Top-down Nuclear Re-armament Meets Bottom-up Conservative Populism
by Loring Wirbel
Loring Wirbel of “Citizens for Peace in Space” in Colorado Springs was the featured speaker for the 2016 Lantern Float commemorating the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at Lincoln’s Holmes Lake August 6. The article below is a combination of his remarks at the Lantern Float and a longer public presentation he made during his visit to Nebraska.
On August 8, following my recent visit to Lincoln for the Hiroshima commemoration, the New York Times used a lead editorial to chide the Obama Administration for throwing away the aims of the President’s 2009 speech supporting nuclear disarmament, in favor of the “Strategic Force Modernization Plan,” which would spend close to $1 trillion through 2040 to modernize all three legs of the strategic nuclear triad. The editorial was one of the first major mainstream-media acknowledgements of a program that had moved into production in midsummer with scarcely a notice from the press or public.
In the absence of any Congressional or White House cabinet debate, the Air Force Global Strike Command (part of Omaha’s Strategic Command) announced in late July it was seeking contracts for two new elements of force modernization: a Minuteman III missile to replace the existing land-based missiles in the nation’s strategic arsenal, and a “stealthy cruise missile” (LRSO, for Long-Range Standoff Weapon), which would be placed on B-1 and future B-21 bombers as part of the airborne triad component. On August 1, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced first production of the B61, Mod 12—the first new nuclear warhead in nearly 30 years. The warhead also would be used as a tactical nuke, on board the F-35 fighter in Europe. Not to be outdone, the Navy began coordination plans to update the Trident sea-launched cruise missile in concert with the new British Tory government, and the Navy also opened a new nuclear bunker in Kitsap, Washington, to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads.
While Hillary Clinton has not commented on the new $960 billion modernization proposal, her running mate Tim Kaine was one of ten senators to sign a July 8 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, praising the new nuclear weapons plan. The sad truth is that there is next to no support within the Beltway for the William Perry and Robert McNamara plans to reach an eventual zero in nuclear weapons, and plenty of bipartisan support to modernize the current strategic forces of more than 7,000 nuclear weapons. Some youthful supporters of the Sanders Campaign watch the election-year hi-jinks in Washington and assume Clinton is the center of an unspeakably evil national security elite. But the sadder truth is that she represents business as usual since the end of the Cold War. A rare window for a ‘Peace Dividend’ opened at the end of the George Bush, Sr. and beginning of the Bill Clinton Administrations, but that door slammed quickly as both major parties exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union by building up NATO. Since the early 1990s, the practical interest in nuclear disarmament within either party has been nonexistent.
We in Citizens for Peace in Space believe that peace activists with integrity should also recognize that, even though Russia and China have been surrounded in certain senses by U.S. and NATO expansion, such actions do not excuse these nations’ own aggressive moves. Putin has announced development of a new nuclear torpedo, while China is almost certain to station fighter jets, possibly nuclear-armed, on the artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea. To reflect the seriousness of the new arms race, both Putin and Xi Jinping have increased domestic repression, while attempting to ratchet up populist fervor against the United States. It is within such a backdrop that North Korea undertook new nuclear tests in early August, landing missiles 125 miles off Japan’s shores.
Sadly, the new strategic crisis does not end with the actions of the nuclear elite. Donald Trump’s campaign is representative of a new conservative populism that is winning adherents in Poland, Hungary, France, the U.K. (through Brexit), The Philippines, Israel, Thailand, Turkey and, to a certain extent, within Russia. Polls have consistently shown that many populist leaders begin with centrist trade or immigrant-exclusion arguments, only to be driven further and further to the right by their followers. Thus, the populist revolt is a bottom-up movement in which those at the bottom represent the most racist and reactionary elements. Many peace activists seem hesitant to challenge this movement, perhaps because Trump’s campaign in the U.S. seems destined for comical self-destruction, and also because many activists are uncomfortable admitting that ‘The People’ are not to be trusted in this case. But hoping that such populism burns itself out seems akin to ignoring Hitler’s threat in 1930.
Luckily, there is not a common ideology as there was among the Axis powers in the 1930s. But there is a common methodology, shared through social media and adopted for the realities of specific countries. A demagogic leader points to two or three decades of rule by a modern secular party, and claims that the reasons many workers are harmed through globalized capitalism is because of minority races, immigrants, gays, and other false scapegoats. Rabid followers drive the arguments further to the right, a trend particularly visible during the Brexit vote in the U.K. In three of four cases, the populists do not win. But every now and then, in Poland or The Philippines for example, a virulent populist leader wins, immediately restricts the media, and attempts to close or re-staff national-level courts so that the work of the populists may not be undone at a later date.
