Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Obama's nuclear developments

Obama has had several major news events on the nuclear front lately. He completed a Nuclear Posture Review: Nuclear Posture Review (or Nuclear Public Relations?) by Stephen M. Walt Foreign Policy 04/06/10; 'Obama's Nuclear Strategy Is a Small Revolution' Der Spiegel International 04/07/10. He held a nuclear summit in Washington, "the largest such gathering on U.S. soil since the San Francisco conference that launched the United Nations in 1945", according to John Aloysius Farrell in Nuclear security summit: a historic gathering Global Post 04/12/10. And he negotiated a new START Treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear armaments: Arms Deal More 'Illusion than Reality,' But Still a Good START Der Spiegel International 04/09/10.

As the titles of the articles I linked may hint, I'm cautiously optimistic about these developments. In the grand scheme of things, nuclear arms control is still the most important responsibility of world leaders, even if the politics don't play out that way. If we can't avoid a big nuclear war, global warming won't have time to devastate the planet.

It's hard to imagine that any treaty Obama negotiated would be able to get through the Senate with the Republicans pursuing their policy of fundamental (just-say-no) opposition to the President and the Democrats. And we can no longer count on the Republicans to honor such agreements even though they were signed but not technically ratified, which is what the Reagan administration did with the SALT II Treaty. With the precedent now of the Cheney-Bush administration "unsigning" the International Criminal Court treaty and the Republicans firmly committed to a unilateralist foreign policy, we can't count on them acting rationally even about a major nuclear arms-control treaty that is very much in the national interest.

And speaking of the Reagan administration, I've always given Reagan credit for three significant, constructive accomplishments: the Social Security financing plan; his 1985 tax reform (not to be confused with the "supply side" tax cuts of 1981); and, his intermediate nuclear-arms treaty with the Soviet Union.

Joe Conason has a good column on the latter today as he refutes Sarah Palin's pseudohistory about Saint Reagan, What Sarah Palin forgets (or never knew) about Ronald Reagan Salon 04/12/10:

Beginning in November 1985, at a meeting in Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev sought to slash nuclear weapons stockpiles in the U.S. and the Soviet Union by 50 percent or more. A year later they met in Reykjavik to discuss proposals to completely eliminate nuclear weapons from the arsenals of both nations. The U.S. president's approach was so radical -- and radically sincere, according to everyone close to him -- that it alarmed many of his more conservative advisors. His hawkish defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, was appalled. Relieved when the Reykjavik talks ended without agreement because of a fundamental disagreement over missile defenses, the hawks were disturbed, to put it mildly, when Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

The INF treaty was truly historic, both because of its own deep cuts in the superpower arsenals and because of its symbolic portent of the imminent end of the Cold War. No treaty between the U.S. and the USSR had been signed and ratified by the Senate for 15 years by then -- and this agreement stipulated the drawdown and destruction of nuclear weapons by both sides for the first time ever.

Morever, at a moment when conservative opinion widely distrusted Gorbachev and urged Reagan to maintain bitter antagaonism [sic] toward "our enemies," he employed summitry and arms negotiations to reassure the Soviets that they could pursue liberalization without fear. It was a decisive moment in world history and one for which the intuitive president deserves great credit. [my emphasis]
The Republicans with their postmodern "reality is what you want it to be" approach to history have transmogrified a theatrical moment of no practical significance - Reagan in Berlin saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - into a symbol of how bluster and belligerence "defeated" the Soviet Union. But Conason has it right. Stating it slightly differently, the most significant step Reagan took that encouraged the developments that lead to the end of the USSR was the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, not the useless "Star Wars" boondoggle or backing the fanatical Muslim terrorists brave mujaheddin freedom fighters in Afghanistan.

My understanding of Reagan's actions in the matter of the INF Treaty is in line with Conason's. Despite his dogmatic conservatism, the influence of his and Nancy Reagan's being active in peace groups in the years immediately following the Second World War remained with him. Nancy pushed him to achieve something that would be remembered as a substantial legacy for peace. And the INF Treaty qualified.

It's always tempting for liberals to look back to some period ten or twenty years ago and try to say, oh, look how much more sensible conservatives were back then. Conservatives play the same game. But when it comes to crackpot rightwing radicalism, Richard Hofstadter's famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", published in 1965 in book form, reinforced that particular tendency for liberals. And it's become kind of a bad habit. In most matters of domestic and foreign policy, Republicans are being realistic when they look to Reagan as having blazed a trail for them. Reagan's "Iran-Contra" foreign policy adventure became the template for the entire foreign policy of the Cheney-Bush administration.

But on the issue of nuclear arms control, Conason is right on the mark in contrasting the constructive nature of Reagan's nuclear arms policies in his second term with the unreflective militarism and reckless worship of nuclear arms that prevail in today's Republican Party.

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