Jon Kyl and the Resumption of Nuclear Testing

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl called for a resumption of nuclear testing. Such a step would be both unnecessary and a potentially disastrous threat to our national security.

I am no pacifist, and I favor maintaining a strong and credible nuclear deterrent. It is for that very reason that I oppose a resumption of nuclear testing. It would in no way strengthen us. Rather, it would promote nuclear proliferation and result in a weakening of the nuclear posture of the United States vis-à-vis its potential nuclear armed opponents.

Obviously, Senator Kyl has heard some of these arguments, but they somehow don’t seem to sink in. He notes in his article that, “There’s a related theory, which is that the U.S. has to ratify the CTBT if it wants to have any credibility or leadership on nonproliferation,” but then dismisses these arguments with the claim that, “Aside from the fact that countries will act in their best interest whether or not the U.S. ‘leads’ them, no one can legitimately question U.S. commitment on proliferation issues.” I, for one, would question the U.S. commitment on proliferation issues if we resumed testing, whether Kyl considered it legitimate or not, and I would hardly be alone in that conclusion. Beyond that, his assertion that other countries will act in their own best interests ignores the reality that the actions of the United States can have a substantial bearing on what those best interests happen to be, particularly in matters relating to nuclear proliferation. Take, for example, Iran. If she tests a nuclear device after her oft-repeated denial of any desire to do so, she will become an international pariah, and likely subject herself to severe economic sanctions. She will also provide moral backing to those in Israel and the United States who advocate an attack on her nuclear facilities, greatly increasing the chances that one will occur. However, if she tested a nuclear device after the United States had resumed testing its own weapons, she could and would portray it as a legitimate act that had been forced on her by the actions of her enemies. The idea that the path chosen by the United States would have “no bearing” on her national interests is absurd.

Kyl cites the danger that clandestine nuclear tests cannot be verified and other nations will be able to test on the sly. To “prove” this dubious assertion, he notes that monitoring systems “failed to collect necessary radioactive gases and particulates to prove that a test had occurred” following the latest test by North Korea. In fact, seismic devices did detect it, in spite of the fact that its estimated yield was only a few kilotons. I have heard no credible argument to the effect that major nuclear powers could substantially enhance the power of their arsenals vis-à-vis the United States with clandestine tests that had a significant chance of going undetected. If anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about cares to make such an argument, let them put their cards on the table.

The part of Kyl’s argument that is likely to carry the most weight is the contention that there are serious concerns about the aging and reliability of our arsenal. To bolster his argument, he cites the testimony of C. Paul Robinson, former Director of Sandia National Laboratories, before the House Armed Services Committee last year. In fact, this testimony is very interesting in its own right, and, among other things has a direct bearing on the issue of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which was promoted by the Bush Administration, but wisely rejected by Congress. It’s exactly what one might have expected to hear from a weaponeer at Los Alamos if one were transported back in time to the 1970’s or 80’s. In fact, that’s exactly what Robinson was at the time. In those days, the suggestion that a substantially new weapon could become part of the arsenal without previous testing would never have passed the “ho-ho” test.

Referring to his position on nuclear testing at the time that the Stockpile Stewardship program was first formulated in the early 90’s, Robinson said,

I will repeat only a few of the words that most of us with responsibilities for U.S. warheads said at the time—e.g. that “there is no precedent for such complex technological devices to be depended on unless they were periodically tested” and that “fielding of first-of-a-kind new devices without testing would be the most stressful challenge.”

Note the direct reference to a “first-of-a-kind” device here. The only such device anyone has seriously discussed building since the end of testing in 1992 is the RRW. Robinson goes on,

But in other areas we are just as uncertain today. My belief is that most weapons designers have less confidence about making changes to their designs than they had in the past. I particularly found the recent colloquy between the JASON group and the lab designers most curious —as they each speculated over the difficulties of fielding designs under the contemplated Reliable Replacement Weapon (RRW) effort. Although you will doubtless find a spectrum of views at the labs, my take is that uncertainties will necessarily (and quite naturally) grow over time for several of our systems.

