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The Unthinkable | The Nation

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The Unthinkable

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When the Republican majority in the Senate voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on October 13, President Clinton called their act "partisanship at its worst." The Washington Post agreed, charging that the vote was "the product of short-term domestic political calculation." The New York Times, too, saw party interest at work: The vote, it editorialized, amounted to "a narrow and misguided show of partisanship." Evidence for this view was not hard to find. Two off-the-cuff comments by Republicans sum up the case.

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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The first comment pertained to "the unthinkable"--a phrase that, ever since the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn titled a book Thinking About the Unthinkable in the sixties, has been a kind of shorthand for nuclear danger. During the Senate debate, John Czwartacki--an aide to majority leader Trent Lott--found occasion to say it would be "unthinkable." Well, what would be unthinkable? Would it be nuclear war in South Asia, where the military forces of nuclear-armed Pakistan have just seized power from the civilian government and where, according to Newsweek, Pakistan and India are "weaponizing" their bombs--that is, mounting them on delivery vehicles? Would it be the use by terrorists of a "loose nuke" against one of the world's great cities? Would it be that ten, or twenty, or thirty additional nations, following the example of the United States, would see fit to build and test nuclear arsenals? Would it be accidental war with Russia, whose deteriorating arsenal of some 7,000 strategic warheads is still on hairtrigger alert? It was none of these. The thing Czwartacki found unthinkable was the danger that a few Republican senators might join with Democrats to vote for a procedural motion against Lott and in favor of postponement of the vote on the treaty--a course of action favored in a signed letter by sixty-two members of the Senate. What was unthinkable in this debate, in other words, was the slightest breach in Republican Party discipline. It did not happen, and the treaty went down to defeat.

The second comment came in the closing speech of the cursory debate in the Senate. The speaker was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, who had bottled the treaty up in his committee for two years, then sprung it on the Senate only when its certain defeat had been clandestinely arranged. He was discussing the joint appeal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in which they stated that "we have to face the stark truth that nuclear proliferation remains the major threat to world safety" and begged the Senate to ratify the treaty. These political leaders of the United States' closest allies, Helms opined, were "three people who knew nothing about the United States"--a phrase that managed to insult the three allied statesmen twice in a single phrase, first by accusing them of ignorance, second by implying that the test ban treaty would affect the interests of the United States alone. Their appeal, he alleged, was the mere product of pressure exerted by Clinton (a third insult), leading Blair, as Helms put it on the Senate floor, to say to Clinton, "Oh yes, I'll do that. And give Monica my regards." For a moment, it was hard to believe that one had heard him correctly. Had the name of Monica Lewinsky actually been dragged into the closing minutes of a debate about the safety of the human race from nuclear destruction? What did it mean? Did Helms want us all to burn up in nuclear fire as punishment for our tolerance of Clinton's loose behavior?

The similarities between the way the majority handled the test ban vote and the way it handled impeachment earlier in the year are in fact striking. Both causes were supported only by Republicans. Both defied American as well as world opinion. In both contests, Republicans on the far right imposed party discipline over the less extreme elements of the party. At every key juncture in the impeachment--before the House voted articles of impeachment and before the Senate called witnesses, for example--observers surmised that "moderates" in the Republican Party might prevail over their radical-right-wing colleagues to bring the trial to a halt, but they never did. The extremists always held firm, the center always gave way and the proceedings rolled on to the end. So also in the ratification debate the moderate proposal--to postpone rather than reject it--at first seemed likely to succeed but then was torpedoed by right-wing senators. Four of them, including Helms, would not agree to postponement; Lott would not agree to any plan the right wing would not accept, and division of the party--the "unthinkable"--was avoided.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to suppose that only partisan zealotry was responsible for the test ban's demise. Frightening as it is to suppose that the safety of the human species is hostage to the interests of a political party, this interpretation, paradoxically, is in a way falsely reassuring. For if the deed was done only for party advantage, then we might suppose that when passions cooled the Republicans' more sensible true beliefs would surface and shift American nuclear policy back to a safer, saner path. No such complacence is warranted. There is every sign that, as is so often the case with fanatical parties, true conviction is indistinguishable from party interest. The Republican Party has not articulated a coherent nuclear strategy for the post-cold war period, but there is every sign that one is now emerging. The rejection of the test ban is a large piece of it. Another, matching piece is the party's equally adamant insistence on deploying a national missile defense system. (The Clinton Administration has acceded to this to the extent of offering the Russians help with their radar systems as a sort of payoff for permitting revision of the 1972 treaty banning most anti-ballistic missile systems that is now in force between the United States and Russia.) The demand for an antinuclear defense in the absence of technical demonstration that the thing will work is a signal that we are dealing as much with faith as reason. If the test ban rejection nourishes the illusion, undented by fifty years of contrary experience, that the United States can maintain nuclear "superiority" and that this superiority confers military and political advantage, then national missile defense nourishes the complementary illusion that attacks by other powers can be knocked down. The two delusions make up a whole: that the United States can solve the growing peril of nuclear proliferation in the post-cold war period through technical means alone. The corollary is that nuclear arms control--the complex net of bilateral and global agreements by which the world seeks to keep the nuclear arms race from reviving on a global scale--will not be necessary. A tacit assumption--hinted at in Helms's contempt for the heads of state of the United States' chief allies--is that treaties and agreements with other nations are worthless, and that armed might alone can protect the United States in an anarchic world.

