November 26, 2006

Anatole Lieven and the Military Industrial Complex

Here is an interesting essay from Anatole Lieven in the Boston Review about the nature of US power in the modern world. Lieven's review of a book about the Pentagon's influence on US foreign policy turns quickly into an essay upon that very influence and the way that it has formed and deformed policy over the last fifty years. Of particular note, is what might be called the irrationality assumption that he discerns- the assumption that all one's enemies from a secular dictator like Saddam Hussein to a communist atheist one like Kim Jong Il to a religious maniac like Osama Bin Laden to a sinister figure like Vladimir Putin are so irrational as to wish to destroy their own countries or regions in order to destroy the United States. This assumption in some cases- Bin Laden- may well be warrented- but in others- Putin would be the great example- is not so solid. An assumption of irrationality though fuels a logic which goes beyond mere detterence (to which a rational agent will respond by drawing back) but which ends at overwhelming military dominance of any other actor on the world stage- becoming a global Leviathan, something that requires emmense ammounts of military strength.

Lieven is right to reject a pacifist understanding of the world- war is neccessary and consequently armaments and defence ministries/industries are neccessary. Sometimes even intervention can be neccessary in order to forestall a coming threat- one could argue that allied intervention in 1936 when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland was a neccessary intervention. Lieven is also right to argue though that that thought should not mean that we accept any intervention on the global stage and we should be aware of presumptions about the opposite side. Robert McNamara in his recent film, the Fog of War, made precisely this point with relevance to Khrushchev and Castro- looking through their eyes US actions looked aggressive and it was the ability of Tommy Thompson to give President Kennedy the idea to give Khrushchev a way out that saved the world in Cuba. Likewise Hans Blix in his talk in Cambridge unfolded the perfectly reasonable Korean suspision that given that McArthur had been given license to use the bomb on Korea in the fifties, the US might again think of using the bomb on the Korean peninsular and the only way to stop that- Korea possessing the Bomb. Sometimes it pays to turn back especially to Cuba and remember the old line of Khrushchev,

We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.

Khrushchev in those words summed up the dilemmas of modern diplomacy- the actions of blind moles bumping into each other somehow have to be kept within confines which will preserve the human race. If both sides beleive though that the actions of the other inevitably are irrational, show no concern for the safety of humanity, then that provides a rationale to be irrational and to develop weapons which can destroy humanity. By assuming that the other will use them, one reaches a point where one would wish to use them first. This is not an argument neccessarily for disarmament, there are irrational foes out there, but it is an argument that we ought to be cautious about how we escalate- because our irrational actions provide the excuse for the other agent's paranoia which then provides our excuse for our paranoia- we tie the knots of war and keep pulling at opposite ends. Lieven offers us a realism derived from Niebuhr- I don't want to comment on that because I have yet to fully digest it- but the warning he delivers both against pacifism and against paranoia- is a warning we should listen to, or beware the consequences of tieing the knots of war so tight that it takes a Gordian knife to break them.


james higham said...

This is not an argument neccessarily for disarmament, there are irrational foes out there, but it is an argument that we ought to be cautious about how we escalate.

On the other hand, this is an intellectual rationalist argument and doesn't take into account sheer religious fanaticism which pays no heed to reason.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree with your comment completely- I think the argument is about rationality and I don't take Bin Laden to be rational. But it might work more in teh context of say North Korea or more particularly competitors like Russia and China were we to attempt to think through their rationales for developing their policies as though they were rational actors.

El Dave. said...

I think this debate misses a point. It is true that some states (North Korea) don't have to pay any attention to public opinion, others do. Russia, for instance, may feel it needs to maintain nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip and to say to its own populace (which is declining in number) that it is still a major power. However, the rusting hulks on some its coasts and the ongoing problems in Chechnya, combined with the continued low morale and bullying in the armed forces, mean that Russia cannot realistically use nuclear weapons as it would draw the country into a war that could result in real problems for the country.

Equally, China is finding it harder and harder to keep its activities from a broader section of its population. The possibility of insurrection is higher than it has been, I'd venture, since Tiananmen, and there ability of the CCP to hush it up for an internal audience is less. Who would China use nuclear weapons against? North Korea seems the most likely possibility, but China wants to avoid a cataclysmic change in China at all costs to prevent a flood of refugees across their common border.

I'd say that the place that nuclear weapons are mostly likely to be used are between India and Pakistan. If Singh is one day replaced by someone (even) worse than Vajpayee while Pakistan is run by a nationalistic military that defines itself by not being India and needs a Galtieri-style excuse to bind the country together in the face of growing (Islamist) opposition, sabre-rattling becoming something rather worse is not impossible.

America, of course, needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from... ah. Who, again? China? Possible, not likely. Russia? Socialism? Islamic terror? While the US may not like Chavez, nuking Bogota hardly seems fair. Neither can nuclear weapons be used against a dispersed enemy like al-Qaeda.

The UK and France need to show that, while their willies aren't quite as big as America's, they're still pretty big, and they can piss over people if they want. I do ask in which precise circumstances the UK or France would use nuclear weapons before the US and whether the EU's contribution to global security would be improved by £25bn worth of aid, development and peacekeeping.

Moving on to the point about religious fanaticism, there is the possibility of a nuclear bomb being set off to further that cause. There remains, though, a certain fear of nuclear weapons. It is possible that a nuclear bomb set off in London would drive people away from the group that set it off as an appalling, indiscriminate act.

That feeling would be reduced if nuclear weapons were used; the most likely way this would happen, IMHO, would be through tactical nuclear weapons - relatively small, but still nuclear. Once the US accepted tactical nukes as a legitimate weapon, others would as well.

The use of nuclear weapons is irrational; the only reason we have them is to irrationally combat rationality. Much better, I'd say, to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in circulation so that the next bomb is not set off. Realistically, the US is not going to scrap its nuclear arsenal, but it could reduce it. There is an inherent hypocrisy in the NPT; we may accuse Iran of being a rogue state, but Ahmedinejad et al. do not see themselves as 'rogue', 'illegitimate' etc. - they are as sure of their moral right to use nukes as the US is of theirs.

The US currently has 5,735 active nuclear weapons and a further 4,225 in its stockpile.

Could someone tell me exactly what the 5,735 targets could be? Can anyone name one target?