Here again, although he speaks of other systems in general, Robinson specifically refers to the RRW as a system that it will be particularly problematic to introduce to the arsenal without testing. It is the only one he could be referring to when he cites the concerns of weapons designers about “making changes to their designs.” In spite of this, after an interesting bit on the genesis of the RRW concept, Robinson makes a remarkable intellectual double back flip a few sentences later:

After some discussion, the key idea of the RRW then emerged —that if we incorporated designs of “different genetic diversity” in each leg of the TRIAD, there would be a much lowered likelihood that all would fail at the same time from a common problem. Yet from what I’ve read, the Congressional support for the idea has been less than lukewarm —as evidenced by your canceling of the RRW funding, with some suggesting that the labs might be trying to “create new designs that would necessitate underground testing” in order to field the RRW. I assure you that this suggestion is just not true. RRW was conceived to lessen the likelihood that testing would be needed. At the very least I must conclude that “there has been a significant failure to communicate”, and I believe we must not let such misunderstandings perpetuate, when there is so much at stake.

This remarkable juxtaposition of the contradictory assertions that 1) new designs must be tested, but 2) the RRW will reduce the need for testing, is difficult to explain as other than a variant of Orwellian “doublethink” inspired by the need to stay “on message” on both the need to build the RRW and the necessity of resuming testing. In other words, Robinson and some of his fellow weaponeers at the National Labs want to have their cake and eat it too.

As is abundantly clear from Kyl’s article, there is no lack of people, both inside and outside the weapons labs, who want to resume nuclear testing. Trust me, if the RRW is built, it will result in a ratcheting up of the pressure to do so many fold. This is one of those rare instances when Congress actually got it right. Let’s forget about the RRW.

What, then, of the general assertion that testing is required because “concerns about aging and reliability have only grown?” In fact, if we stop hankering after the RRW and devote our attention to maintaining the weapons we already have, there is no credible reason to believe that they will not work as advertised. Let those who would maintain otherwise drop their vague assertions, put their cards on the table, and explain exactly what failure modes they are referring to. The weapons in our arsenal are robust, and any opponent who assumed otherwise would be making a very disastrous mistake.

Assuming, then, that we can really dismiss the negative political effects of resuming nuclear testing as Senator Kyl does with a cavalier wave of the hand, what would be the advantages of doing so? Surely, if we took the lead, the other nuclear powers would resume testing as well. The science of nuclear weapons has reached a high level of maturity in both the United States and Russia. It is much more likely that a resumption of testing will enable countries that have joined the nuclear club more recently to substantially improve their weapons designs than it will countries that have already developed highly sophisticated weapons. At the same time, it will negate the vast advantage we currently hold in possessing by far the most capable experimental facilities for validating nuclear weapons physics of any nation on earth. The experimental assets represented by Z facility at Sandia, the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, and a host of others give us a major leg up over the rest of the world in approaching the conditions that exist in nuclear weapons and investigating the relevant physics. When combined with our superiority in supercomputing power, they insure us a decisive advantage that it would be positively foolhardy for us to cast away with a resumption of testing.

Why then, the persistent pressure to resume testing? Once can only speculate. In Senator Kyl’s case, perhaps the increasing unsuitability of the Nevada Test Site as Las Vegas continues to sprawl in its direction may play a role. There are attractive alternative sites in his own state of Arizona that could potentially create many new jobs. As for the weapons designers, their lives were a lot more interesting during the era of nuclear testing. I suspect many of them would prefer a return to those “golden days of yesteryear” to their current role as custodians of an aging stockpile. These, however, are considerations that should not and cannot be allowed to play any role in our decision to resume testing or not.

Our weapons are reliable, and can be maintained with confidence. Let us preserve our advantage, and refrain from foolishly throwing it away with a resumption of nuclear testing.

