whose main theory was to use fears of Soviet strength to build an overwhelming U.S. military (and nuclear) force. After all, 50 members of the ultra-conservative Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) staffed Reagan's national security bureaucracy. Founded in 1976, the CPD included all manner of Washington insiders, people such as Paul Nitze who was the senior U.S. negotiator at the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) talks of 1969-74 and of the ABM Treaty. In its statement of purpose, the CPD argued that the U.S. had lost the edge of military superiority because the Soviets' use of civil defence training enabled them to consider victory if the two powers had a nuclear exchange. The U.S. population had not been trained to protect itself, so the USSR would use this civil "window of vulnerability" to its advantage in political negotiations. "If we continue to drift," the CPD argued, "we shall become second best to the Soviet Union in overall military strength. Our national survival would be in peril, and we should face, one after another, bitter choices between war and acquiescence under pressure." Reagan's administration raised the U.S. defence budget by 160 per cent in its first six years, and the level of procurement has continued to rise steadily since then.

Meanwhile, from 1976 to 1986, the Soviet expenditure on strategic missiles decreased by 40 per cent. Furthermore, the CPD opposed SALT-II, or any agreement that, in the words of defence bureaucrat Richard Perle, did "not entail a significant improvement in the strategic balance." In other words, the U.S. would not sign an agreement that did not leave it in a position of advantage. In 1976, Reagan made it clear that "Our foreign policy should be based on the principle that we will go anywhere and do anything that has to be done to protect our citizens from unjust treatment. Our national defence policy should back that up with force." The world must bow down to U.S. interests ("our citizens" is not just people, but also corporations) even if it takes overwhelming force to do so. In the second year of Reagan's reign, the U.S. decided to forge a military that could not only fight one and a half wars around the globe, but two full scale conflicts.

Vietnam was not to happen again. And besides, the moral rhetoric against populations being nuclear hostages was entirely specious. In 1984, the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO) set up by the government in 1984, acknowledged that the SDI was not a population defence, but, as its director noted before the U.S. Senate, "I think it is a defence deterrent that we are talking about to prevent them from being able to hit your military capability." The SDI, then, enabled the Reagan administration to extend the reach of the U.S. military even as the missile defence idea itself was almost pure fantasy. "Politically at least," Fitzgerald writes, "anti-missile defences were better air than metal." As early as 1962, the former director of the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, Herbert York, and Kennedy's science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, wrote that defences would spur the Soviets to create better weapons, and the cycle would go on. They called this the "dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution." On technical grounds Fitzgerald quotes from numerous reports that document the scientific impossibility for a perfect defense. In 1983, for instance, a U.S. government audit found that the prospect for a national defence was "so remote that it should not serve as the basis for public expectations of national policy on ballistic missile defence." But the director of the SDIO responded to such criticism with the statement that "I don't think anything in this country is technically impossible. We have a nation which indeed can produce miracles." In Fitzgerald's account, the Soviets feared that this was indeed the case and that the expenditure of several billion dollars into SDI would yield some fruits. She argues that the Soviets believed in the potential of SDI until Andrei Sakharov's statement in December 1986 that SDI "was impossible from the point of view of military strategy" and a waste of money. But this is not entirely the case, as her own material illustrates.

Fitzgerald, like many U.S. liberals, wants to dismiss Reagan as relatively incompetent and the SDI initiative as a technical-military fantasy.

Without a theory of imperialism, there is a tendency to analyse SDI as folly. But, as she shows, SDI allowed the U.S. to dominate the 1980s by their threat of withdrawing from arms-reduction treaties and negotiations.

In February 1986, Gorbachev admitted to as much when he told his advisers that "the United States is counting on our readiness to build the same kind of costly system, hoping meanwhile that they will win this race using their technological superiority." It is only on page 407 of her book that Fitzgerald notes, almost in passing, that "what worried [the Soviets] was that the U.S. might deploy weapons of some sort in space. This concern was not entirely unreasonable: the U.S. was already far ahead of the Soviet Union in the development of anti-satellite weapons, and it was just plausible that the SDI programme might sooner or later produce space weaponry that could be used to destroy their ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) on the ground." One of the real drawbacks of this otherwise detailed account is that Fitzgerald ignores the prospect of space weapons, indeed, calls the issue "ludicrous". In hindsight, after the recent statements from the administration of Bush the Second, the prospect is not at all ludicrous.

On May 8, 2001, Secretary of Defence Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that the Secretary of the Air Force will "realign headquarters and field commands to more effectively organise, train, and equip for prompt and sustained space operations." Rumsfeld, who held the same post under the Gerald Ford administration, was the chair of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organisation (report produced in 1998), is a key player in the space weapons game. The Rumsfeld report of 1998 urges the U.S. President to "have the option to deploy weapons in space" and it warns against a "space Pearl Harbour."

As proof of the U.S. drive toward the militarisation of space, one need only consider the U.S. refusal to vote in favour of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty for the past few years (in 1999 the U.S. and Israel abstained, while in 2000 these two nations were joined by Micronesia, a group of islands deeply dependent on U.S. aid). The Pentagon Space Command's Long Range Plan notes that "now it is time to begin developing space capabilities, innovative concepts of operations for warfighting and organisations that can meet the challenge of the 21st Century."

In December 2000, the U.S. Department of Defence authorised money for two laser weapon projects, one by TRW, Lockheed Martin and Boeing and a second by TRW to build the "Alpha High-Energy Laser." At his briefing on May 8, Rumsfeld was asked if the U.S. wants to put weapons in space. His reply was hesitant, but then he said that the U.S. would continue to follow its National Space Policy (adopted on September 19, 1996). He read a part of the text: "The Department of Defence shall maintain the capability to execute the mission, areas of space support, force enhancement, space control and force application.

Consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space, and if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries. These capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal and military measures to preclude an adversary's hostile use of space systems and services." The language is fairly clear.

On January 16, 1984, Reagan announced that "Nineteen eighty-four is the year of opportunities for peace." War is Peace, as Orwell wrote in his satirical book, 1984. Peace through strength, peace through domination.

It is clear to most of the world that the Son of Star Wars, the Nuclear Missile Defence option, is also not about defence, but it is another way for the U.S. to exert its global hegemony. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, however, welcomes the NMD to reveal either its naivete or its opportunism. It would be naive if it believed the rhetoric of defence (and did not see the space weapons piece of the NMD); it would be opportunistic if it believes it could use this to isolate China. The NMD, as this history of the SDI shows us, is a political weapon to further U.S. ends rather than enhance global security.

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