This has a practical effect on nuclear security, as the ability to protect nuclear weapons from populist forces is no longer guaranteed. (Nuclear weapons may not be launched without a rebel force knowing the launch codes and encrypted permissive action links, but employment of a ‘dirty bomb’ for a terror explosion is certainly possible.) This is why it is incorrect to say that the nuclear elite is secretly promoting populists as ‘stalking horses’ in order get people to vote for elite hawks like Clinton. The nuclear elite does not understand and is terrified of conservative populism, as well they should be. Obama was chided by many for keeping the summer NATO meetings and war games in Warsaw, since few in NATO trusted the conservative “Law and Justice” (PiS) party.
At times, however, the military within a populist nation represents the most liberal force within the nation. In Israel, the IDF and intelligence agency heads are far more cautious in deploying nuclear weapons than Israeli citizens, who have grown increasingly rightist in recent years. In the same vein, several dozen Republican former national-security and intelligence chiefs declared in mid-summer that commanders should not obey unconstitutional commands from Trump, should he become president. Of course, this brings up the danger of a Seven Days in May military-coup scenario, in which the military takes over for the safety of the country’s nukes.
Struggles between populist and military wings can take unusual forms. After the attempted Gulenist coup in Turkey, President Erdogan encouraged protesters to surround the Incirlik Air Base to demand that U.S. troops leave—a demand peace activists could certainly support. But in trying to make U.S. bases in Turkey look like Greenham Commons, Erdogan is cynically making a grab for the dozens of H-bombs stored at Incirlik. If the U.S. does not extradite Gulen, it is highly likely Erdogan will grab the nukes.
The issue for peace activists is not whether to focus on the elite or the populists first. The unpleasant reality is that either end of the spectrum could represent the more immediate threat, based on unpredictable random events. We must be prepared to challenge both elite and populists with equal fervor, without turning our protests into de facto rallies to support mainstream political parties running for office.
Because many experts have called 2016 the most unstable year since the end of World War II, many activists are ready to succumb to despair. I closed my talks in Lincoln with a few practical points on remaining committed and positive in very dangerous times.
First, activists should not buy into the fear propaganda promoted by all political sides. We should not suppress fear, we should simply reject fear, committing ourselves to be joyful and fearless. We should avoid ‘passionate clinging’ to a particular person, deity or ideology. This does not mean one needs to be an atheist, or maintain a Zen-like aloofness from all political races. It means recognizing that no person or ideology is above reproach, and that no one gets a free pass, since passionate clinging leads to faulty thinking. Finally, no one should expect a particular campaign to take a few months or a year to achieve results. Adopting the mantra of ‘very low expectations’ means being ready to commit to a campaign for decades, often seeing only minimal positive results over the course of a lifetime.
When educating others, one should assume that the vast majority of Americans have no idea that any nuclear weapons remain in the U.S. arsenal since the end of the Cold War. Very few would be aware of the missions of Omaha’s StratCom. Be ready to provide people with both fact-laden documentation of the new nuclear arms race, and easy-to-digest resources (like Nebraskans for Peace’s 2008 comic book about StratCom). At the same time, it is important to understand that fewer and fewer citizens value facts any more, or understand the utility of rational logic or the scientific method. A near-majority of citizens construct personal realities from a collection of fairy tales, and they do not absorb new facts if those facts run counter to their preferred view on life.
Assembling a critical mass to challenge the new nuclear arms race requires working in coalition with groups working on police violence, civil liberties, LGBT issues and the like. This requires being very humble in working with these groups on their schedules and on their terms. Remember that even though the nuclear arms race—like climate change—represents an existential danger, no struggle should be deemed inherently more important than another. In early 2016, I actually heard some opponents of the Trans Pacific Partnership grumble that too many people were protesting police violence, and this represented a ‘diversion from the important issues.’ This kind of thinking is simply unacceptable. We are all working on important issues, and we will only coalesce as one if we respect one another.
Despite the prodding of the New York Times editorial, Obama is likely to leave office without making any more headway on nuclear arms reduction—in fact, the force modernization program is likely to plow ahead at full steam. No matter what the November elections bring us, the coming years are likely to be extremely dangerous ones. We cannot afford to hide from challenging tasks. We must re-commit ourselves to opposing the modernization of nuclear weapons, and on opposing the rise of militaristic, anti-democratic forces globally.