Springtime for the Defeatists

When generals in a democracy say “we are losing the war,” it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether true or not, such pronouncements inevitably become powerful psychological weapons in the hands of our enemies, and are thus better left unsaid, at least in public. Our military caste somehow manages to remain ignorant of such elementary aspects of modern asymmetric warfare. At the highest levels, our system tends to produce military commanders who are highly competent in doing what they’ve been trained to do, but lack the imagination and originality necessary to deal with the unexpected. Occasionally, genius is indispensable, but one would search in vain for a Napoleon or an Alexander among our generals. Instead, we produce Westmorelands and McChrystals. As the comment above would seem to demonstrate, we also produce political imbeciles who have somehow concluded that we can turn the situation around by throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of defeatism.

The result is as inevitable as it was predictable. One detects an increasing stench of defeatism in the media, not only from its usual sources on the left, but from the right as well. For example, today CNN treats us to the umpteen billionth “ghost of Vietnam” story to appear since our troops went into combat. No doubt they’re preening themselves on their originality. USA Today joins the crowd in reporting on the resignation of Matthew Hoh from the State Department, with the usual highlighting of such weepy remarks as “”I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Great job, Matthew! That’s bound to get us back on the right track. ABC News chimes in with more judiciously chosen quotes from Hoh’s letter, such as, “To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war,” Ah, yes, the “civil war” meme. That old chestnut is sure to please traditionalists. Look at the web pages of the Wall Street Journal, Foxnews, the Washington Times, etc., and you’ll find the same stories spun in almost the same way. Apparently defeat in Afghanistan is as palatable to the right as it is to the left if only it discredits Obama.

Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was unmoved by the ebb and flow of defeatist propaganda during his administration. He really did “stay the course,” in spite of the derisive remarks of the usual know-it-alls. As a result, the Iraqi people have at least a fighting chance of avoiding a slide back into dictatorship or theocracy. He was no philosopher king, but at least he was made of sterner stuff than Obama. The President appears more inclined to apologize to our enemies than fight them, and he is likely casting about for some graceful way to skedaddle in Afghanistan even as we speak. The increasingly shrill tone of defeatist propaganda will make it easier for him.

Well, what of it? As noted above, these developments were abundantly predictable and, given the limitations of our military leadership, probably inevitable. Is there a lesson here? Not really, other than the one that we should have learned a long time ago; modern democracies are anything but steadfast in fighting determined insurgents, particularly if their populations are as fickle and spineless as the current citizens of the United States. If we send in the troops, we should do so only with a well considered plan to get them back out again, and that with alacrity, before the famously insubstantial national backbone once again turns to jelly. In retrospect, the remarks of our much abused former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sound remarkably prescient. For example, from a speech delivered in February, 2003:

Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. The objective is not to engage in what some call nation building. Rather it’s to try to help the Afghans so that they can build their own nation. This is an important distinction. In some nation building exercises well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems and say let’s fix it. This is well motivated to be sure, but it can really be a disservice in some instances because when foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, if not very careful they can create a dependency.

A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. This has happened in several places with large foreign presence. The economies remained unreformed and distorted to some extent. Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants. Despite good intentions and the fine work of humanitarian workers individually, there can be unintended adverse side effects.

Our goal in Afghanistan is to try and not create a culture of dependence but rather to promote [inaudible]. Long-term stability comes not from the presence of foreign forces but from the development of functioning local institutions. That’s why in the area of security we have been helping to train for example the Afghan National Army. Our coalition partners have been training the police. And the goal is so that Afghans over time can take full responsibility for their own security and stability rather than having to depend on foreign forces versus for a sustained period.

