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Peace and the Nuclear Paradox

Whenever the topic is nuclear weapons, I remain in a state of disbelief that we can talk about them “strategically” — that language allows us to maintain such a distance from the reality of what they do, we can casually debate their use.

Consider, in the context of the sudden rush of alarming news that Donald Trump may trash the Iran nuclear agreement on May 12, on the false grounds that Iran is in violation of it, this piece of news from several months ago:

The latest Nuclear Posture Review, released in early February, “calls for the development of new, more usable nuclear weapons, and expanding the number of scenarios when the first use of nuclear weapons would be considered, including in response to a non-nuclear attack,” according Global Zero, an international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

“The plan renews the calls for massive spending to replace all legs of the nuclear triad, including new strategic bombers, new ballistic missile submarines and new land-based ballistic missile systems. The proposed approach will make America poorer and less secure, and could greatly increase the risk of nuclear war.”

It’s as though humankind has evolved to its own endpoint and doesn’t know it. And those in charge of our future wear uniforms. Or have orange hair.

And these holders of the future declare the need for new, more usable nuclear weapons — tactical nukes, as they say — belying the trillion-dollar paradox at the foundation of international unity: “The most powerful weapons ever devised serve no other purpose but to prevent their use by others,” as Steve Weintz put it in The National Interest.

Maybe the human race is so spiritually complex in its makeup that it requires the suicidal — excuse me, omnicidal — threat of nuclear war, or mutually assured destruction, in order to live in a semblance of peace with itself. I don’t believe this is the case, but that remains the default setting of international politics. The only problem is that military thinking is utterly consumed in the mindset of victory vs. defeat and obsessed by the enemy of the moment. And small-minded militarists are the ones in control.

So the temptation is always present, among the players at the highest level of national and international politics, to skirt around the paradox of MAD and use nuclear weapons to achieve “victory” over some perceived threat.

American generals pushed to use nukes in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, for instance. They were contained then by the forces of (slightly) higher sanity, but that doesn’t mean at some point they won’t get their way. Say a bully with the intellectual acumen of a 12-year-old manages to become president . . .

I mention this in the context of the push by both the United States and Israel to scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal — and resume U.S. sanctions against Iran.

As Medea Benjamin pointed out, if the sanctions resume and Iran gets no economic benefit out of the deal, “the hardliners in Iran will get the upper hand, pushing Iran to end the intrusive inspections and accelerate its nuclear program. That will provide justification for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, to press for a direct military attack or support for an Israeli attack on Iran.”

As many commentators have pointed out, the hypocrisy in all this is overwhelming. Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program; it is in compliance with JCPOA. Israel, meanwhile, has at least 80 nuclear weapons and the United States has 6,800 of them, and ongoing plans to invest a trillion-plus dollars in the next generation of nukes and possibly the development, as I noted, of low-yield, usable nukes.

It’s all done in the name of deterrence. This is never seriously questioned, and the ever-expanding war budgets pass year after year after year. Meanwhile, the hardliners on all sides push one another’s buttons, playing with strategy and war, shrugging off the real-life consequences as collateral damage. When we talk about war, up to and including nuclear war, abstractly and politically, actual human life has no value. I find something profoundly wrong with this sort of conversation, which is all too common in the corridors of government and in the media.

The visionary reach of this conversation is miniscule. Even when the commentary is critical, there are often assumptions that keep the overarching reality of war in place. NBC News, for instance, in a report debunking Netanyahu’s recent public charges against Iran, quoted a number of security experts who pointed out the case he made — “that Iran once had an unauthorized nuclear program” — is old news.

OK, true enough. Iran halted its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. That’s evidence the multilateral agreement is working. But I choked on that phrase “unauthorized nuclear program.” Does it not imply, oh so unobtrusively, that some nuclear programs are “authorized”? And if so, by whom? The throwaway phrase assumes that there’s a legal — a moral — force at work protecting the security of Planet Earth. Only responsible, First World nations have been authorized to participate in the game of mutually assured destruction. Iran could never be trusted to play this game.

Then I think of the names of some of the players: Bolton, Pompeo, Trump . . .

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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