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Day 17

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Elections Without Politics

The Military Budget Is Not an "Issue"

by JIMMER ENDRES

KERRY WINS SIX STATES, EDWARDS TO QUIT

WASHINGTON, MARCH 2, 2004 (Reuters)—John Kerry captured the Democratic nomination . . . piling up a string of coast-to-coast primary wins. . . . Bush called Kerry to congratulate him, and the two had "a nice conversation," Kerry said. "I said I hoped we had a great debate about the issues before the country."

Here’s an issue: "missile defense." Where’s the great debate? No major pronouncements from either candidate despite its being, literally, the biggest Pentagon boondoggle in history—yet another major issue Kerry could clobber Bush on all year, if he weren’t complicit in the swindle.

Bush’s strategy has been: "deploy anything," no matter what the cost. Perhaps the foremost cost is to national security. The insane equilibrium of Mutual Assured Destruction depends on a stalemate, and it was recognized early in the Cold War that any anti-missile system would be inherently destabilizing. In the Strangelovean logic of "nuclear exchange," a missile defense system lowers the danger, to a nuclear aggressor, of launching a first strike—since the retaliation will presumably be mitigated. Missile "defense" is thus rightfully considered by other nuclear powers to be an aggressive weapons system. It thus tempts adversaries to launch a first strike first. Use it or lose it.

An important indirect cost in Bush’s recent budgets has been to shift funds away from effective nonproliferation programs, like the already under-funded and mismanaged Nunn-Lugar initiative, that would keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of nameless enemies in the first place. Overall, the monetary cost of the anti-missile folly, since Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative began in 1983, has exceeded $30 billion. Every dollar has been wasted.

During the 2000 election, Bush pledged to deploy missile defense "at the earliest possible date"—that is to say, sometime before the 2004 election. That position provided two benefits for his campaign: it sounded like decisive leadership, and it also conveniently promised the gift of an irrevocable commitment to Boeing, TRW, and friends, regardless of the outcome in November 2004. And so the first systems are slated to go online late this summer.

This decision comes in spite of the fact that nobody seriously claims that the system is ready, and nobody actually believes that it’s ultimately feasible. The Union of Concerned Scientists and MIT issued a comprehensive report, detailing the "limitations and artificialities" of the Pentagon’s laughably rigged tests of these systems, and providing a consensus summary of scientists’ deep skepticism over the realism of any system in principle. Their synopsis: "The system the Bush administration plans to deploy by 2004 will have essentially no defense capability."

Thomas P. Christie, in charge of the Pentagon’s testing program, admitted in January that "it is not clear what mission capability will be demonstrated prior to initial defense operations." In English: the tests are meaningless; the system simply cannot be evaluated before it is deployed. Then last month, just to put the frosting on the cake, Russia successfully tested a missile designed to evade the proposed defenses. If nothing else, the Russian effort is concrete proof of an ominous new arms race spawned by the mere threat of the deployment of a missile defense system. Meanwhile, just last week the GAO issued a report urging that realistic tests be carried out before deployment. On the same day, Christie was again forced to testify that he can’t be sure the system will work, as Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee postured over the White House’s huge budget request for the program (see below). Thirty billion dollars down the drain, and not a peep from John Kerry.

Peace Action is a national grassroots lobbying organization that helped establish the anti-nuclear movement back in the 1950s. They have been working at the grassroots level to oppose the missile defense rip-off as part of their Campaign for a New American Foreign Policy. They published a voter guide last year for which they solicited foreign policy platforms from all the presidential candidates. Kerry’s response on missile defense:

If there is a real potential of a rogue nation firing missiles at any city in the United States, responsible leadership requires that we make our best, most thoughtful efforts to defend against that threat. . . . If it were to happen, no leader could ever explain not having chosen to defend against the disaster when doing so made sense [sic].

I opposed the Bush Administration’s decisions to proceed with early deployment of a national missile defense system. . . .

In other words, "Me too, but I’m not George Bush." In fact, Kerry voted against missile defense deployment in 1996 and 1998, but then, perhaps convinced by the rigor of the Pentagon’s tests (or with an eye on 2004), voted for deployment in 1999.

Kerry exhibited bracing political courage in January by attacking the Administration for—not pouring enough missile defense slop into the "small business" pork trough. In a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, Kerry opined: "I don’t understand why the Missile Defense Agency has been unable to comply with the law and create jobs by dispersing more than $90 million in research funds for small business." Fair enough?

To put this preening critique in perspective, the White House’s proposed budget for missile defense is $10.2 billion (or as much as $10.7 billion, depending on what you count), the largest single project in military budget history. That figure is out of a "total" of over $400 billion for military expenditures—not including funding for Iraq, Afghanistan, or the "War on Terror." No matter how you do the math, US military spending is about half of the federal budget. Distant second in military spending is China, at under $30 billion. The military spending of all of the other nations of the world, combined, is less than that of the United States.

In terms of this presidential election, the choice is between a faulty missile defense system deployed immediately—and a phantom missile defense system funded indefinitely, with deployment decisions put off indefinitely, always pending more tests. The choice in the voting booth is always between a growing military budget—and a growing military budget. It is crucial to remember that the "defense" budget is as much about maintaining and expanding global "strategic" arrangements as it is about domestic industrial policy (read: "pork") for aerospace and high technology generally. The military budget is as bipartisan as Form 1040. And when it comes to funding candidates, the defense sector is as bipartisan as the military budget. Bush, Kerry, and Clinton have all been leading recipients of campaign contributions from defense contractors. But this observation is, in effect, trivial; they have all been presidential contenders.

And so this week, the polite promises of ‘sticking to the issues’ are long forgotten, and Dick Cheney clamped his teeth into John Kerry’s flesh for—nigh on twenty years ago?—opposing various big ticket weapons programs. Kerry obeyed his reflexes and hopped, yelping, to his right, clutching his Purple Heart to his chest and insisting that in his soul he’s Strong on Defense. In the years since those votes, Kerry has bent every effort toward rehabilitating himself to the right wing of his party and the industries that back it. Stephen Zunes has ably demonstrated Kerry’s craven and consistent votes for huge military budgets.

Clinton supported the missile defense program right through the first fraudulent tests. We have the damn thing to worry about today only because he failed to seize the opportunity to kill it at the end of his second term. He didn’t want to look Weak on Defense and anyway he couldn’t forget his donors.

The stakes could hardly be higher: these policies have already started to usher in the era of the global nuclear saloon. On one side we have what’s good for the military-industrial corporate donors (tens of billions of dollars of profit straight from the swollen teat of April 15th) and on the other we have what’s good for the population (continued survival).

So what will Kerry actually do, if he reaches the White House? Here we come to the weakness of the electoral process—the passive, superficial, timid, self-referential, explicitly defeatist "lesser evil" political culture that has grown up around our elections during the age of television. Given his record and the agenda of his backers, we can reasonably predict what Kerry will do—approximately what Clinton did. Kerry’s only recent utterance on the topic has been a meek suggestion that perhaps missile defense spending can be curbed "until there is better evidence the system works" so that new troops can be paid without raising the military budget even further. Why believe even that?

JIMMER ENDRES is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cell biology at Berkeley and a volunteer with California Peace Action. He can be reached at: jimmerendres@yahoo.com.