If you want to understand why our nuclear strategy is so badly out of date, and out of touch with most Americans, look no further than the abysmal hearing last week staged by the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed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)
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.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?