written with William D. Hartung
On April 5, 2009 President Barack Obama gave a major speech in Prague, outlining his vision on nuclear weapons policy. In many ways, Obama's speech was the culmination of a sea change in how the security establishment thinks about nuclear weapons. Led by former Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger and former Reagan Secretary of State, George Shultz, the emerging bipartisan consensus holds that in the post-9/11 world, nuclear weapons represent a liability, not a strength.
This refreshing approach sees that the only way to avoid uncontrolled proliferation that could result in terrorists obtaining such weapons is to aggressively pursue a step-by-step effort -- starting with joint reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals, the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the securing of vulnerable nuclear material -- aimed at the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
President Obama's efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons have drawn praise and encouragement from a wide range of individuals and organizations, from the arms control community, to retired diplomats and military officials, to the broader public. But they have also drawn harsh criticism -- misleading at best and outright deceptive at worst -- from a chorus of unreconstructed neo-conservatives and nuclear war theorists who are intent on scaring the public into opposing the president's disarmament agenda. The leaders of this informal network include John Bolton, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, and Keith Payne.
Sensible steps that will make the world a safer place -- from pursuing nuclear reductions with Russia, to advocating for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and engaging in smart, effective diplomacy to curb the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea -- have been denounced at every turn by Bolton and company.
Loud though they may be -- shouting their criticism from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other smaller outlets -- the pro-nuclear pundits lack credibility. The media should not be treating them as learned experts with contributions to make to the discourse on U.S. national security. They have been wrong repeatedly and flagrantly: wrong on the war on terror, wrong on the war in Iraq, and wrong on arms control.
They accuse the Obama administration of compromising (or worse) U.S. national security by promoting arms control, while trumpeting a collection of Bush administration policies like preemptive war, regime change and unilateralism that have created or seriously inflamed threats to U.S. national security and the U.S. image throughout the world. To add insult to injury, pundits like Gaffney and Perle are also beholden to the defense industry -- one of the few sectors of the economy that has been doing well, in part due to the war policies they helped to set into motion.
The former Ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush is one of the more prolific pro-nuclear pundits around. For prime time television, he is a "go-to" expert on all things nuclear, appearing regularly on Fox News and other major outlets. In addition, since the beginning of 2009, John Bolton has published at least 35 articles in major newspapers, magazines and websites from his Senior Fellow perch at the American Enterprise Institute. Of those, twenty were critical of some aspect of the Obama administration's nuclear policy and all but four were in major U.S. newspapers -- seven in the Wall Street Journal, three each in the New York Times and Washington Times, and one each in the Washington Post, San Diego Union Tribune, and USA Today. This week, he'll appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
This is an enviable media sweep. But, it is critical that we remember that John Bolton is not just a run of the mill former administration official with some expertise and a good PR machine.
Bolton is allergic to arms control. He does not have a beef with Obama's approach or with specific treaties or parts of treaties. He has a beef with the concept of arms control. We learned this when he was Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control. As Slate.com columnist Fred Kaplan noted at the time, "Bolton opposed not only the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (de rigueur for any Bush appointee), but also the international bioweapons conference, the ban on chemical weapons, the nuclear test ban." Kaplan also points out that while in the State Department; Bolton "was particularly active in sabotaging [Secretary of State Colin] Powell's efforts to open up nuclear disarmament negotiations with North Korea." It is worth wondering if North Korea would be testing ballistic missiles in 2009 if Powell's efforts during President Bush's first term were given a little breathing room and some basic institutional support.
Bolton helped bring us the war in Iraq, insisting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction long after that assertion was effectively refuted. He started the drum beat early too, signing onto a 1998 letter to President Clinton drafted by the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century that laid out the all arguments we are still hearing today about Hussein probable development of WMDs and the urgent need to remove him from office.
Bolton was still trumpeting the old myths that helped sell the Iraq war as recently as February 3, 2009. On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Bolton referred to Saddam Hussein's "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."
Not content with war against just Iraq, Bolton tried to get the administration to cast a wider net of regime change, arguing that Cuba should be added to the "axis of evil" because of its alleged biological weapons program, a program which was proven not to exist.
We see a reprise of this approach to Iraq in his writing on Iran. In a Washington Post op-ed on July 2, 2009, Bolton asserts "Iran's nuclear threat was never in doubt" and that "those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are left in the near term with only the option of targeted military force against its weapons facilities," as though the analyses from our own intelligence agencies that Iran is still years away from nuclear weapons are mere inconvenient fictions. And as though all other avenues of aggressive multilateral diplomacy and a whole range of carrots and sticks have been tried and failed.
In a May 26, 2009 op-ed in the New York Times, Bolton takes the Obama administration to task for a range of nuclear arms control priorities from limiting funding for missile defense capabilities and reliable replacement warheads to building support for treaties on nuclear nonproliferation and the comprehensive test ban. In less than 700 words, Bolton accuses Obama of pursuing "policies that will seriously weaken the United States." These allegations do not square with the bipartisan consensus that reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are a critical component of the larger effort to reduce and control the nuclear threat.
In USA Today on July 9, 2009, Bolton returned to the familiar scare tactics, accusing President Obama of being "reckless" and "ideologically committed" to a "less robust U.S. defense posture."
Former Ambassador Bolton is the most visible pro-nuclear pundit, but he is not alone.
John Bolton and Richard Perle share an institutional affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank funded in part by corporate donors that provides a platform for many others associated with the Bush administration (including Lynne Cheney, David Frum, John Yoo and Paul Wolfowtiz).
