Barack Obama: Naif or Visionary?

President Obama in Prague earlier this year calling for nuclear disarmament.  Source:  www.guardian.co.uk

Slip back for a moment to the early 1980s.  The Reagan administration was talking about a winnable nuclear war.  Reagan himself called the MX missile the “Peacekeeper Missile,” a powerful multiple warhead nuclear weapon some interpreted as an effort to obtain a “first-strike capability.”  Orson Welles, that powerful cinematic presence, ambled up to the podium, with the assistance of a cane, on a sunny day in Central Park in June 1982, to address thousands in the Nuclear Freeze movement.  Activists opposing Reagan’s foreign policy, including this blogger, marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon in 1981, chanting “No draft, no war, U.S. out of El Salvador!!”  When mounted police trotted alongside the marchers, some began chanting, “Free the horses!”  It was the 1980s, but we wished it was the sixties.

Obama has said he came of age during the Reagan presidency.  So did I.  For many years, I wore a T-shirt I purchased at the Nuclear Freeze rally that had a picture of our blue planet on it, with words above, “Don’t Blow It!”

Barack Obama, spending his last two college years at Columbia University, wrote an article in 1983 profiling two anti-war groups on campus, which is attached and currently making its way around the web.  In addition, he wrote a paper for a poli sci class, for which he received an ‘A’, on how he would negotiate nuclear weapons reduction with the Russians.   This week he will have a chance to implement that paper.  Dreams come true for some of us.

A NYTimes article today explains how Obama’s thinking on nuclear weapons has evolved over the years since that article and poli sci paper.  It suggests that at core he, like Reagan ironically, wants to eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet.  (Read his Prague speech on the matter.)  Yet today, he’ll settle for negotiations with the Russians for nuclear weapons reductions and for efforts at non-proliferation. 

He is a remarkable fellow, our president, with so much confidence and affability that he convinces people to do things.  This is a presidential quality.  A quality W woefully lacked.  I am impressed by the fact that the Russians, in advance of Obama’s trip, have agreed to allow U.S. military overflights to resupply NATO in Afghanistan.  Gobama!!

I just hope that over the years since the early eighties, Obama has come to grasp the complexities and ironies of interstate relations and the way nuclear weapons factor in to whether states make war or peace.  A study of these issues can be emotionally-unsatisfying, especially to a utopian wishing to put an end to the “twisted logic” of national security, bemoaning the “academic discussion of first versus second strike capabalities,” and attempting to confront “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in this country.”  It’s okay, Mr. President, we all wrote like that in college.  

For the record, militarism is what happened in pre-World War I Germany, as the German General Staff, backed by the Kaiser, virtually hijacked that country; it is not at all what has taken place in America since George Washington turned down the opportunity to become a military dictator. 

The question is, now that Barack Obama is the leader of what he called in 1983 the “military-industrial interests, as they add to their billion dollar erector sets,” can he make the best decisions on weapons systems and force posture that will make the world safer?   

Although nuclear weapons are a horrible reality, they have arguably reduced great power conflict since the end of World War II.  While we hate having this threat hanging over us, it is one of the ironies of being human that it is exactly this threat of mutual destruction that has deterred nuclear-armed states from going to war.   So, President Obama’s goals of reducing nuclear weapons and staunching proliferation make sense, but we must be very careful when talking about nuclear disarmament.  The reality is that if all the peace-loving major powers disarmed, the technology remains out there, the genie is out of the bottle.  Some nasty power some time in the future (need I name names?) could and would build such weapons.  Would we have a deterrent to their use or threatened use of such weapons at that time? Could we develop one quickly? We must tread carefully in this area.  The disarmament and arms control efforts of the liberal democracies in the thirties occurred against the backdrop of Germany’s secret arms buildup, leaving them unable to confront Hitler in 1939.

Furthermore, those of us who opposed the Reagan arms buildup must admit that what Reagan (and George Kennan and Paul Nitze) had hoped would happen happened!  We bankrupted the Soviet Union through an arms race, and that nasty dictatorship withered away.  Was it worth the risk?  Maybe not.  The risk of nuclear war probably increased during the eighties because of the subtle shift in the balance of first strike/second strike capabilities, what Student Obama scorned in 1983.  If rasher men had been running the Soviet Union at the time, they could have interpreted Reagan’s commitment to the MX missile and other weapons systems, in conjunction with statements by such luminaries as Cap Weinberger, as an effort to obtain a first strike advantage, an ability to wipe out your adversary in a first strike so as to sustain only a modest second strike against yourself.

Back to today, the disagreement that Obama has had with his Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, over whether to modernize our nuclear arsenal, warrants careful consideration.  As the guy calling for nuclear arms reduction and wishing to build alliances through the power of America’s example, Obama does not want to build new “erector sets,” especially when he’s announcing expensive domestic spending initiatives.  Yet it is important for the U.S. to stay at the technological edge in military preparedness, especially as regards weapons that improve defense and deterrence.  I’m not saying that Gates’s initiative is the right one, only that policy makers must choose which technologies will be critical to America’s security and a safer world.  Yet Obama’s priority seems to be, simply, to not build any more nukes.  

The NYTimes article speaks about a class on presidential decision-making at Columbia that was formative for Student Obama, in which he wrote a paper on how to conduct nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians.  I took a course around the same time at Tufts University that was formative for me, called War and War Prevention, taught by Stephen W. Van Evera, now a professor at MIT and author of an important book, Causes of War:  Power and the Roots of Conflict, that I hope Obama and his national security team have studied.  The book’s conclusion: policies that strengthen a nation’s capacity to defend itself, rather than conquer other nations, make the world safer by convincing leaders the world over that conquest is difficult.  So, disarmament doesn’t usher in a safer world, arming with the right armaments, defensive armaments, does.  The book also suggests that misperceptions about this “offense-defense” balance have been a leading cause of wars throughout history, notably the catastrophic World War I.  Therefore, transparency, policy clarity and the disinterested analysis of national security by people outside government would reduce the risks of misperception. 

Ironically, nuclear weapons have bolstered the defense, by discouraging would-be attackers.  It is a depressing thought that the most horrible weapon in history has had a silver-lining, just as the most hopeful prospect – disarmament – has helped cause war.   For a greater understanding of why human affairs involve so much contradiction, we must, alas, turn to Mr. Freud, who last century theorized that two instincts drive human beings – the love and death instincts.  The love instinct (libido) drives us to build and the death instinct to destroy.  President Obama is definitely a builder.  He should just relegate his utopian visions to their proper place on the back burner, so that he can take a hard look at defense policy, formulating one that will promote American security and peace in the world.  The Van Evera book is a starter…

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