Toward a New New Cold War

Toward a New New Cold War

The initiating party for our next cold confrontation with Russia most certainly was the United States.


It took only three weeks in August, but here we are in the foothills of a new new cold war, bouncing son of the "new cold war" fired up by Carter and Brzezinski and the US defense industry in the late 1970s and grandson of the old cold war with the Soviet Union launched in the Truman era.

It has shaped up along familiar lines. In the first crucial hours the US press tactfully passed over the fact that it was John McCain’s pal Mikheil Saakashvili who set the ball rolling with Georgia’s initial lethal bombardment in South Ossetia. Amid howls about Russian imperialism, McCain hopes to notch ahead of Obama in the polls by phoning the nutty Saakashvili and sending his wife, Cindy, on a supportive excursion to Tbilisi. I’m sure Cindy is thrilled to be among those hot Georgians and away from John and his towering, violent rages. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rushes to Warsaw for a photo op with Polish leaders, signing a deal to install missile defense early-warning radar systems.

Vladimir Putin duly plays his allotted role by denouncing the scheduled deployment of these systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as unacceptable threats to Russian security. Last year Putin declared in a press conference that "once the missile defense system is put in place it will work automatically with the entire nuclear capability of the United States. It will be an integral part of the US nuclear capability…. And, for the first time in history–and I want to emphasize this–there will be elements of the US nuclear capability on the European continent. It simply changes the whole configuration of international security…. Of course, we have to respond to that."

Thus, with much bluster, both sides continue to shovel billions to their respective military-industrial sectors. Missile defense has been a Pentagon boondoggle for more than half a century. Since Ronald Reagan repackaged it in 1983 as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the United States has spent as much as $100 billion, with another $100 billion already pledged for research, operating expenses, etc. between now and 2015.

Why Putin and the Russians don’t simply split their sides with merriment at America’s folly is beyond me. US missile defense systems are not and will never be unacceptable challenges to Russian security, for the same reason that all antimissile systems offer no peril except to the taxpayers financing them. They don’t work because they fail to remove the uncertainty that is the essential ingredient of nuclear deterrence. Despite hundreds of faked tests, the antimissile missiles can in no way be guaranteed to hit their targets. There have been plenty of well-researched exposés attesting to this. But missile defense is now invulnerably lodged in the Pentagon budget. The more the Russians trumpet their supposed fears, the easier it is for Congress to vote the billions.

Back in 1983 my brother Andrew published The Threat, the only accurate assessment of Soviet military strength available at that time. Andrew accurately diagnosed the reality of the military balance between East and West and the decrepit corruption of the Soviet military machine. A prime theme was that threat inflation worked to the advantage of both the US and the SU military-industrial complexes. It was not in the interests of either party to devalue the threat posed by the other.

As regards disastrous and unnecessary military expenditures, the Russians have not yet digested one lesson of the Soviet Union’s downfall: don’t try to compete in an arms race on terms dictated by the other side. There are surely threat assessors in Russia who know well that an antimissile system in Poland (supposedly deployed to counter an Iranian threat that in fact doesn’t exist) alters the balance of deterrence not a jot. The fear of "mutual assured destruction" stems from the fact that in the event of escalation to the level of nuclear war, some of Russia’s ICBMs would get through, no matter how many US missile systems are deployed in Poland, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine. And vice versa.

Just as there will never be anything approaching a defensive missile system guaranteed to intercept all incoming nuclear warheads, so too there will never be a first-strike system guaranteed to destroy Russia or the United States or China before the target country can retaliate. Some sensible Russian should give Putin and the Russian leaders the testimony of Dr. James Schlesinger, former CIA director and then Defense Secretary in the Nixon/Ford years, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1982. Although in the 1970s Schlesinger had played a major role in evolving the so-called "counterforce" strategy, trying to finesse the implacable logic of "mutual assured destruction," his 1982 testimony highlighted the all-important role of uncertainty and "the unknown and immeasurable element of the possibility of major technical failure…. The precision that one encounters in paper studies of nuclear exchanges reflects the precision of the assumptions rather than any experience based on approximation-to-real-life test data. Specialists, in their enthusiasm, tend to forget how conjectural the whole process remains…. Happily no one has ever fought a nuclear war. Not only have ICBMs never been tested in flying operational trajectories against operational targets, they have not been tested flying north and this may or may not introduce certain areas of bias in the estimates of accuracy…regarding failure rates…. For leaders, on either side, that may be enticed into considering the utility of a major nuclear strike, I would hope there would always be somebody there under such hypothetical circumstances to remind them of these realities."

A new new cold war is on the starting blocks, and the initiating party most certainly has been the United States. One can scarcely blame the Russians for their anger at the provocative encirclements of the Clinton and Bush years. But the Russians have good cards in their hands. All the more reason, therefore, that they should dump the bad ones that got them into such trouble twenty years ago.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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