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Getting to Zero Starts With One Man

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Posted on Apr 10, 2009

By William Pfaff

It is estimated that there are some 23,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia today, with another thousand or so held by China, Israel, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and who knows who else.

As President Barack Obama said in Prague during his overseas journey last week, it could make a monumental difference to the world’s security (and to world history) if the United States would agree to an internationally negotiated reduction in its own nuclear forces (to zero), reversing a 60-year American policy of having by far the biggest, not to mention the most advanced and most varied, arsenal of these weapons—whose peculiar quality is that everyone except the United States is terrified of using one of them.

The American public would be terrified too, were there to be the serious prospect of using these weapons (it certainly scared itself nearly to death at the time of the Cuban missile crisis). It has, during most of those past 60 years, contradictorily consoled itself by the belief that invincibility is invulnerability, even though some of its political leaders and commentators insist that the country remains in permanent danger from Muslim terrorists—or worse, “messianic apocalyptic cults controlling atomic bombs” (guess who that might be?).

What the president proposes is to try to get the Senate to ratify, or to put into practice, arms reduction treaties the United States has already signed, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (already ratified by 148 governments), the Moscow Treaty of 2002, signed in Moscow that year to make a drastic reduction in Russian and American nuclear stocks, and the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty with Russia. He wants a new START agreement to bring the number of strategic weapons to under 1,000 each. He would also like an agreement banning production of new fissile material for weapons, which the Bush administration considered unverifiable.

All this is the grist from which the international arms control community—militaries, governments, universities, think tanks, NGOs and commentators of numerous countries—have been milling public policy proposals. It is admirable that so many people are willing to devote themselves to this dreary task, and certain huge obstacles have to be overcome.

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The first is that strategic nuclear weapons have proved to be peacemakers. Neither large nor small countries have been willing to use one of them because they are deterred by the threat of retaliation. That is when they are dealing with other countries possessing these weapons, or having major-country friends who possess them.

There is only one theoretical scenario for using a nuclear weapon against such a state and surviving, and that is by possessing what in the trade is known as a credible second-strike deterrent capability. That is: I can bomb you, and you won’t bomb back because I have so many more nuclear weapons that if you retaliate I will annihilate you (to use Hilary Clinton’s vocabulary).

That is not an entirely credible threat, since if someone should carry out the annihilation option they might find that a government even more powerful than theirs might decide they have shown themselves so reckless and dangerous that they should be annihilated too, in the general interest. But that kind of thinking is Herman Kahn-type Cold War speculation, which eventually reached its zero point in the “MAD” (mutual assured destruction) strategy, and thankfully disappeared with the Cold War.

The totally unconvincing scenario today (for Iran, let us say) is a nuclear attack on a nuclear-armed enemy, producing national suicide. This is the often-cited “apocalyptic madman and his cult” scenario. But even if you identify Hitler as an apocalyptic madman, you must ask if he would really have launched the Holocaust if Jewish physicists had already invented the atomic bomb.

If you want to put an end to nuclear arsenals, there is no clever way around the obstacle that stands in front of Barack Obama, as he follows the nuclear arms policy admonition of four eminent former officials: Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn. Their advice is that the Obama government try to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to zero.

Nuclear arms proliferation will never be stopped so long as the United States insists on maintaining a privileged position of global nuclear domination. So long as that is the American position, no one able to do so will renounce the option that presumably preoccupies Iran: that of possessing a minimum nuclear deterrent.

But if the United States takes the lead in negotiating nuclear disarmament, there is a real prospect that others will follow. If the offer is real, everyone benefits. One begins by observing existing agreements.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.


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By Folktruther, April 15, 2009 at 3:25 pm Link to this comment

Actually, Max, you raise the central point in eliminating nuclear weapons, the outrage at a nuclear policy that the US has been pre-eminant in persuing.  Eliminating nuclear weapons does not start with one man; it starts with hundreds of millions of earthpeople demandng it.

