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Lest We Forget: Neo-conservatives and Republican Foreign Policy, 1976-2000

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
04.06.2000 | POLITICS

One cold winter day in 1981, a high ranking Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration was called before a Senate subcommittee to explain some comments he had made in an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer. In the interview, Thomas K. Jones asserted that the United States would recover from a full-scale nuclear war in two to four years. He also advocated a civil defense program centered around the digging of holes to be covered with doors and a layer of dirt. "If there are enough shovels around," he said, "everybody's going to make it."

When he made these remarks, Thomas K. Jones was Deputy Under Secretary for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces.

Glib ignorance about the effects of nuclear war was not located on the fringes of the Reagan Administration. It was the conventional wisdom, up to and including the President himself. Virulent in their opposition to the SALT II Treaty and fanatical in their hatred of the Soviet Union, the hawks that succeeded Jimmy Carter in 1980 commenced upon active planning for nuclear war. Reversing longstanding American doctrine, they argued that a nuclear war could be "won," that a limited exchange was possible without further escalation, and that a first-strike capability was morally and strategically desirable. As was then said by Eugene Rostow, Reagan's chair for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "We are living in a pre-war, not a post-war, period." Such thinking fueled the largest and most dangerous arms build-up in history. Eager to fulfill their own prophecies, Reagan's team led the Soviets in a dance of arms racing and brinkmanship. In the Administration's official language, the principle of co-existence was to be dropped in favor of a "full-court press"--a basketball strategy that usually involves rough bodily contact in the opponents territory.

Most of the super-hawks that populated Reagan's cabinet were culled from the ranks of the advocacy group Committee on the Present Danger. The Committee, formed in 1976, was organized by fanatically anti-communist neo-conservatives with little patience for the give-and-take of Nixon/Carter diplomacy. Once viewed as extremists with minimal influence on policy debates, Reagan's victory brought the Committee to the center of power, the reigns of policy delivered into its lap. The arms control process was hijacked, beheaded and left to rot besides the discarded corpse of détente.

Once in power, these men geared US policy toward forcing the Soviets to accept US strategic superiority, if not humiliating defeat. Outraged by the fact of Soviet nuclear parity as enshrined in the ABM accord of 1972, they sought to move beyond the stabilizing strictures of Mutual Assured Destruction into a brave new world of effective first-strikes and laser defenses. In a series of extremely destabilizing public statements, they described nukes as effective offensive weapons. Rather than seeing the Soviet build-up of the 1970s as a rational and belated response to the American build up of the 1960s, they argued that the Soviets were preparing to use nuclear blackmail against the US and takeover the world. That this was roundly rejected as absurd by nearly every major academic and foreign policy analyst had little effect on Reagan's Defense and State Departments, where closed system intellectual incestuousness and a religious intensity kept everyone happily immune to rational criticism.

In retrospect, given the scale of recklessness in the policies and statements of the first Reagan Administration--from medium-range missiles in Europe to civil defense to SDI to "winnable nuclear war"--it is remarkable that disaster was avoided. During the early 1980s, US leaders sounded less like educated and serious men with the fate of the earth in their palms than did General Buck Turgidson of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: "I'm not saying we won't get our hair muffed. Ten to twenty million casualties tops--depending on the breaks."

The full story makes for fascinating history. Unfortunately it is a history we may be doomed to repeat.

The crusading--what one might call "madman"--school of right-wing foreign policy did not die with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite something of a drift in Republican strategy in the post-Cold War period, hawkish instincts remain alive and well at the heart of the Party in 2000. Reincarnated in a new generation of neo-conservatives these instincts are reasserting themselves amidst George W. Bush's drive to the White House. Hints of what would be found in a GOP executive are currently on display in Congress.

Along with pushing for a multi-billion dollar national missile defense system, the GOP is seeking budget cuts that would eliminate funding for the dismantling of Russian nuclear weapons. They are also urging the abandonment of a project to construct detection sensors crucial to the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Republican dominated Senate rejected the Test Ban, of course, a move that more thoughtful conservatives have described as "gratuitously blunt."

