Obama has, as one of his major commitments, worked to end the threat of nuclear war. It is a great contrast with the Bush administration, which had called, to industry applause, for the production of a new range of nuclear weapons and torn up the older (Reagan/Bush senior) agreements between the U.S. and Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. The Bush-Cheney administration also contemplated using nuclear weapons (so-called bunker-busters) against the supposed weapons production facility at Natanz (not discovered by UN or CIA investigation, but like the pretexts for the aggression in Iraq, “certainly there”). Scientists pointed out that the radiation poisoning would be greater than that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 50 kilometers from Tehran. A nuclear attack on the country which is the religious center of the Shia would have resulted - and perhaps even one using the massive bunker busters which are "nonnuclear" - in a shia uprising in southern Iraq (the shia are the majority of the Iraqi population). With insight into its American and Israeli allies, the thinned British troops are camped at Basra airport, ready to leave. In northern Iraq, American troops would be cut off from supply lines, and the US occupation would probably collapse militarily as the first in a long series of unpredictable consequences fraught with further escalation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace, had to threaten to resign to get Bush to remove “the nuclear option” from consideration. Only an international economic crisis on top of two losing occupations curbed the crazed Cheney in his relentless pursuit of this last act of destruction…
In this context, Obama’s efforts to diminish the threat of nuclear weapons marks a significant return toward sanity and decency. He has initiated a new missile reduction pact with Medvedev, the President of Russia. He has convened 46 nations in Washington to diminish the threat of nuclear war and to begin to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists. Israel, again a rogue state, the largest nuclear power in the Middle East with several hundred weapons, refused Obama’s invitation; it of course threatens to bomb Iran solo, the extent of Netanyahu’s “vision” as a leader – see here.
In his first year, Obama had tried to diminish tensions with Iran (see my analysis of the Cairo speech here) – the key danger to nuclear war, including a first nuclear strike by the US – again, this was Bush and Cheney’s plan. Thus, the Washington meeting, too, was a heartening event. As on global warming, one might say, the Obama administration is a breath of fresh air.
On global warming, however, Obama’s intelligence and decency have been hindered by the brokenness of the US senate. He went to Copenhagen without a plan, and took part, not in an agreement to take serious steps against climate change, but in a barely salvaged, last second promise to keep meeting, to do something in the future. Even worse, in the nuclear case, Obama has done something, of his own initiative, which undermines much of the goodness of the meeting itself. He has threatened a first strike against Iran or North Korea.
Rifaat Hussein, my student, friend, and leading Pakistani strategic expert at Islamabad University, wrote a comment on my post on Obama’s use of drones here which underlines Obama's threat to initiate nuclear war, capturing fully how self-undermining or self-defeating for Obama’s and even elite American purposes, this is. Who does it help that the country which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the leading nuclear power in the world, threatens to nuke Iran?* Who can think well of Obama or the US that it says this? In fact, who is not repelled by this god-like behavior of entitlement, that it is all right for the US to rain nuclear destruction on others, strike first as in Hiroshima, burn and poison eons of innocents (perhaps the enthusiasts for “greater Israel” – though radiation travels back at least as far as Tel Aviv...- but few of the rest of us).
Perhaps Obama had some diplomatic purpose vis-a vis Israel in mind. Perhaps he did this for purposes of “reassuring” the quasi-fascist leaders of Israel, that the US will act very strongly against Iran to balance his trying decently to reverse the settlements and achieve a two state solution. Nonetheless, Obama’s threat is a really mistaken, self-sabotaging, threatening to humanity, way of proceeding.
Obama’s caveat has received little publicity in the United States. But as Rifaat underlines, it is very likely to lead to precisely the wrong results – it legitimizes Israeli bombing; it makes plain to Iranians, who had wanted, under Khatami, a settlement with the United States and even the many who have rebelled against bullets and beatings in the streets for democracy, that getting a nuclear weapon is the only way to defend themselves against American aggression. Refusing to threaten nuclear attack, but using a boycott, however horrible, was certainly a more intelligent American alternative. Finally, the threat legitimizes American use of nuclear weapons again even by Obama. If this is cutting down the the threat of nuclear war, what would be aggravating it?
Obama is a thoughtful man, not given to hubris. But he is President of the war complex, of the Empire. Even through Obama, it speaks. This is American hubris at its worst.
Martin Luther King’s “Breaking the Silence” uses the words “Western arrogance” to address this god-like status – see here and here. In The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich emphasizes the extraordinary illusion of American policy makers from the beginning of the Cold War that they could reshape the world by violence. Each nation was a tabula rasa, whose government could be overthrown – say, the elected Arbenz regime in Guatemala, stabilizing the United Fruit Company with CIA intervention/military aid/quasi or overtly satellite status.** This illegal and immoral process was perfumed under Bush-Cheney in a Straussian idiom as “regime-change.”***
This policy is an unmitigated disaster, reinforced in the era of “absolute” or "unilateral" American military superiority. Looking at the genocide – the Guatamalan regime murdered some 200,000 Mayans, a Denver Post statistic from the 1980s - State Department people would later mourn the US overthrow of Arbenz, wish for decency back. Even Clinton and Albright said in the 1990s that the US should never again implement - with its huge military/intelligence/police and officer training - mass murder in Latin America, something the US had stood for from Kissinger on (with the brief interruption of the Carter presidency). But such thoughts have not lead to moving away from doing such things elsewhere.
