“Moral Clarity,” Ideological Rigidity, Strategic Myopia
by Paul Boyer (Link.)
Before I retired as a university professor, I would mentally calculate as each term began what public events that year’s freshmen were likely to remember. For today’s freshmen, born around 1990, the earliest such memory might well be Bill Clinton’s impeachment. As for national security issues, even the rare freshman attentive to such matters would be aware of little before the current Bush administration.
In short, for today’s rising generation, America’s long history of engagement with nuclear weapons, strategic planning, and arms control must be gleaned, if at all, from books, essays, and perhaps TV programs, not from personal experience. Indeed, with the median age in America now around 36, fully one-half of the population has little memory of events before the early Reagan administration.
A 2006 Washington Post piece on the many 30-something advisers in the Bush White House captured this fact well: “They headed off to college as the Berlin Wall was coming down…. Freed from a constant nuclear standoff as a dominant fact of international life…, [t]heir adulthood has never included a fellow superpower or the need to reach accommodation with an enemy.” As one adviser commented, “I often hear about arms control from the old timers, but it’s so different now.” In 2007, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, born in 1972, cheerfully confessed her mystification when a reporter mentioned the Cuban missile crisis. “Wasn’t that like the Bay of Pigs thing?” she later asked her husband.
I begin with these demographic and anecdotal observations to underscore the importance of books such as J. Peter Scoblic’s U.S. vs. Them. If the younger generation, in whose hands the nation’s future and our hopes of avoiding nuclear catastrophe will soon rest, is to possess the knowledge essential to intelligent action, broad public understanding of how we got where we are becomes essential. Scoblic’s book represents a major contribution to this public education effort. Executive editor of The New Republic (and a former editor of Arms Control Today), Scoblic has written a deeply researched, highly readable, and compellingly argued account of strategic debates and foreign policy decision-making from the 1950s to the present. Even arms control veterans will find fresh insights and provocative interpretations. U.S. vs. Them should be read not only by those unaware of our nuclear history, but by the new cadre of policymakers who will soon take the helm in Washington.
An important overarching thesis frames Scoblic’s historical survey. Since the 1950s, he argues, two contending groups, conservatives and realist-pragmatists, holding radically different worldviews have vied to shape U.S. foreign policy and strategic decision-making. With William F. Buckley Jr., Whittaker Chambers, and James Burnham among their patron saints and Buckley’s National Review as their house organ, the conservatives began as a dissident minority but gained strength steadily. Rallying around Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and reinforced by hard-line Cold War Democrats turned neoconservative Republicans, they reached their apogee of influence in the administration of George W. Bush, with disastrous consequences.
Scoblic’s devastating analysis of the current administration’s foreign policy and strategic decisions, both pre- and post-September 11, is thus firmly grounded in his explication of a half century of ideological development. The catastrophic Iraq war; contempt for international bodies and diplomacy in general; downgrading of arms control and nonproliferation initiatives; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; affinity for nuclear war-fighting doctrines and weaponry; commitment to a costly, destabilizing, and technologically dubious missile defense program; offer of nuclear know-how to India despite that country’s flouting of nonproliferation norms; and muddled handling of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are all convincingly examined as the interconnected apotheosis of a worldview gestated, elaborated, and tirelessly promoted by an identifiable ideological clique.
For Scoblic’s conservatives, all human reality, including international relations, aligns itself like magnetized metal filings along force fields of good and evil. Fetishizing “moral clarity,” they see a black-and-white world where the murky realms of moral ambiguity must be avoided at all costs. For them, America has a quasi-divine global mission to promote righteousness and combat evil or, in a partially desacralized formulation, to spread democracy and destroy tyranny.
America best fulfills this cosmic mission when it acts alone. Working with international bodies such as the United Nations or even with fractious allies can dilute the moral clarity essential to a wise foreign policy. Those who counsel compromise or coexistence with adversary states jeopardize this rigidly bimodal worldview. Military power and readiness to use it comprise America’s key assets in performing its moral role. As Vice President Dick Cheney memorably put it in 2003 in rejecting a Chinese proposal for multiparty talks with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” Any attempt to reduce or constrain America’s war-making capacity, either directly or through arms control agreements or treaties based on the principle of deterrence, must be resisted. (On these grounds, Scoblic argues that the 1972 ABM Treaty became a particular target of conservative venom.) The goal is not mere balance-of-power sufficiency or deterrent capability, but U.S. dominance in all military realms, including nuclear weaponry.
