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How a hearing on nuclear weapons shows all that’s wrong with US foreign policy making

The panel with no diversity of views was meant to reinforce a forgone conclusion: more money for more weapons.

Analysis | Reporting | Global Crises

If you want to understand why our nuclear strategy is so badly out of date, and out of touch with most Americans, look no further than the abysmal hearing last week staged by the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. A panel of old white men spent 90 minutes hectoring Congress to replace every weapon in the U.S. arsenal and to maintain the Cold War policies that repeatedly brought us to the brink of nuclear war.

The hearing was titularly chaired by Senator Angus King but choreographed by subcommittee staff director Jonathan Epstein, who is said to be the guiding force behind the subcommittee. The witnesses were selected to present a nearly uniform endorsement of existing programs and contracts, particularly the controversial new intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, and to rebut arguments in favor of revising obsolete Cold War doctrines.

Leading the panel was Frank Miller, who had a large role in crafting the nuclear postures of President George W. Bush and Donald Trump. He is now a defense lobbyist and consultant, affiliated with the think tank CSIS that receives substantial contributions from nuclear weapons contractors. He “has made a career — and likely a small fortune — pushing a hawkish nuclear policy,” according to one investigative reporter.

Also on the panel was Brad Roberts, a director at the nuclear weapons contractor, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Roberts was originally in charge of President Barack Obama’s nuclear posture review but produced a draft so far to the right of Obama’s preferences that it had to be redone. At the Pentagon, Roberts resisted Obama’s policy reform efforts, according to those familiar with the review process.

Retired general Claude Robert Kehler, former commander of the Strategic Command and now on the board of the satellite company, Maxar Technologies, was in sync with Miller and Roberts on the panel, boosting a new ICBM “as a mainstay of deterrence.” He opposed any changes to nuclear policies, including taking missiles off hair-trigger alert or requiring the president to get a second opinion before launching a nuclear war. Our defense, he said, “is based on our demonstrated capabilities and the willpower to use nuclear weapons.”

Paul Bracken of Yale University seems to have been added to provide an air of academic objectivity. He offered mildly differing opinions, including that the policy of not using nuclear weapons first “should not be rejected out of hand.” But his views were overshadowed by Roberts, who spent his entire testimony attacking the recommendations of former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ploughshares Fund Policy Director Tom Collina, who advocate for a “no first use” policy canceling the new $264 Billion ICBM. Both are under active consideration by the Biden administration and opposed by the nuclear weapons industry.

Roberts said he was specifically asked to rebut Perry and Collina’s new book, “The Button.” Miller piled on, denouncing a no first use policy as “narcissistic, self-indulgent, dangerous and destabilizing.” Neither Perry nor Collina were allowed to be present at the hearing but they’re now trying to get King to convene another hearing so they can present alternative views.

When I was a national security congressional staffer, we thought that the best hearings were ones where we presented the best witnesses with various points of view and let them argue in front of the members. That is not how it is done anymore. Last week’s hearing was typical of current congressional nuclear policy hearings: a stacked deck, more show than debate, and designed to validate existing programs, contracts, and policies rather than investigate them.

I worked on the House Armed Services Committee against the nuclear buildup of the Reagan administration and for procurement reform. One day, while walking down the halls of the Rayburn building, a veteran staffer put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Joe, 95 percent of what we do here is keep the money flowing. The sooner you realize that, the happier you’ll be.” He wasn’t criticizing me; he was trying to help me understand the nature of the committee.

It is even more true today. Congress rubber-stamps Pentagon budgets with little oversight. Try to name the last congressional investigation into Pentagon procurement, or the last time Congress actually cancelled a weapons program.

But now the Democratic controlled Congress is directly flouting President Biden’s promise to develop a foreign policy for the middle class. National security adviser Jake Sullivan says that Biden has “tasked us with reimagining our national security for the unprecedented combination of crises we face at home and abroad: the pandemic, the economic crisis, technological disruption, threats to democracy, racial injustice, and inequality in all forms.”

None of that is present during congressional hearings on U.S. foreign policy. King’s hearing was restricted not just by race, gender, and philosophy but also by a narrow view of security. It confined consideration to abstract military theories of deterrence and witnesses’ claims of how the failure to build new weapons would supposedly undermine U.S. credibility.

Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, the most striking aspect of this hearing was the lack of any consideration for the burden of paying for these new systems, of the opportunity costs, of the morality of nuclear weapons, the humanitarian consequences of using these weapons, or the environmental impact of their production and deployment.

Rather than follow Biden’s lead, King’s hearings (and most defense hearings) continue a profoundly undemocratic process. A process that believes that nuclear policy is so complex that “only those with special knowledge of weapons capability and strategic thinking should have the power to make policy for all of us in the interests of national security,” writes policy expert Kennette Benedict.

“But if that is the case,” she adds, “then this special class of people is being given sole responsibility for deciding whether or not to kill millions and destroy vast areas of the planet by firing nuclear weapons — without any participation by the people who paid for the weapons with their taxes or by those who voted for the leaders who give the final orders.”

Compounding this myopia, King lead a group of senators on a trip this past weekend to the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska and the ICBM base at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. They got a heavy dose of pro-weapons arguments. Still, King claims that he’s “not fully convinced” on the need for a new ICBM.

The independent senator from Maine should convene a new hearing, better yet, a series of hearings to fundamentally examine the basis and consequences of a nuclear policy forged in the fearful days of the Cold War — as Miller proudly said, “U.S. nuclear policy is virtually unchanged since the Kennedy years.” But this time include all the Americans impacted by nuclear policy. Congress should follow Biden’s lead and help craft policies “not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.”

“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” says Biden. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.” It is time for Congress to get on board.  

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson testifies on the proposal to establish a United States Space Force during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)
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