Ban the Bombast

The United States Senate fancies itself as the greatest deliberative body in the world. Like most gatherings of politicians, however, the pomp almost always outweighs the circumstance. Backroom deals, back scratching and back stabbing are the more usual order of the day. What happens in public is on the order of a soap opera without the production values.

Imagine the question of ratification of a treaty to stop the testing of nuclear weapons having the same answer as "what party do you belong to?" This is not deep thinking.

The column below, along with email to the two senators from Idaho, was predicated on the bad assumptions that politicians care what individuals think about an issue, that decisions will be made on a factual basis, and that a vote is how decisions are made.

In fact, the Republicans had decided they weren't going to entertain the notion of ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty most of a year ago. I don't pretend to know the thinking of the most entrenched of the Republican opposition, but the motivation looks like a combination of revenge against Clinton for the impeachment debacle, and tribal militarism that has that lovely teen-age sensibility as a core principle: nobody tells us what to do!

Trent Lott's agreement to bring ratification up for a vote was a trick, a trap, a kick in the gut to the hapless Democrat senator who brought the issue up for its public effect, expecting more of the Republican's delay and refusal in response to his oration.

In fact, the Republicans had more than a third of the Senate prepared to vote no months ago. They had been trying to get the treaty voted on, and voted down. But a simple failure to win 2/3rds suppport wasn't enough for Jesse Helms. He wanted to concoct a genuinely crushing defeat for Clinton.

Forget about nuclear arms proliferation, national security, our position of leadership in the world and such rot. This is personal.

If the American people really do support this treaty 4 to 1, it will be interesting to see if that gets expressed in the 2000 elections. The presidential race will be decided on other issues, but maybe the Senate's ready for some remodeling.

October 16, 1999

Ban the Bomb

The United States of America leads the world. Normally, her citizens state that unequivocally, although I imagine some of the other 5,725,000,000 or so people on the planet might argue against that as an absolute statement. But when it comes to nuclear weapons, we're in first place, and we always have been. Our closest competitors got where they are in large measure by stealing our secrets.

We had the first Atomic Bomb, we were the first to use it to kill people and destory cities, we made the first Hydrogen Bomb. If there were any sane reason for it (or even a marginally insane one), we'd have more nuclear devices than anyone else. When all the weapons in missiles, submarines, ships, airplanes, backpacks and so on are counted up, maybe we do have more than anyone else, I can't keep track.

For a while, all that mattered was the US and USSR. Are we close to even? Can we retaliate and destroy them, if they launch a first strike to destroy us? (No mention of Jesus' recommendation to turn the other cheek here; half a world is not better than none if the half is Communist.) Somehow, we made it make sense as "Mutually Assured Destruction," or MAD. If they know we can, then they won't. And vice versa. It may have been a twitchy, nightmareish sleep, but we slept at night.

Not every other nation in the world was comfortable ceding full autonomy to the superpowers. Britain and France joined "the club." China was Communist, yes, but not so friendly with those folks to the north. Israel rather wanted one "just in case." And so on. Our latest club members are India and Pakistan, the poster-nations for a campaign against nuclear weapons proliferation.

So we have Edward Teller's further hallucination that we can stuff the genie back into the bottle with a missile defense. "Defense" is always a big seller in the domestic market. Who wants to be exposed to certain annihilation, after all? We've tried that for half a century, and it's a little uncomfortable at times. Yes, a Big Shield would be a fine thing.

And at the same time, we have to insure the Safety and Reliability of our existing arsenal. Yeah. Every time I think about the Safety and Reliability of our nuclear arsenal, my mind just goes blank.

It's getting harder and harder to recruit scientists to work on this sort of thing. (Stay with me, that's bad news.) But what about that whole post-cold-war military complex in Russia and its neighbors that's all dressed up with nowhere to go? We worry about them selling things to rogue states, why don't we just buy them all out? Recruiting would not be a problem over there, believe me. They're ready to deal.

And finally, we have to worry about Falling Behind.

Am I hearing that right? Just who in the hell are we going to fall behind? Wanting to join the Club is one thing, but which nation is it that's going to fire up the Arms Race again? I can understand why many don't like the idea of a nation that isn't theirs strutting about as the Essential nation, the Hyperpower, let alone "the" Superpower.

But what would the motivation be? There isn't really much left in the battle of ideologies: it's unanimous that economic domination is where it's at, and colonialism is out (except for currency trading, and banking), it's just a question of methodology. North Korea seems to be the only nation that's still bent on ideology; their self-destruction in its service is almost complete.

Eric Schmitt, writing for the New York Times (9/30/1999) tells us "In an abrupt but calculated reversal, the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, offered Thursday to schedule a quick vote on (ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), expressing confidence that Republicans have the votes to defeat one of President Clinton's top foreign policy goals."

Way to go, Trent. You Republicans are something else. Clinton may have made a total ass out of you in that impeachment thing, but you've just been waiting for an opportunity to get even. Of course, it's not presented quite that way out in public. There are Arguments against it.

We won't be able to ensure our arsenal's Safety and Reliability. How have we been getting by? How reliable do nuclear weapons have to be, exactly? C. Bruce Tarter, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, sums up the risk as "an excellent bet, but it is not a sure thing." If you're looking for an excuse maybe that's support for your position. Science and engineering are never certain, that's why we can't get rid of politicians.
The treaty might never take effect. Only 24 of the 44 "required" nations have ratified the treaty. North Korea might never sign. More than 150 nations have signed. The 44 are those deemed capable of cobbling up some sort of nuclear weapon, and obviously the most important ones to get agreement from. Of the major nuclear powers, France and Britain have ratified the treaty, and Russia, China, and the US have not. "Everyone but North Korea" is a problem we can deal with separately.
We can't really verify compliance. "A bomb of 0.1 kiloton -- only a tenth of what the system has to detect -- was set off in Kazakhstan and picked up in nine stations around the world." (NYT, Oct. 8, 1999)

Playing politics with this issue is not just incredible, it's incredibly stupid. A Republican president negotiated the treaty. The American people support it by a 4 to 1 margin. The world is looking to us for leadership; if we were to ratify, how long would Russia and China hold out, and for what benefit to them? Conversely, if we don't sign, what do we think will motivate the other 19 holdouts? The mentality of MAD dies hard.

Just for the record, here are the Republican humbugs most instrumental in the current Senate inaction:

Jesse Helms, who refused to put it on his Senate Foreign Relations Committee's agenda, because of two other treaties he wants to kill.

Trent Lott, the majority leader. Think of your place in history, Trent.

John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He has classified information that leads him to oppose it. (Is this information that China and Russia have already stolen? Just wondering...)

Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, working to prevent postponing a Senate vote, on the presumption that the Republicans will prevail and vote ratification down.

The closest we have to leadership from the Senate Republicans is a willingness to postpone the vote until... well, that part isn't clear, but the obvious inference is until it won't look like anything the Democrats can take credit for.

If this is the best we -- the leaders of the world -- can do, hope begins to whither.

October 9, 1999

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Saturday, 16-Oct-1999 08:26:00 MDT