If you want to understand why our nuclear strategy is so badly out of date, and out of touch with most Americans, look no further than the abysmal hearing last week staged by the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed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.
Joseph Cirincione is a national security analyst and author with over 35 years of experience working these issues in Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He served previously as president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other positions. He worked for over nine years on the professional staff of the Armed Services Committee and the Government Operations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is adjunct faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He appears frequently on television, radio and in the media and is the author of over eight hundred articles and reports on defense and national security. He tweets @Cirincione.
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)
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”