Winning One for the Gipper: Donald Rumsfeld and the Return of the Star Wars Lobby

The first six weeks of the George W. Bush era, starting with the flurry of appointments he made during December, through the confirmation hearings of his key cabinet members earlier this month, and on into his first full week in office, has had a very “retro” feel about it. We have a vice president who was Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, and we have a secretary of defense who got his start in the Nixon administration in 1969 before he went on to become Ford’s chief of staff and then Ford’s secretary of defense.

Apparently they couldn’t get anybody from the Eisenhower administration, but every other Republican administration of the post-World War II period is amply represented in the cabinet of George W. Bush. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself; the real problem is that, particularly in the foreign policy realm, George W. Bush has leaned heavily toward conservative ideologues and away from moderate internationalists. If Dwight Eisenhower were alive today, he might not be welcome in the Bush administration. And if they did find room for him, they’d surround him with ideologically driven hardliners in much the same way that Colin Powell, the moderate militarist in the Bush cabinet, has been encircled by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

I started my career as a foreign policy analyst in 1979 (when Jimmy Carter’s administration was veering strongly to the right and Ronald Reagan was gearing up for his second run for the presidency). This Bush restoration is reminding me of my youth—but I can’t decide whether to feel nostalgic or just plain horrified. As Ronald Reagan once said, “here we go again:” pushing missile defense, pressing for a major increase in military spending and a major tax cut simultaneously, and even engaging in loose talk about “usable” nuclear weapons, as at least one Bush adviser has done.

Do we REALLY have to have all of those arguments all over again? Well, if so, I’m rested and ready, so let’s get on with it.

II. The Bush Policy: Which Republican Party and Which Nuclear Weapons Policy?

The first thing I want to point out is that all of these folks who are pressing Star Wars as a way to honor the legacy of Ronald Reagan are worshiping the wrong Ronald Reagan. When push came to shove, Reagan never built Star Wars, but he DID agree to major reductions in U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement (INF) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). And if his advisers hadn’t reined him in at Reykjavik, he and Mikhail Gorbachev might have started us down the road toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. If they want to honor Ronald Reagan, they should reduce nuclear weapons—not build a new Star Wars shield.

As for the litany of arms control treaties that prominent figures on the Republican right, such as Donald Rumsfeld’s good friend and long-time associate Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy are so busy trashing at any and every opportunity, virtually ALL of them were negotiated by Republican presidents: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 by Richard Nixon, the START I and INF agreements by Ronald Reagan, and the START II agreement by George Bush the elder. So we need to be mindful that when it comes to arms control there are two Republican parties, and that a number of George W. Bush’s most important appointees are out of step with the party’s historic commitment to nuclear arms control.

I was still under thirty when Reagan gave his March 1983 “Star Wars” speech, in which he pledged to come up with a system that would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” We have since learned from Frances Fitzgerald’s wonderful book on Reagan and Star Wars, Way Out There in the Blue, that Reagan may have gotten the idea for that memorable phrase from the 1966 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Torn Curtain. Paul Newman plays a dissident American physicist who goes to East Germany to try to convince his East German counterpart that they should cooperate in the creation of an “anti-missile missile” that will save the world from the danger of nuclear weapons. Having read this in Fitzgerald’s book, my colleagues and I rented the movie immediately so we could do “research.” We found that when the Newman character arrives at the airport in East Germany—after his girlfriend, played by Julie Andrews, has snuck on the plane and followed him there—he gives a brief statement to the effect that his planned antimissile missile will render nuclear weapons “obsolete.” Apparently the “impotent” part of “impotent and obsolete” came from Reagan himself.

