Bush’s Dangerous Star Wars Pipe Dream


President Bush’s "Star Wars" speech reminded me of a conversation I had late in the Clinton era with Ezra Vogel, who served headed the State Department’s Asia intelligence during the first Clinton Administration. He had returned to Harvard, but was deeply engaged in a wide range of trans-Pacific security negotiations. Responding to a question about his goal for meetings to explore creation of a U.S.-Chinese-Japanese security framework, he said he sought a "grand bargain" with China. How? By threatening deployment of Theater Missile Defenses (TMD) which could theoretically neutralize all China’s missiles. As the threat became credible, China would be offered a deal: The U.S. would call off TMD deployments if China would agree not to adopt a more aggressive military doctrine and not to deploy weapons that increased its aggressive capabilities.


That this would leave the nuclear-capable U.S. 7th Fleet, hundreds of U.S. forward deployed military bases and installations, and 100,000 G.I.s and their weapons still surrounding China concerned him not at all.

Many "interests" are served by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Star Wars program, but with their strategic focus concentrating increasingly on Asia, the fantasy of restoring power relations similar to that following the Opium War is high on the list. By military means and otherwise, Washington aims to integrate China into a U.S.-Japanese dominated system on Washington’s – not China’s – terms.

Shortly after this conversation took place, I traveled to China where Chinese strategic analysts were fixated on the dangers of threatened U.S. T.M.D. deployments. As the Chinese government has done many times since, they repeated that having "stood up" after a century and a half of Western domination, they would not tolerate such intimidation. They know that the U.S. is closer to developing TMD technologies than the more ambitions "National" missile defenses (NMD). And, they were unmistakably clear that if TMD are deployed, China will produce as many missiles as needed to overwhelm them. Apparently the Bush Administration doesn’t care. Secretary Rumsfeld has fused the technologically more feasible concept of TMD with the NMD pipe dream, and the Administration is pushing full steam ahead.

Major U.S. policies – including war – are usually driven by a coalition of interests. This is certainly the case with so-called missile defenses. Bush’s Star Wars speech was short on details but long in terms of the interests and ambitions represented. First and foremost, it sought to remove their major diplomatic obstacle: the 1972 A.B.M. Treaty, which precludes missile defenses and is the foundation of the world’s nuclear arms control agreements.

Toward what end? First is the political agenda – reinforcing the Bush Administration’s right-wing political base by promising protection against the inflated specter of Saddam Hussein, and simultaneously seeking to isolate Star Wars opponents as soft on defense. Of course, Richard Butler, who headed the U.N.’s special commission to disarm Iraq, is clear that an Iraqi nuclear threat is a "remote" danger. Star Wars has been a political project since Reaganites invented it to marginalize the 1980s Nuclear Weapons Freeze movement. The Freeze movement prevailed, but Republicans and too many Democrats learned that Star Wars is good politics. Even if the technology doesn’t work, false promises of security through missile shields win election votes. Thus the Clinton-era debate was not about whether to fund Star Wars research, but at what level. Democrats, for the most part, feared making themselves politically vulnerable.

Someone, of course, profits when Washington flushes tax payer dollars down the drain. "Free enterprise" is good in theory, but there is a long history of Pentagon budgets being used to subsidize covert national industrial policies. Remember the supercomputer race? Also recall that throughout the 1990s the high tech industry was one of Bill Clinton’s most important political bases.

The "military" part of the military-industrial-complex must also be mollified and nourished. Bush’s vision of land, air, sea and space-based "missile defense" platforms neatly skirts the Pentagon’s internal turf wars by gorging all its competing empires.

Yet, the most intriguing aspect of Bush’s speech was the olive branch proffered to Russia – not China. If Russia will modify the ABM treaty, there are hints that some of its industries and scientists can be integrated into the U.S.-dominated system, and its military can dream of staying in the game. So what if that isolates China. That’s the point. Recently Russia and China have established a weak "strategic partnership" in response to Washington’s increasingly aggressive unilateralism. But, with both nations dependent on, and anxious for, U.S. and Japanese technologies and investments, the faux alliance is tenuous at best. Washington is making Moscow an offer.

Which returns us to extorting the "grand bargain" from China. In 1972, Richard Nixon split the Sino-Soviet alliance, opening the way to play one against the other. The Bush Administration appears to be tempted to try it again, this time using Moscow to reinforce post-Cold War containment of China. This is a dangerous game. The spy plane confrontation should have taught us the perils of arrogant disregard for Chinese history, politics, and power.

The Cold War ended through popular demonstrations and Realpolitik understanding that "common security" is real security. In this regard, there is a true grand bargain to be honored: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the U.S. and other nuclear powers to eliminate all their nuclear weapons. It. trumps a costly and dangerous arms race with a nation that is the world’s oldest continuous civilization.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England and the author of With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion and Moral Imagination.


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