When Rumsfeld was in office, an abundance of geniuses appeared who assured us they knew how to do his job much better than he did. In retrospect, we probably should have ignored the geniuses and paid more attention to him. The next time we feel the yen to embark on another military adventure, we should reflect on the fact that some of the biggest cheerleaders for such projects in the recent past became hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists a disconcertingly short time after the troops were actually on the ground. We will surely have an abundance of such heroes to “help” us the next time around as well. Before we commit our forces to another ill-considered war, we’d do well to recall that there are legions of Matthew Hohs in our midst, useful idiots who are adept at persuading themselves that collaboration with the enemy is both a noble moral good and a patriotic duty. They will always be with us, and they will always make the cost of victory higher the longer our troops are engaged.

UPDATE: I take it from John McCain’s cry in the dark that he has also noticed that the water is up to our chin and climbing. Of course, he’s right. We can win in Afghanistan. The enemy is much less formidable than he was in Vietnam. It’s a matter of national will. In fact, that’s just the problem.

David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,”; Vignettes of the Fall

In general, I avoid histories written by journalists. They are usually bowdlerized accounts in which the facts are pruned to fit a narrative portrayed in black and white. Great care is usually taken to describe individuals in a way that can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader about whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb” is no different in this regard. Here, for example, are typical descriptions of Communist party officials;

Kunayev unfolded himself from the backseat. He was enormous, silver-haired, and dressed in a chalk-striped suit. He wore dark glasses and carried the sort of walking stick that gave Mobuto his authority. He had a fantastic smile, all bravado and condescension, the smile of a king.

…the most flamboyand mafia figure in the country was Akhmadzhan Adylov, a “Hero of Socialist Labor” who ran for twenty years the Party organization in the rich Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. Adylov was known as the Godfather and lived on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men… He locked his foes in a secret underground prison and tortured them when necessary. His favorite technique was borrowed from the Nazis. In subzero temperatures, he would tie a man to a stake and spray him with cold water until he froze to death.

Perm-35 was a tiny place, five hundred yards square, a few barracks, guard towers and razor wire everywhere. Osin (who ran the camp) was there to greet us, and he was much a Shcharansky had described him, enormously fat with dull, pitiless eyes… Osin had a broad desk and a well-padded armchair, and he affected the pose of a contented chief executive officer… He was, to use the Stalinist accolade, an exemplary “cog in the wheel.” He did what he was told, “and all the prisoners were the same to me.” Equal under lawlessness.

You get the idea. Nevertheless, “Lenin’s Tomb” is an exception to the rule. It is well worth reading. Remnick was an eyewitness to events in the years leading up to and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also an excellent reporter who went out and “got the story,” seeking out and talking to people all over the country in all walks of life. Beyond that, he had a profound knowledge of Russian history in general and the history of the Soviet Union in particular that gave him an exceptional ability to portray events and individuals in their historical context. As a result, the collection of vignettes he has captured for us in “Lenin’s Tomb” provides rare insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse, and the sort of thoughts that were going through people’s minds in all walks of life. In the process it sheds a great deal of light on a stunning and unprecedented historical event, the magnitude and implications of which we are still far from grasping. I recommend it to anyone who suspects that the sudden demise of the Bolshevik’s great experiment was not entirely explainable as the inevitable effect of Reagan’s increase in defense spending.

Neocon Watch: Another Wolfowitz Sighting

It’s nice to see that Paul Wolfowitz hasn’t been intimidated into silence by his many critics. He just published an article in “Foreign Policy,” entitled, “Think Again: Realism,” that addresses fundamental issues of worldview as they relate to foreign policy.

I do not agree with Wolfowitz on many things, and thought before and after the event that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong. However, he is a highly intelligent and experienced man, and his opinions are worth noting. Looking at the comments following his article, one finds the usual attempts, so typical of our time, to vilify him rather than simply refute his arguments. The Amity-Enmity Complex prevails. Wolfowitz cannot merely be wrong. Rather, as one who has assaulted the ideological dogmas that define the intellectual territory of an opposing “in-group,” he must be evil. Given the nature of our species, this type of reaction is predictable. It is also self-defeating because it excludes rational dialogue. Given our intellectual limitations, it is not to be expected that any of us will be capable of perfect accuracy in dealing with issues as complex as those associated with foreign policy. In other words, the best of us will make mistakes. If Wolfowitz was wrong about Iraq, it was not because he is evil, but because he is human, and, therefore, not capable of infallibly accurate analysis of highly complex situations. We would still be in the Stone Age if we had never listened to anyone who had occasionally been wrong. We become wise by learning from our mistakes.