It's striking that this emerging strategy, even as it turns its back on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, also upends the principal strategic doctrine of the nuclear age, namely deterrence. Antinuclear defenses, if rigorously coupled with sharp nuclear reductions heading toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, might, as Ronald Reagan once envisioned, provide nations a useful reassurance against nuclear arms clandestinely retained by cheaters. However, when antinuclear defenses are built in the absence of disarmament, they undercut deterrence, which ordains that stability is preserved only when each of two nuclear antagonists is certain that, in the event of a first strike by the other, it can deliver annihilating retaliation. Defenses, by eroding that retaliatory capacity, theoretically undercut this ability, and create, in crises, temptations to attack first. It was notable that even the proponents of the test ban argued for it on the grounds that it would preserve US nuclear superiority "in perpetuity," as former State Department official Lawrence Eagleburger put it. Overlooked by all for the time being was the old insight of deterrence doctrine that superiority, by tempting the adversary to strike first, is almost as dangerous to its possessor as to the supposedly disadvantaged rival.

In weighing the inroads that have already been made by the new strategy, a recent speech by George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, is of great importance. In domestic affairs, Bush has shown that, for reasons of political advantage as well, perhaps, as conviction, he knows how to distance himself from the radical Republican right that has taken control of the party in Congress. Just a few weeks ago, he famously rebuked them for trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." There is so far no counterpart in foreign affairs. In a prepared speech given at the Citadel on September 23, he painted a dire picture of the world. It is "a world of terror and missiles and madmen," he said. He added, "We see the contagious spread of missile technology and weapons of mass destruction." "This era of American pre-eminence," he elaborated, "is also an era of car bombers and plutonium merchants and cyber terrorists and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators." What solutions did he offer? The value of international treaties went unmentioned. Rather, it was "American armed forces" that "have an irreplaceable role in the world." Painting a picture of an earth seemingly at the mercy of the US military, he called for forces that were deployable anywhere in the world "in days or weeks rather than months." They must identify targets by "a variety of means" and "destroy those targets almost immediately, with an array of weapons." America's Air Force must be able to "strike from across the world with pinpoint accuracy." "Stealthy" ships "packed with long-range missiles" should be built to "destroy targets from great distances." Weapons should be built to "protect our network of satellites." Unspecified "diffuse commitments" and "uncertain missions" would be avoided, and "focused ones" embraced. But what was needed above all was "homeland defense" against "biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism"--defense to be provided chiefly by "anti-ballistic missile systems, both theater and national." If Russia did not agree, the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in force since 1972. A few weeks later, during the test ban debate in the Senate, Bush completed the picture by quietly joining his party in opposing the treaty.

President Clinton and others have, with some justification, called this emerging Republican view neo-isolationism--a "Fortress America" policy--but it is in truth something different. It engages the world, but solely on the basis of unchallengeable force. In this vision, the United States, impervious to any attack yet itself capable of striking at a moment's notice anywhere on earth, seems to preside, withdrawn yet omnipotent, over a world otherwise left to stew in its own anarchy. If there is a role in it for alliances, negotiations or arms control treaties--not to speak of the United Nations--it goes unmentioned. It is in the embrace by the Republican Party of this policy, on which Bush and his Congressional colleagues are at one, not in the style in which the goals are pursued in the Senate and elsewhere, that the deepest roots of the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty lie.

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