We’ve been taken so badly, it becomes impossible to admit our stupidity and false consciousness. In Webster’s the cuckold has an unfaithful wife; in America, it is the unfaithful husband, the arrogant, deceiving, secretive president who has violated the marriage vows (aka social covenant) between the government and the citizenry which characterizes the political formula of democracy, notably, a relation founded on trust, in which the leadership seeks to promote the general welfare as its highest priority, NOT drain the nation’s resources in order both to finance a huge military establishment designed to further permanent war and counterrevolution and, in direct proportion, so weaken the body politic, through the extreme maldistribution of wealth and power, as well as, its corollary, the drastic erosion of the social safety net, therefore rendering democracy a pitiable caricature of what it should represent. Obama has metaphorically slept around quite a lot, starting perhaps with the banking community and the financial industry at large, which itself suggests his awareness that the financialization of American capitalism was the coming wave of, and would come to define, its advanced/mature monopolistic form, to which he would add two essentials for further growth and concentrated wealth-accumulation: de- and nonregulation (the market-fundamentalist paradigm of a trickle-down framework), and, to me his signal blandishment to attract further illicit couplings, militarism in its gradually expanding form—from camp followers (aka defense contractors, and now, private suppliers of mercenaries) to the geostrategic pivot to paramilitary operations, assigning greater roles to the CIA and JSOC as a way of keeping terrorism front and center at all times.
Why militarism subjoined to capitalism? And is it, or under Obama is it now integral to capitalism, as vital to staving off America’s decline as the unilateral dominative force in world politics and economics? That decline is now underway, hence the desperation in acting, as in making targeted assassination via drone warfare primus inter pares in our current arsenal of lethality (nuclear weapons still too ghoulish to set the agenda for the Terror Tuesday hit-list confabulations). The militarization of capitalism is well-underway, as if to say US capitalism has hit a stone wall in its desire for unrestrained security in the face of alternative paths to modernization—not only emerging Third World industrialization, but, Obama’s self-defined nemesis, of course, China. Indeed, it is hard to see anything Obama has done which is not without reference to capitalism, including a foreign policy which has used counterterrorism to isolate and encircle China (as in attempting the transformation of South Asia into an American protectorate, from the Afghan War to military alliances and joint exercises with our “friends and allies” in the region) in order to weaken the US’s chief rival, and to ensure that other areas of the world remain free for natural-resources exploitation, low-cost, highly profitable outsourcing of industrial activity, and, not to be forgotten, kept politically and ideologically safe as insurance against anticapitalist social movements and political economies.
This general appraisal (we are now into his fifth year) could be continued with an enumeration of his other paramours, the pharmaceutical industry, nuclear power, aircraft, OIL (Interior is setting records on leasing agreements on public lands), automotive, but what captures my eye here is the duplicity which surrounds nuclear weaponry, and the B61 warhead in particular, especially given his speech professing a commitment to peace. Armed drones, supercarriers, long-range bombers, atomic subs, littoral craft, all fine and dandy, from the standpoint of conventional Cold War reasoning, although advanced weapons-technology, which he has zealously recommended, has added more sinister toys for the Chief to play with. Somehow, though, now is different. Obama has discovered the world of annihilation—or at least its threat, should America not have its way. And from what is currently happening, he seems to like what he sees! Let me proceed step-by-step, first going back one week, to the New York Times editorial, aptly titled “Throwing Money at Nukes,” (May 26), which alerts one to the danger of Obama’s actions in this critical area. We are discussing the real thing, militarily, and not—as bad as that is—a drone strike with civilian casualties (of which the record is abundantly spread, negating any blather about peace that Ben Rhodes and his other speech writers have provided). Then, I would like to review the specific project, the upgrading of the B61 into the B61-12, drawn from a report of the Federation of American Scientists, authored by Hans M. Kristensen. Finally, my Comment to the Times editorial.
The editorial has valuable information not widely known to the public—even though, as I shall note in my Comment, the Times still temporizes with respect to Obama’s overall record, essentially coming to him on bended knee and pleading with him—the ever-present “should”—to do the right thing. It begins by pointing out the provocative nature of upgrading these weapons: The US “has about 180 B61 gravity nuclear bombs based in Europe. They are the detritus of the cold war, tactical weapons deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey to protect NATO allies from the once-feared Soviet advantage in conventional arms. But the cold war is long over, and no American military commander can conceive of them ever being used. Even so….” Here Obama and the obvious provocation: “Even so, President Obama has put $537 million in his 2014 budget proposal to upgrade these bombs. When all is said and done, experts say, the cost of the rebuilding program is expected to total around $10 billion–$4 billion more than an earlier projection—and yield an estimated 400 weapons, fitted with new guided tail kits so that they are more reliable and accurate than the current ones.” (Italics, mine) That, of course, is quite a sum for “the detritus of the cold war,” unless the debris, now in process of modernization, can be made suitable for further military use, as in a new Cold War, or the very least, a permanent European installation of American power having global implications for enlisting NATO support in US interventions and a warning to Europe itself about possible movements to the Left.
Nowhere is there a sign of withdrawal of these weapons from Europe. The Times sees the rebuilding program to be “a nonsensical decision” in light of Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 and strategy review the following year, in which he “advocated the long-term goal of a world without nuclear arms and promised to reduce America’s reliance on them.” It added, significantly: “He also promised not to field a new and improved warhead.” The contradiction is palpable, I would say, even irrefutable, save that it may not be a contradiction at all, if by that we mean, a logical incongruity, for Obama may be guilty of the deliberate misleading of the American people, and thus not a contradiction but a downright lie, to mask what is a singular posture of militarism fully intended from the start. Too, the Times is suspicious about New Start negotiations, but here and earlier missed the point that reductions were meaningless so long as lethality of the available stock was increased. In any case, the point it makes is well taken: “But the B61 upgrade would significantly increase American tactical nuclear capability and send the wrong signal while Mr. Obama is trying to draw Russia into a new round of nuclear reduction talks that are supposedly aimed at cutting tactical, as well as strategic, arsenals.”