Just as the problem of impotence can have deep psychological roots, so too does the knee-jerk commitment to missile defense among most Republicans have an explanation that is at least in part psychological. I moderated a panel last week at the New School on the 40th anniversary of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech, and one of our speakers, Lawrence J. Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was the assistant secretary of defense for manpower in the Reagan administration, pointed out that to be a Republican in good standing these days you have to support missile defense, just as the party faithful are expected to be anti-abortion. Going back to the 1950s, our various missile defense programs have been virtually unblemished by success. Since Reagan’s 1983 speech we have spent over $70 billion on missile defense with virtually nothing to show for it. Larry Korb’s suggestion, then, that the Republican Star Warriors are dealing with this issue on blind faith rather than with hard-headed attention to the facts of the case starts to look pretty convincing.

III. The Bottom Line: From MAD to NUTS?

Unfortunately, Star Wars isn’t all in our heads—or in the heads of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and George W. Bush, the key missile defense boosters in the new administration. It’s in the budget, and if we don’t speak up, it may eventually be deployed in a provocative manner that will only serve to re-ignite the nuclear arms race. Secretary Rumsfeld, who has a long and dubious association with Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (a corporate-financed, right-wing think tank that has been pushing the case for Star Wars nonstop ever since Gaffney left the Reagan Pentagon to start the organization back in 1988) clearly wants to deploy a missile defense system. If you want chapter and verse on Rumsfeld’s ties to conservative think tanks like the Center for Security Policy and Empower America, take a look at the report that my colleague Michelle Ciarrocca and I wrote last June, Tangled Web: The Marketing of Missile Defense 1994-2000, available on our web site at www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms.

The most dangerous thing about Don Rumsfeld isn’t the fact that he’s a right-wing ideologue on missile defense, although he is that. The most dangerous thing about Rumsfeld is that he’s a skilled bureaucratic infighter, the man who rope-a-doped Henry Kissinger and got the Ford administration to bail out on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT II. So he will proceed in a calculated fashion on missile defense, but he will play to win. As he suggested in his confirmation hearings, he views the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty—a treaty which not only potential adversaries like Russia and China, but most of our NATO allies regard as a cornerstone of strategic stability—as “ancient history.” Since Rumsfeld is more than twice as old as the ABM treaty, I have to wonder what that makes him—prehistoric?

Commitment to National Missile Defense (NMD)—with interceptors on land, at sea, in the air, and eventually, in outer space—is just one aspect of the Bush nuclear doctrine. He has also made some positive comments about making unilateral reductions in the U.S. strategic arsenal and taking some of our weapons off of hair- trigger alert. Unfortunately, these measures will not lead to a safer world if he also goes ahead with a full-blown NMD system, because that will simply lead China to build up its modest nuclear arsenal (18 single warhead missiles that can reach U.S. soil) and Russia to put its arsenal on high alert. And as a U.S. intelligence assessment that was released last year suggested, an NMD deployment could also stimulate a nuclear arms race in South Asia and lead to the faster proliferation of nuclear technology to the Middle East. So NMD can’t simply be about defense, since it is going to cause more problems than it can possibly solve.

That’s where the other Don Rumsfeld comes in—the guy who wants the U.S. to be able to intervene with impunity in so-called rogue states like Iraq and North Korea without worrying about a mid-range missile with a chemical or biological warhead taking out a few hundred of our troops, and the guy who chaired a panel which recommended earlier this month that the U.S. get ready to protect its “space assets” militarily. If you put those two ideas together with the enthusiasm for “mini-nukes”—low-yield nuclear weapons that can be used to take out Saddam Hussein’s bunker or one of Kim Jong Il’s secret weapons labs—the full picture of the Bush nuclear policy emerges. It is an aggressive, unilateralist policy that seeks to preserve the ability of the United States to act with relative impunity (as we did in Iraq and Kosovo) even as we use a combination of new nuclear weapons designs, missile defenses, and a military push into space to intimidate our potential adversaries. It doesn’t have to turn out this way, but it will turn out this way if the Rumsfeld faction trumps the more moderate Colin Powell faction. It will definitely turn out this way if the public doesn’t make its voice heard, as it did during the days of the nuclear freeze campaign in the 1980s.