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By Max Shields, April 15, 2009 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

felicity,

While, it has been talk, the Presidential rhetoric has been going on for decades (with a lapse during the Bush II years) whereby de-escalating nuclear armament has been vaunted.

But it has been talk on the part of the US. I see nothing new with Obama’s rhetoric on nuclear. It sounds pretty much like Kissinger and Reagan talk.

These are false arguments geared mostly for weaker states. The US has never had any intention of reducing its arsenal. There are plans being executed now to grow it. This is all about keeping Iran (and N. Korea) in check.

As signers of the NPT, the US should be ensuring that rogue states like Israel are not building their arsenal (hundreds). Neither Pakistan nor India have signed on to the NPT and they are supposedly “allies’. Where’s the outrage or attempt to bring them in the fold?

There have been a few countries that have actually eliminated their nuclear weapon programs. They have found it too costly and actually jeopardizes stability in their regions.

But it will be a cold day in hell before the world’s largest military industrial comlex does the same. You can bet on that.

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By felicity, April 15, 2009 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment

I was 12 when our bombs wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  For years following that holocaust the ‘bomb’ - from the time we detected its launch (from Russia) to the time it hit somewhere in the US (20 minutes) to its immediate damage, to its long-lasting effects on our population, to the poisoning of our soil (it was argued that nothing could be grown in contaminated soil for 100 years) were in the forefront of our thoughts.

By about 1970, we quit talking about them maybe so we and others could stock-pile them by the thousands without the sane among us noticing, wondering or caring?

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By Folktruther, April 12, 2009 at 10:42 am Link to this comment

Felicity, more generally ours is the Age of Pathology, where ideological absurdity forms a major strand in its tenets.  As the Beerdoctor says, it is getting really deep. 

But it is quite possible to retire a few obsolete nueclear weaapons, possibly to make way for more effective ones.  And Obama mught do so, since it has only marginal relevance to geo-strategic policy.

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By rollzone, April 12, 2009 at 8:45 am Link to this comment

hello. nuclear junkpiles are obsolete. there has never been a more appropriate opportunity to flex some nuclear mushrooms than ringing the miserable mountain rimmed real estate of Afghanistan with surgical radiation laden dust clouds billowing over the summits in the sunshine. atomics brought a far more committed race to their senses, and there is no threat without deliverence. reduction with return on our investment. from a legal standpoint: if we don’t use them- somebody else will.

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By Purple Girl, April 12, 2009 at 5:13 am Link to this comment

“messianic Apocalyptic groups” We have plenty of our own- and they’ve been working their way in to high public office. Who missed Hagee, and his lap dog LIEberman (already got your Golden Ticket to the ‘rapture’ bus, Joe?), whispering in McCains ear. Hagee dreams of Pre-emptive strikes on Iran to kick off Armegeddon! who didn’t get chills down their back when McCain sang “Bomb, bomb,bomb Iran”? Who missed Hillary parroting the thought by proclaiming we could “Obliterate Iran”. Seems all three had the same target, why assume they didn’t have the same twisted reason?
There are those Religious folks who see ‘signs’,and there are others in this ‘evangelical’ movement who are working very diligently to Create ‘Signs’.
Bachmann’s call for becoming ‘Armed and Dangerous’ has eerie correlations with Charlie Mansons call for Helter Skelter…There is a ‘Us against Them’ underlying message. Manson wanted the Blacks to be seen as the culprits of destruction, so he intentionally tried to pin acts of violence on them (Instead of the Blacks causing it, it is now the Liberals) . Once the Race Wars started, and the majority of people were dead- the Family would rise up and rule the World- instead of Death Valley, it’s now Alaska!
These Sociopaths of the Religious Right have enlisted into their psychotic ranks media personalities and Politicians.
don’t tell me these people are ignorant of what they are inciting- we have the last 4 decades of Domestic terrorism as Precedence!Glen Beck throws out “obama will take away your guns’ and within days 3 cops are ambushed and killed. Who will be doused with Gasoline and set on fire Now?Some 15 yr old Wicca follower?Let’s not forget Palin’s Church believes in Witches!
so why does the US need to reduce or eliminate Our Nuke supply- because we have our own groups of Religious zealots who are literally Hell Bent on assuring Human Suffering and the destruction of the Earth. It’s not just Islam’s soiciopaths we must defend ourselves against, but our own Servants of Satan wrapped in the flag and waving a Bible. Isn’t the deluded promise of 72 virgins as deadly as the Delusion of a ‘Rapture’?

