Nuclear Weapons
United States

new internationalist
issue 310 March 1999


The military-industrial complex in the US is alive and still playing
with its favourite toy, says Christian Huot.

As the world was reminded by the recent South Asian atomic crisis, nuclear intimidation is still very much part of international politics. In North America, too, some people are doing what they can to feed atom mania. Star Wars, the extravagant missile-interception scheme that President Reagan promoted so loudly in the 1980s, might be making a comeback, but this time more quietly.

Beginning in November 1999 for the fiscal year 2000, the Clinton administration will have to decide whether or not to deploy a North American Star Wars system. The administration used not to be too keen on the idea. When it arrived in power it reduced the Star Wars budget dramatically, and last year Secretary of State Madeleine Albright renewed the Anti-Ballistic Treaty with four countries of the former Soviet Union, committing the parties not to deploy national systems.

Among his other travails, however, Clinton now faces strong and growing claims that there is an imminent danger. On 16 July 1998 the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Threat to the US – a congressionally mandated panel – reported that the Government had seriously underestimated the threat from Iran, North Korea and possibly Iraq.

Although the Commission refused to link its conclusions to the contentious debate over deployment, the Republican congressional leader at the time, Newt Gringrich, called the study ‘the most important warning about our national security since the end of the Cold War’. He immediately demanded a bipartisan working group to re-evaluate US intelligence and defence capabilities. In January, a few weeks after the attack on Iraq, suddenly bomb-happy Clinton and the Pentagon asked Congress to approve $7 billion over six years for anti-ballistic defence research and development.

Meanwhile NORAD, the Canadian-American defence organization, claims that the Star Wars project is ‘more and more important’ and that ‘future capacity to counter a ballistic-missile attack... is crucial to a credible security strategy’. The US has suggested that NORAD could manage the project.

At the Pentagon, Colonel Rick Lehner justifies the project by saying that the system ‘would mostly allow us to protect our troops in places such as the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula... or against a limited attack by long-distance missiles’. In short, a limited and necessary tool, without the Reagan-era megalomania.

But Bill Robinson, military analyst for Project Ploughshares, an Ottawa-based pacifist group, believes that the project ‘makes no sense, given that none of the “rogue” states have ballistic missiles capable of reaching North America’. Normand Beaudet, author of Le mythe de la défense canadienne (Écosociété, 1994), suggests we should ‘look at what happened to the Iraqi SCUDs in the Gulf War. If they didn’t fall in some mudhole, they were easily intercepted by obsolete US Patriots.’

Worse, says Robinson, is that ‘the supporters of the technology see it as a first step towards a very elaborate system. Just look at the web site of the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank fairly representative of the right of the US political spectrum. They are shamelessly proposing a fully fledged Star Wars system.’ (for details, see http://www.nationalsecurity.org/heritage/issues/chap13.html) Robinson fears that deployment might relaunch an arms race with Russia, with whom the US has, at best, fragile relations.

Beaudet believes that the project ‘has always been eccentric, but in the context of the military-industrial complex, that doesn’t matter. The US economic system is structured around high technology, which is the centrepiece of American comparative advantage. This industry rests largely on a handful of immensely powerful corporations: General Electric, Westinghouse, Lockheed, Boeing... Most of these companies depend heavily on their military contracts from the Pentagon.’

Beaudet adds that ‘the power of the military-industrial complex is not only based in top-level lobbying. US society itself is based on the principle that people have a fundamental right to kill others to protect themselves, so they give huge political influence to the firearms lobby, which is very close to the military industry. Sadly, no politician would ever get elected on an anti-gun platform.’

In June 1998 the Brookings Institution, a private research organization, disclosed the true importance of nuclear weapons to the US military-economic system. In a study billed by the Washington Post as ‘the first comprehensive audit of the country’s effort to build a nuclear arsenal’, the Institution revealed that since 1940 the US has spent $5.8 trillion on it. Since their birth, nuclear-weapons programs have made up 29 per cent of all military expenditure and close to 11 per cent of total government spending, ranking ahead of welfare and interest payments on the national debt. Today, nearly ten years after the Cold War, the program still has a $35 billion annual budget.

Beaudet says that the Pentagon has a total budget ‘that dwarfs even Microsoft’s... There are very powerful interests getting large contracts from this organization, and they want to keep things the way they are... Since 1989 the industry has been struggling to find itself a raison d’être. We tend to look for rational explanations, but there aren’t any. The industry is protecting its interests, that’s all. Then it’s up to governments to make the sales pitch.’

Christian Huot is a freelance journalist living in Montreal.

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