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by Alexander Cockburn

Bush Bluster Over Georgia Paints U.S. Into Corner

Though not yet a sure thing, we could be in the foothills of a new new cold war, bouncing son of the "new cold war" fired up by Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski and the defense industry in the late 1970s and grandson of the old cold war with the Soviet Union launched in the Truman era.

It's shaped up along familiar lines, starting with Georgia's lunge into South Ossetia in early August. In the first crucial hours, the U.S. press tactfully passed over the fact that it was John McCain's pal Mikheil Saakashvili who -- with some sort of green light from Uncle Sam -- set the ball rolling with Georgia's initial lethal bombardment in South Ossetia. Russia responded forcefully, and as the Georgians licked their wounds, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rushed to Warsaw for a photo-op with Polish leaders, signing a deal to install missile defense early-warning radar systems. Since then, the rhetoric has steadily got hotter, though John McCain carefully toned down the bluster in his convention speech in St. Paul.

Vladimir Putin duly plays his allotted role by denouncing the scheduled deployment of these systems in Poland and the Czech Republic as unacceptable threats to Russian security. Last year, the Russian leader declared in a press conference that "once the missile defense system is put in place, it will work automatically with the entire nuclear capability of the United States. ... It simply changes the whole configuration of international security. ... Of course, we have to respond to that."

Thus, with much bluster, both sides continue to shovel billions to their respective military-industrial sectors. Missile defense has been a Pentagon boondoggle for more than half a century. Since Ronald Reagan repackaged it in 1983 as the Strategic Defense Initiative, the United States has spent as much as $100 billion, with another $100 billion already pledged for research, operating expenses, and the like between now and 2015.

Why Putin and the Russians don't simply split their sides with merriment at America's folly is beyond me. U.S. missile defense systems are not and will never be unacceptable challenges to Russian security, for the same reason that all anti-missile systems offer no peril except to the taxpayers financing them.

They don't work because they fail to remove the uncertainty that is the essential ingredient of nuclear deterrence. Despite hundreds of faked tests, the anti-missile missiles can in no way be guaranteed to hit their targets. There have been plenty of well-researched exposes attesting to this. But missile defense is now invulnerably lodged in the Pentagon budget. The more the Russians trumpet their supposed fears, the easier it is for Congress to vote the billions.

As regards disastrous and unnecessary military expenditures, the Russians have not yet digested one lesson of the Soviet Union's downfall: Don't try to compete in an arms race on terms dictated by the other side. There are surely threat-assessors in Russia who know well that an anti-missile system in Poland (supposedly deployed to counter an Iranian threat that in fact doesn't exist) alters the balance of deterrence not a jot. The fear of "mutual assured destruction" stems from the fact that in the event of escalation to the level of nuclear war, some of Russia's ICBMS would get through, however many U.S. missile systems are deployed in Poland, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine. And vice versa.

Just as there will never be anything approaching a defensive missile system guaranteed to intercept all incoming nuclear warheads, so too there will never be a first strike system guaranteed to destroy Russia, or the United States or China, before the target country can retaliate. Some sensible Russian should give Putin and the Russian leaders the testimony by Dr. James Schlesinger, former CIA director and then Secretary of Defense in the Nixon-Ford years, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1982. His 1982 testimony highlighted the all-important role of uncertainty and "the unknown and immeasurable element of the possibility of major technical failure. ... The precision that one encounters in paper studies of nuclear exchanges reflects the precision of the assumptions rather than any experience based on approximation-to-real-life test data. ... For leaders, on either side, that may be enticed into considering the utility of a major nuclear strike, I would hope there would always be somebody there under such hypothetical circumstances to remind them of these realities."

A new new cold war could be on the starting blocks, to the great delight of the arms manufacturers. One can scarcely blame the Russians for their anger at the provocative encirclements of the Clinton and Bush years, but they have good cards in their hands. All the more reason, therefore, that they should dump the bad ones that got them into such trouble 20 years ago.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   September 12, 2008   (

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