Pundits Stephen M. Walt, David J. Rothkopf, Daniel W. Drezner, and Steve Clemons have written responses to the Wolfowitz article that are also interesting reads. I particularly liked the following from Rothkopf’s reply:

Reading Wolfowitz’s piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that “political science” may be the humdinger of all oxymorons … even if calling “realists” realists and “neoconservatives” neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their “lies, damned lies, and statistics” and clearly, political scientists have their “lies, damned lies, and labels.”
It’s not just “neocons” and “realists” of course who are mislabeled or falsely advertising themselves. There is nothing “conservative” about the reckless fiscal policies of “conservative” champions like Reagan or Bush, nothing “progressive” about the New Deal nostalgia of many on the left, nothing “pro-life” about abortion opponents who also use a misreading of the Second Amendment to allow them stock up on assault weapons, nothing “liberal” about folks who think the answer to everything is greater government control of people’s lives. Say what you may about the underlying beliefs, the labels are meaningless.

As Rothkopf points out, labels such as “realism,” “idealism,” “constructivism,” etc., are best understood as a form of intellectual posturing, and have little if any actual information content. We are programmed to take advantage of the mental efficiencies of categorization. However, once the labels assigned to identify the categories become meaningless other than as boundary markers between ideological dogmas, they have outlived their usefulness. Take, for example, Walts use of the label “realism” in the piece that precedes Rothkopf’s:

I’d try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him too, because that tragedy demonstrates the virtues of realism and the follies of Wolfowitz’s own worldview.

Actually, the outcome in Iraq demonstrates no such thing, nor is it rational to claim that it could. One cannot even speak of a single, unified outcome. For example, as far as the Kurds are concerned, the outcome was hardly a tragedy. They might claim it was a vindication of Wolfowitz’ “idealism,” and not the opposite. Certainly, as far as the Kuwaitis are concerned, the elimination of Saddam Hussein was hardly “tragic.” Even if there were universal agreement that the outcome actually was a tragedy, it would not demonstrate the superiority of one general worldview over another, as Walt suggests. To refute such a claim, Wolfowitz could easily point to a plethora of other outcomes, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, that similarly “prove” the superiority of his worldview. One can certainly claim that some of outcomes of our intervention in Iraq were not those expected by the supporters of that intervention on either the left or the right. One can also plausibly maintain that these outcomes were not in our national interest. However, there is no rational basis for the further claim that these limited outcomes can possibly demonstrate the validity or lack thereof of an entire worldview.

I personally lean much more in the direction of Walt’s “realism” than Wolfowitz’ “idealism.” In particular, I strongly agree with his comment, “… that military force is a blunt and costly instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to foresee, and that states should go to war only when vital interests are at stake.” However, there is an odd disconnect between the language Walt uses against Wolfowitz in his article and the “soft-pedaled” policies he claims to support internationally. For example, the architects of the war were not wrong, they were “dead wrong.” Wolfowitz only “bothers” to mention two realists, and he can’t be “bothered” to be better informed on realist doctrine. Wolfowitz was an able practitioner of “threat inflation” and “deception” while in office, and so on. Given the left’s documented attempts to distort what Wolfowitz actually did say, it would seem advisable for Walt and the rest of his detracters to refrain from accusations that he deliberately attempted to deceive unless they have proof thereof that they have not laid on the table to date. Absent such evidence, one is forced to conclude that Wald is himself a liar. His emotionally laden and pejorative language is better understood as an attempt to seize the moral high ground in a shouting match between ideological factions than to achieve a consensus concerning the type of foreign policy best suited to achieving common goals.