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By Claus-Erik Hamle, April 11, 2009 at 10:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The missiles in Poland are to shoot down any surviving Russian missiles after a First Strike. Of course, it´s “only” for blackmail. But the Russians won´t be blackmailed, they´ll implement Launch On Warning. So, we´ll probably die by computer malfunction/mistake. But the bloody fools in the Pentagon pushed for this. A disarming and unanswerable first-strike capability is SUICIDAL. Former Trident missile engineer Bob Aldridge-www.plrc.org-resigned for that reason.

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By richardbelldc, April 11, 2009 at 6:10 pm Link to this comment

Let’s really put the nuclear genie back in the bottle and eliminate nuclear weapons AND nuclear power.

If Obama is truly serious about eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons once and for all, then he should also be considering pressing for the elimination of nuclear power.

Here’s the problem: fissionable atoms don’t know the difference between atoms for peace and atoms for war. The training and technology for running nuclear plants and for building nuclear weapons overlap in ways that we have not been able to untangle more than 60 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even some of the leading promoters of the “peaceful” atom trembled at the risks. Take Dr. Alvin Weinberg, a Manhattan Project veteran and subsequently director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In an article in Science in 1972, Weinberg said in supporting nuclear power, “We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society.”

Just how Faustian a bargain we have learned over and over again, as country after country have used their “peaceful” nuclear power programs as a cover for their successful nuclear weapons development programs.

Ending the threat of nuclear weapons is a radically easier task, in simple physical terms, than ending the threat of biological and chemical weapons. Without highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium, no one can build nuclear weapons. HUE and PU do not occur in nature; creating the infrastructure to produce these substances requires a very large-scale industrial commitment that only nations have been able to make.

So we have a unique opportunity as a species: we can choose to put at least one of the weapons of mass destruction, the only one so far that has clearly threatened the extinction of the human species, back in the bottle. (We do not have this luxury in dealing with the threats of biological and chemical warfare, where even very small numbers of people could potentially wreak great damage)

Eliminating nuclear power does not have to mean eliminating nuclear medicine and the associated benefits. We could meet this medical demand with at a scale that is very much smaller than the nuclear weapons/nuclear power scale. There would still be some risk, but the credibility of a nonproliferation regime to control medical reactors would be vastly greater than the existing but failed nonproliferation regime to control nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

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By mad world darko, April 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good article but it omits a few practical notes. One is that the notion of M.A.D. as a deterrent was disproved when, decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it became known that air strikes had been approved by Kennedy for the following day (the day after the truce was called)if the Russians did not agree to pull out. Gen. Lemay had been pushing aggressively for an earlier and massive strike to the sites. Unknown to Kennedy, though, was the fact that Russian commanders of the IRBM missile facilities had been ordered to launch their missiles at the Eastern Seaboard of the US in the event of impending air assault. Kennedy and his advisors had been told the missiles were not yet operational. Sheer luck, not MAD, saved us.

Our military is armed to the teeth with binary chemical weapons and our nerve-gas and bio warfare programs are still active, as far as the public knows. This, of course, in addition to those lovely nukes (movie fans—can you say Slim Pickens rides the bomb?).

The scenario offered by all those grownups running this country for 60 years is that they bomb us—we bomb them more. The Russians, scared senseless, have always followed our lead. These big-brains never ask the simplest of questions—what happens to the planet if we blow up our adversary?