Not far from Capitol Hill, neo-conservative strategists are currently pushing to make foreign policy a front-burner issue again, and the scripted ideas being put forward by Bush on the trail manifest a disturbing nostalgia for the brashness and imagined simplicity of the Reagan era. Many prominent neo-conservatives clearly yearn for the good old days, when imagined "windows of vulnerability" won them the White House and The Day After was on the tube. "Assertive internationalism" and "Robust Nationalism" are the hot keywords of the new old thinking. Needless to say, arms control does not fit into the future being projected. For it is a future of absolute American technological mastery, and no artificial limits on the national megatonnage will be tolerated.

Infused with the righteousness of the true believer, neo-conservatives are terrifyingly fanciful when it comes to international affairs. Robert Kagan and William Kristol, two neo-con architects of GOP policy, recently penned an essay in the conservative National Review entitled "The Present Danger" in which they explicitly held up the Cold War era Reagan model as appropriate for the next president. While the authors admit that the new Present Danger is not incarnate in any adversary--"it has no name"--they nonetheless recommend that the US spend an extra $60-100 billion per year above current defense budgets to combat it. This money would be devoted to enhancing America's ability to project force abroad and the pursuance of "regime change," i.e., the invasion of foreign countries and the overthrow of leaders unpalatable to Mr. Kagan and Mr. Kristol. Flagrant disregard for international law and arms racing is to make the world safe for democracy--again.

The flagship neo-con journal, The Weekly Standard, offers an analysis of the present international scene that can only be described as paranoid delusional, claiming in a recent editorial that "it's hard to think of a time when America's international standing has been so low, when Washington's credibility was in such disrepair." The piece goes on to compare Clinton's foreign policy "drift" to Carter's "weakness"; the implication being that what America needs is another maniacal spread-eagle cowboy like Ronald Reagan. There's no Soviet bogeymen to rally behind and no charismatic leader this time around, but apparently certain unnamed mortal threats and Bush Jr. will have to do. We are surrounded and our freedom in grave peril, and apparently only The Weekly Standard has the vantage point needed to see this.

Connections between propagandists for the new Present Danger and the original Committee of the 1970s are not limited to nostalgia and borrowed catchphrases. A list of current advisors to George W. Bush reveals former members of the old Committee, most notably Richard Perle, who served as Reagan's Assistant Secretary of Defense. Along with Harvard Sovietologist Richard Pipes, Perle was the most vocal proponent of "winnable nuclear war" in Reagan's first Administration. Known as a hawk's hawk, he once famously described the European peace movement as an expression of mere "protestant angst." The millions that marched against US policy weren't really worried about getting fried in a nuclear war, you see, they were just reading too much Kierkegaard.

That Richard Perle, an advocate of nuclear superiority and manageable nuclear exchange, is one election away from getting his corner office at the Pentagon back doesn't only worry liberals. Republicans of a less ideological bent fear that the neo-conservatives will pull a Bush White House in an extremist direction, thus keeping responsible voices away from policy formation. Moderate "realists" like Alexander Haig either resigned or were forced out of the cold war circus of the 1980s for lack of passion, and the silencing of rational perspectives could again occur in a Bush Administration dominated by neo-conservative thinking.

Such worries have led Gideon Rose of the Council on Foreign Relations to doubt that the Republicans are ready to "exercise power responsibly." He sees recent statements by influential neo-conservative strategists as "cause for alarm" and says that their eerily familiar ideological passion "remains constant and dangerous." Mr. Rose is no dove, and for him to caution that the current constellation of forces in the GOP is incapable of producing a foreign policy of mature adults should stop us in our tracks.

The lessons of 1980 are loud and they are clear. Militarists and loose cannons can capture the White House and hold the world hostage. It must not be allowed to happen again.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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