As Bacevich has argued, this same assumption governs the miserable US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The same assumption is in Obama’s retention of 50,000 troops and probably an equal number of Xe/Blackwater mercenaries in his “withdrawal” from Iraq. Even his desire to limit the threat of nuclear war and get rid of nuclear weapons has been marred by empire. For Obama threatens nuclear war even as he thinks of himself as working to save humanity.
“Dear Alan: Greetings from Islamabad, Pakistan. I have just read your latest blog here and the excellent points you make about the glaring contradictions marking Obama's approach toward targeted killing of innocent civilians through drone strikes. the growing frequency and lethality of drone attacks against the innocent Pakistani civilians including children, women and the elderly living in FATA [the tribal areas] only underscores the brutal continuity between Bush and Obama. Obama's personal decency notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that he is as committed to killing civilians as collateral damage as were Bush and Cheney. In the recently released nuclear posture review, Obama has threatened to nuke Iran and North Korea if they do not give up their alleged nuclear weapon ambitions. I find it extraordinary, that a decent man like Obama would actually threaten mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iran and North Korea in the name of U.S. national security. By refusing to include Iran and North in the ambit of U.S. negative security assurances - no first use of nukes against innocent civilians - Obama has actually strengthened the hands of those Zionists in Israel who cannot wait to wage a pre-emptive war against Tehran. It is depressing to see Obama being so oblivious to the obvious implications of his words and actions. Karzai is a deeply flawed man but he stands ethically tall when he demands the instant closure of American run torture cells in Afghanistan where at least more than 1,000 Afghan Taliban have been in illegal detention for years on the mere suspicion that they post a threat to American national security interests. with best regards. Rifaat”
The comment on Karzai, not publicized in the United States, is also particularly apt.
My student Chris Tranchetti, a naval officer working on a thesis on Socrates and Jesus, offered this related dark insight on how the war complex steadily shifts American policy destructively (“capabilities” dominate; Presidents, even the eloquent Obama, somehow speak like Charlie McCarthy):
“Alan, In an effort to further the 'banality of evil,' the defense industry no longer uses the term unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's). Rather, we now have UAS's (Unmanned Aerial Systems). In other words, a method or methodology of high-tech, automated, and remote procedural killing. Now what is that reminiscent of? Maybe the transition from the einsatzgruppen to zyklon-B...
Finally, Earl Staelin, a lawyer who honorably defends those attacked for anti-War activities, raises a fundamental issue, one which goes to the heart of thinking about all these matters. Do ordinary Americans benefit from aggressions for oil? Do Americans benefit, particularly those who become soldiers, from the huge array of military bases around the world? I recently debated Ira Chernus at Boulder over whether Americans want war. There is a tremendous elite publicity apparatus legitimizing war. Nonetheless, it does not surprise me that Earl's thinking is compelling, and if one talks with other citizens and Gis (particularly blacks but poor whites and chicanoes), it is easy enough, on discussion, to see that the force of such points does not escape those most affected by them:
“Dear Alan, I've often thought about whether there's really any benefit at all to American citizens from our oil companies seizing oil in other countries, or rather a net loss. My hunch is there is a large net loss to Americans caused by such actions, whether or not they ‘secure’ oil.
I'd like to see a full accounting, of the military, mercenary, and associated costs, the over 900 official and unofficial military bases around the world, long term if not lifelong disability for tens of thousands of our soldiers, the terrorism, hatred, and resulting endless war caused by these unlawful intrusions into and occupations of other countries, including destruction of their democratic institutions, environmental damage and devastation that we are legally responsible for, assuming the wars are illegal, which I believe they are under international law, whether or not we're ever made to pay for it, and the fact that most of the alleged ‘benefit’ goes to the oil companies, their executives and shareholders, rather than to the American people, and the fact that these huge expenditures mean that the funds are not available to solve problems here of education, health, housing, environmental cleanup, alternative energy, preservation of infrastructure, and other critical needs. When those costs are all tallied, what would be the net benefit of a reduction of the price of oil, if any? Earl”
Even the supposed benefits of the reduced price of oil has shown up only in the slogans of Wolfowitz to gull other (nonetheless also cheerleading) Bush appointees into going to war or in false publicity inspired by Halliburton/Kellogg, Brown and Root/Dick Cheney. I am yet to hear of any benefit to Americans from the $3 trillion investment**** the government is still sinking into the Iraq occupation, though as I drive around downtown Denver, I see younger homeless people and their elders, Vietnam vets, 50 years on. There is a painting in browns by Courbet of stonebreakers along a road, old and young…
*Hillary Clinton stood out for barbaric rhetoric during the campaign, but as with McCain's "100 year occupation of Iraq," Obama no longer seems very different.
**As a college student, I once flew from Boston to New York. The man sitting beside me, a Canadian sea-captain, told me of watching from his cabin a Guatemalan worker try to pick up a few spilled bananas on a United Fruit dock and how the guard beat him...
***Nicholas Xenos has written well on the peregrination of Straussian terms into the media component of the war complex (“tyranny” which we fight, rather than the police state the neocons and Democrats are forging, is also one of Leo’s preferred terms). With regard to executive power in the “state of the exception,” these are not just words but the defining influence of Carl Schmitt – see here, here and here.****Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes made this estimate some time ago. With Obama’s projected troops adding in private mercenaries - perhaps a total of 100,000 - for an indefinite but lengthy period, the price, though America is broke, will go up…