Moreover, “nonsensical” in more ways than one: “Even if there is a case to be made for keeping the bombs in Europe as a sign of America’s political commitment to NATO (allied opinion is divided on whether the weapons should stay), many experts doubt that the B61 warheads need to be rebuilt now, if at all. Government-financed nuclear labs have a rigorous program for testing them to make sure they still work.” (Italics, mine) One has reason to believe that Obama wants the lethality, the upgrade, and the intimidatory world power they represent, and that this is a conscious decision, given, as the editorial points out, that his request for the upgrade itself in 2014 “is 45.5 percent higher than the 2013 figure,” and that his request for $7.86 billion “for all weapons-related activity in the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-independent agency within the Department of Energy that oversees the nuclear warhead programs, is 9 percent above the amount Congress appropriated in 2012.” The Times, to its credit, notes in passing that, meanwhile, “Congress slashes spending on far more defensible programs like food stamps and Head Start,” but drops the matter there. It does mention, however, that besides “overspending on warheads,” Obama—the one-two punch—“has cut the Global Threat Reduction Initiative program ,” which protects “vulnerable nuclear material at sites worldwide, by 15 percent from 2013 levels.” It lamely concludes: “His budget is being rewritten by Congress, but in the nuclear area it is a disappointing, and befuddling, measure of his priorities.” Why befuddling, when in reality there is nothing perplexing about his priorities? Obama, militarism, assassination, hegemony, all stirred up in a witches’ brew of US-defined globalization, to the glee—and benefit–of America’s dominant groups and the seeming confirmation of its ideology.
The Times is late on the scene (yet it still renders a public service here, in light of Americans’ low state of awareness about military planning and execution), for in July 2012 Kristensen’s Federation of American Scientists (FAS) blog, superbly titled “NNSA’s Gold-Plated Nuclear Bomb Project,” referring to the National Nuclear Security Administration, accompanied by the drawing of the proverbial cowboy, hat in hand, riding the B61-12, with the legend below, “Escalating cost estimates for the B61 Life-Extension Program threaten to make the new B61-12 bomb the most expensive ever,” already presents the living lie to Obama’s protestations of peace (Italics, mine). Few people listened, although decidedly late in the game, especially when one takes account of Obama’s total foreign and military policies, where nuclear weaponry fits nicely as ultimate back-up for the sustained course of maintaining the global system of bases, constant intervention, covert operations, strident counterterrorism and with it, surveillance and the abrogation of civil liberties, and his now almost-daily tributes to the military. But the B61 has been kept under the radar (similarly, the details of drone assassination), likely an unnecessary caution given the relative absence of Left criticism of Obama.
One enters the arcane world of Congressional-Pentagon antechambers and dark corridors as though the script were written by Kafka himself, as one navigates the B61 narrative. Thus, Kristensen begins, “The disclosure during yesterday’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing [i.e., July 25, 2012] that the cost of the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) is significantly greater than even the most recent cost overruns calls into question the ability” of the NNSA “to manage the program and should call into question the B61 LEP itself.” There follows figures before the Committee on astronomical cost increases (not even including “a new guided tail kit assembly,” itself having “recently increased by 50 percent,” as well as “the cost of equipping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with the capability to carry the new weapons,” again a sizable increase, on and on into the night of nuclear doubletalk, with different bombs consolidated into a single design and a recitation of “enormous budget overruns” Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge, all indicating “NNSA’s abysmal record of underestimating costs of nuclear weapons programs.” Unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, sacrifices everywhere up and down the line, and the spending on advanced nuclear weapons goes on—and the dance of death continues.
The social safety net cannot compete with the likes of the military planners, national-security “experts,” Obama himself and his distorted view of priorities. Washington is Rome at its dissipated best, crumbling into the ruins of militaristic aggrandizement–my voice, not Kristensen—but he does not mince words about the madhouse-atmosphere in which military spending goes largely unchecked: “Apart from poor planning, the B61 LEP cost escalation is probably also fueled by planners that appear to be drunk on promises of increased nuclear funding and plitical commitments to nuclear modernization. The result is an overly ambitious program that instead of doing basic life-extension of existing designs is trying to add exotic features and components to the weapon that was originally tested. And the planned B61-12 is not even the most ambitious version the planners had asked for (they were not allowed to add multi-point safety and optical firing sets), which would have been even more expensive.”
Obama’s fascination with high-tech gadgetry, as in the “antisepetic” killing of those on the hit-list, from 8,000 miles away, undoubtedly plays a part in attracting him to the intricacies of nuclear modernization, a cultural fact of life this fascination of killing with impunity that the author of the report seems not to reject entirely, just which nuclear weapons are most efficacious and cost-effective: “Whatever the best way forward, the U.S. should phase out its remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons, delay and redesign the B61 LEP, and focus its resources on maintaining the strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces that are actually needed for U.S. and allied security in the foreseeable future.” In a preceding sentence he presents a vision which Obama the facilitator and/or enabler is helping to bring to fruition: “The B61 LEP is not the only or necessarily most complex LEP in LEP on the horizon. NNSA and DOD are already planning the W78 LEP and envision building a ‘common’ warhead that can be used on both ICBMs and SLBMs. Such a warhead is not currently in the stockpile.” I can’t wait, and am confident that Obama will come through with this latest gem, perhaps even displacing from his mind the exquisite paradigm of targeted killing.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.