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McCain's War: Playing With Nuclear Fire

McCain's War: Playing With Nuclear Fire

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

John McCain calls the conflict in Georgia "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War," and he is doing everything he can to make it his own, even at the cost of upstaging the shrinking President Bush. But the tragedy in Georgia also reveals the most embarrassing foreign policy blunder since - well, since the Bush administration decided to wage a preemptive war in Iraq. If deep thinkers in Washington insist on setting up a string of client states to encircle Russia, they should never let the puppets pull their own strings, as [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili appears to have done when he sent his army into rebellious South Ossetia.

Certainly, the Russian bullies were just waiting to pounce on any provocation, but that is precisely the point. Never provoke unless you are prepared to respond, and don't leave the decision to "the help." Every day the crisis continues, Washington looks more foolish, huffing and puffing and mouthing demands that no one - least of all the Russians - take as anything but Cold War rhetoric. This could lead to dangerous miscalculations on all sides, yet no one in our dumbed-down imperium seems likely ever to be held to account.

Who let Saakashvili off the leash? Who in the White House, Pentagon or McCain campaign led him to believe that Washington would send in the cavalry to save him? And how is it in our national interest to build up the local armies, navies and air forces in Georgia, Ukraine and so many other countries along Russia's border?

As for the Georgians, the blunder has already brought them a terrible loss of life, limb and property, and they will almost certainly lose the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As with Kosovo, so much for the shibboleth of "territorial integrity." The excitable Saakashvili may also have scared neighboring Turkey and others in NATO whose backing he would need to join the alliance, though McCain's neoconservative backers at The Weekly Standard are suggesting that Washington help create an Eastern European Security Alliance, which could bring the entire region under the US nuclear umbrella.

The Bush administration also played with nuclear fire, rushing to announce that the United States had signed a controversial agreement to install anti-missile missiles in Poland, ostensibly to defend against "rogue nations" like Iran. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev responded by repeating that the missiles in Poland would target Russia, while the deputy chief of Russia's armed forces threatened Poland with nuclear annihilation. It truly is déjà vu all over again, but with one major difference. This time the Russians - and the Chinese - have good reason to fear the worst, as the authoritative American journal Foreign Affairs made clear in March 2006.

"Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy," wrote Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press. "It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike."

The authors document at length exactly how this happened. But, in brief, the story is this: Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has greatly augmented the strength and smarts of its nuclear arsenal, while the Russians have let theirs decline precipitously and the Chinese have moved to modernize theirs at a "glacial pace." I expect that America's heated verbal response to events in Georgia will encourage both Russia and China to try to catch up at whatever cost. But, for the foreseeable future, the Russians and Chinese can no longer count on nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Is this good or bad? That depends on how one views American power. "Hawks, who believe that the United States is a benevolent force in the world, will welcome the new nuclear era because they trust that US dominance in both conventional and nuclear weapons will help deter aggression by other countries," write Lieber and Press. "But doves, who oppose using nuclear threats to coerce other states and fear an emboldened and unconstrained United States, will worry. Nuclear primacy might lure Washington into more aggressive behavior, they argue, especially when combined with US dominance in so many other dimensions of national power."

Though I have never much liked the labels, I fully share what the authors view as a dovish fear, especially now that Bush and McCain have embraced the right to wage preemptive war. I also suspect that the new nuclear reality played a role in creating the current tragedy in Georgia. Without the testosterone of nuclear dominance, Washington would have paid far greater heed to Russian fears of encirclement, and might have been less reckless in encouraging a hotheaded ultranationalist like Saakashvili.

Russia, on the other hand, has made its move in an area where America's nuclear superiority counts far less than our current lack of conventional forces and international legitimacy. As they have so often in the past, the Russians are playing from weakness, not from strength, which opens the door for a fundamental rethinking. Should the United States and its NATO allies increase military pressure on the Russians, as now seems likely? Or, would it make more sense to work with the Russians to demilitarize their borderlands and keep the area from becoming a tripwire for unending confrontation with all the risk of a nuclear miscalculation?

I know McCain's answer. I would like to hear Obama's.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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