Perle worked tirelessly through 2002 to bring about the invasion of Iraq. He was part of the influential but short-lived Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Perle promoted as fact paper thin linkages between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and prominently predicted that Iraqis would be "dancing in the streets" in the wake of a U.S. invasion in a December 28, 2001 oped in the New York Times.
As a way of building the case for war, Perle also worked to promote the theories of Laurie Mylroie, an AEI colleague who insisted that Iraq was involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Jim Lobe,writing for Inter Press Service in 2002, points out that the CIA and FBI found no evidence that Iraq was even remotely involved in the attack.
Just after the 2003 Iraq war started, Perle resigned from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board amid allegations that his investments and consulting arrangements with companies profiting from the Iraq war were a conflict of interest. While Perle remain convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and close ties with terrorist groups, he told Vanity Fair in 2006 that "if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, 'Should we go into Iraq?,' I think now I probably would have said, 'No, let's consider other strategies."
He now brings this "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story (or a good war)" attitude to the issue of nuclear weapons, co-authoring an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with Senator Jon Kyl called "Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent" (June 29, 2009) which (among other things) lamented "woefully inadequate funding" in the nuclear weapons complex, ignoring the increases in nuclear weapons research and development spending over the last decade that have put current spending above Cold War averages.
Keith Payne weighs in as well. The founder of the National Institute for Public Policy, where he remains president and CEO, argued in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that Obama-Medvedev agreement on modest nuclear reductions "has the potential to compromise U.S. security." NIPP receives corporate contributions (but won't say which companies), and has a Lockheed Martin Vice-President on its advisory board.
Dr. Payne has been characterized as "Strangelove-ian" since writing "Victory is Possible," an influential Foreign Policy article on nuclear policy nearly 30 years ago. In it, Payne and co-author Colin S. Gray describe how the United States can fight and win nuclear wars. They posit that the United States could win a nuclear war against the Soviet Union even if we sustained 20 million casualties and that figure could be compatible with "national survival and recovery." 100 million, however, would be too high of a price to pay and would constitute a nuclear Armageddon (U.S. population at the time their article was published was about 227 million people). They assert, "the United States must possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally."
Careful readers of Payne's work since that time can detect strands of the "Victory is Possible" formulation and see it in the policies he has helped shape. For example, NIPP's January 2001 report on U.S. nuclear posture was adopted in part by the Bush administration in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. The document officially expanded the number of countries the U.S. will target with nuclear weapons and called for a massive increase in funding for the nuclear weapons complex.
Payne took a leave from NIPP to work in the Bush Pentagon. And, most recently he served on the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which assessed nuclear weapons capabilities and made a series of recommendations to the Obama administration as it works on a new Nuclear Posture Review.
Frank Gaffney is founder and head of the Center for Security Policy, which receives healthy contributions from contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. An indefatigable booster of the military industrial complex, Gaffney promotes ballistic missile defense technologies, robust nuclear weapons capabilities and conventional arms sales as ways of ensuring U.S. national security.
An indication of how "far out" Gaffney is can be found in his parroting of the far-right claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim who will sell out U.S. interests. In a recent Washington Times column, he wrote "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself."
Now is he weighing in on nuclear issues--and is only slightly less inflammatory; claiming in a USA Today oped on April 13th that the Obama administration's arms control efforts, if successful, will "contribute to a more dangerous planet and a less secure America."
Contrasting Visions on Achieving Nuclear Security
All of these pundits were outspoken advocates of the Bush administration's now-discredited policy for dealing with weapons of mass destruction, a policy that reached its logical conclusion in the ill-advised invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Iraq war is now well into its sixth year and has done more to undermine U.S. national security than any other policy in recent memory.
The Bush administration's version of arms control was unilateral military action against nations accused of developing weapons of mass destruction. "Peace through strength, not through paper," was the rallying call of the neoconservatives. President Bush derided treaties and international agreements, dismissing them as unnecessary checks on U.S. freedom of action. Members of his administration were quick to claim that international institutions like the United Nations were toothless and ineffective even as they withdrew money and support from those institutions, ensuring they'd be less viable.
The war in Iraq was (and is) an expensive, provocative, ineffective and unverifiable way of eliminating the threat. The waging of total war caused tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of civilian deaths; cost more than $1 trillion, increasing the deficit and adding to our economic strain; and included torture, extrajudicial killing and other illegal activities, undermining the United States' ability to credibly promote human rights and democracy.
Furthermore, the instability created by the U.S.-led war in Iraq has contributed to proliferation, encouraging an "every nation for themselves" ethos that has fueled nuclear programs all over the world and led nuclear expert Hans Blix to predict that at least a dozen new nuclear powers could emerge over the next decade. We have tried the Bush approach already.
Despite the predictable rhetoric from Bolton and others, the Bush version of arms control -- a "bomb away the (alleged) bombs policy" of military counter-proliferation and preemptive regime change -- is thoroughly discredited and illegitimate.
By way of contrast, the steps outlined by President Obama in Prague -- steps his administration has moved to carry out in the ensuing months -- represent a "full tool-box" approach of aggressive multilateral diplomatic efforts to control the spread and use of nuclear weapons.
These four men: John Bolton, Richard Perle, Keith Payne and Frank Gaffney are far outside of the growing consensus on the need for decisive action to curb nuclear proliferation, and they have been on the wrong side of history for too long. They should not be considered legitimate nuclear experts and they should not be given free rein over our op-ed pages.
Frida Berrigan is Senior Program Associate at The New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, which Senior Fellow William D. Hartung directs.