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By textynn, April 11, 2009 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One thing no one talks about is the waste toxins the nukes have. Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is toxic chemical spewer. People in Spokane, WA say in lawsuits that they are downwinders, meaning they are downwind of Hanford Nuclear Plant. This “downwinder” name refers to Spokane’s having the highest MS rate in the country and the second highest MS rate in the world.  This plant has poisoned one of the most prolific and sustaining rivers in the world, the mighty Columbia. Building these plants is suicide in more ways than one.  We might as well paint targets on our country for any enemies.  Even if the enemies don’t get you the poison will.

CHECK OUT THIS NIGHTMARE!!
*Cases Against (Hanford, Washington) Nuclear Plant Finally Heard
http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=102x1476344

*The Release of Radioactive Materials from Hanford: 1944-1972
http://www.doh.wa.gov/hanford/publications/history/release.html

Swarm of Quakes Bedevils Hanford
http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2009/03/swarm_of_quakes_bedevil_hanfor.html

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By gernomino, April 11, 2009 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Given that time is running out (perpetual war + global warming + economic collapse = doomsday), and that President Obama just doesn’t have what it takes to bring about change we can believe in, isn’t it obvious that it’s up to us, the what sort of world?  But how?  Online, that’s how, what with each of us only a mouse-click away from getting the word out to hundreds of millions of our fellow earth citizens.  What’s even better, Yes We Can.

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By felicity, April 11, 2009 at 10:32 am Link to this comment

Every ‘age’ in history has had a name and ours will surely be The Age of Absurdity.  Even before Bush, we seem to have fallen victim to a kind of public neurosis, a belief that the last 50 years have been perfectly normal.

Under Bush, MAD morphed into NUTS, Nuclear Use Theories. Given that we’re training our young military to have personality disorders - lean, mean killing machines - put an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their call and POOF, there goes the planet.

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By Max Shields, April 11, 2009 at 7:29 am Link to this comment

I should add that’s 600 dead since just about the time Obama took office in January. So, is this the new definition of an “anti-war” president?

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By Max Shields, April 11, 2009 at 7:27 am Link to this comment

Let’s just concentrate on these names for a moment (particularly the first 2) and ask yourself a question: Why would such (self-described) Cold War hawks be pulling for this?

Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn.

This is pretty much Obama continuity - Bush called for a reduction by 2012. The MSM, again, is trying to make everything old look new with Obama.

If this was a sincere move to reduce, with the US leading the way, then it’s worthy of consideration.

But while Obama speaks, he has ordered continued murder of civilians, children and women in Af-Pak war, as he escalates that front on his long war. Over 600 Af-Pak dead ONLY 10 are aleged Al-Qaeda!!!

Fine job Mr. President. And what’s this about peace?

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By thebeerdoctor, April 11, 2009 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

When the writer uses the word eminent former officials, and those former officials happen include the not prosecuted war criminal Henry Kissinger among them, I know its time to go to my outdoors outfitter catalog and order some full length neoprene waders, because this shit is starting to get deep.

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By TheUbermensch, April 11, 2009 at 12:00 am Link to this comment

Why are people so preoccupied with non essential political agendas.  Do people really believe that Russia and the United States are going to really cull the nuclear arsenal.  Are we really that naive that if the United States were to eliminate all of our nuclear weapons that Russia and China would do the same?  No nation is going to use nuclear weapon,s which would undoubtedly seal their own demise Obama is focusing on this issue primarily to grant probity to the United states on nuclear issues such curtailing Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program.  It is purely a political ploy based solely on gaining multilateral support for the ongoing dilemma with Iran and North Korea.

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By Ribald, April 10, 2009 at 8:33 pm Link to this comment

I’d be glad to have the nuclear stockpile reduced, but I’m skeptical that Obama’s actions will match his promises. Does he really have the political muscle and strength of principle to nullify his political opponents? He hasn’t been willing or able to oppose some of the most ridiculous policies that have ever been proposed (namely, Geithner’s plans and the state secrets privilege fiasco).

  Obama’s political skill is not in selling something controversial, but in selling something that already has broad support among the political elite. He could push a big stimulus bill because only congressional Republicans opposed it (and he still caved on many initiatives to reduce controversy), but he can’t reform the financial system or dismantle the warrantless wiretapping program because there are vested interests on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side.

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