Scorning arms control and nonproliferation as goals worth pursuing in themselves, conservatives denounce the nuclear ambitions of “evil” nations but insouciantly tolerate and even facilitate the spread of nuclear weapons to nations that meet their moral and political litmus tests. Their vehement opposition to a consistent application of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, writes Scoblic, represents “one of the conservatives’ more bizarre and foolish stands.”
Scoblic finds conservatives’ current tactics foreshadowed in their earlier ideological maneuverings. The manipulation of intelligence data to justify the Iraq war, for example, recalls the tactics of “Team B,” a group of dedicated Cold Warriors led by Harvard historian Richard Pipes. In 1976, working through the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Team B dismissed the CIA’s intelligence estimates and offered their own apocalyptic assessment of Soviet military capability and intentions to support their ideologically driven preconceptions. Similarly, the ridicule heaped on UN weapons inspectors by National Review editor Rich Lowry in the run-up to the Iraq war echoed decades of sneering attacks on arms control efforts by Lowry’s patron, Buckley.
Documenting the channels by which conservative ideology has passed from earlier years to the present, Scoblic traces the Byzantine bureaucratic histories of influential Bush policymakers and their journalistic and other enablers, such as Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, and Charles Krauthammer. We encounter John McCain, the current GOP standard-bearer, describing the world situation at the 2004 Republican convention in depressingly familiar terms: “It’s a fight between right and wrong, good and evil.”
Although the realist-pragmatists share many of the conservatives’ moral and political values and foreign policy goals, Scoblic argues, they differ radically over how to achieve them. They seek to advance U.S. interests not by moralistic rhetoric, military bluster, and impetuous unilateral action, but through international cooperation, patient diplomacy, a regard for world opinion, and, when unavoidable, measured military action, preferably in an international or multilateral context. If it serves U.S. interests, they are prepared to negotiate with unsavory or undemocratic regimes rather than ostracize them, plot to overthrow or destabilize them, or insist that they accept U.S. demands before talks can begin—the other camp’s typical strategies. Although willing to use force, the realists see danger in the obsessive preoccupation with U.S. military might and jingoistic saber-rattling and see considerable benefit in collaborative efforts to reduce the world’s military arsenals, including nuclear weapons.
Scoblic insists the realists have best served the national interest. The conservatives, for all their nationalistic rhetoric and prating of moral clarity, have time and again embraced positions that undermined national security and U.S. global standing and made the world a more dangerous place. From the near hysterical anti-communism and gleeful anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown between the world’s good and evil forces that characterized the movement’s rambunctious infancy through the knee-jerk opposition to successive arms control and nonproliferation efforts in the later twentieth century down to the policies of the current administration, Scoblic makes his case.
He also challenges the historical distortions of today’s conservative ideologues. For example, he convincingly argues that their veneration of Reagan draws precisely the wrong lesson from the Reagan years. Waxing nostalgic over the “evil empire” rhetoric, massive military buildup, and chilling talk of nuclear war that characterized Reagan’s first term, they ignore the conciliatory tone and openness to negotiation that marked his second term, a shift they and their ideological forebears denounced at the time.
Is “conservative” the best label for these relentless ideologues? As Scoblic himself notes, this elastic term encompasses many ideological positions—traditionalists, anti-government libertarians, cautious moderates suspicious of all sudden change, even environmentalists protective of wildlife and wilderness. One could argue that Scoblic’s particular subset of conservatives are really radical utopians, in their rigid moralism, hypernationalism, and contempt for all who engage the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.
In making his case, Scoblic himself partially adopts the polarized mind-set he criticizes. Highlighting the more doctrinaire ideologists and their pronouncements, he pays less attention to those figures—John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice come to mind—who do not clearly fall in either camp, who shifted positions over time, or whose actions and rhetoric did not always match. Scoblic goes easy on realists such as Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, and John Kennedy, who employed stark apocalyptic language to promote specific policy objectives or in the heat of an electoral campaign, arguing that this was merely a tactical ploy, not reflective of their actual worldview.
The structure of his argument also leads him to play down the role of liberals or pragmatists who intensified nuclear dangers: Harry Truman, whose 1950 approval of the hydrogen bomb project accelerated the nuclear arms race; Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal; Jimmy Carter, who after initially pledging to work for total nuclear disarmament, responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and deployment of medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe and to intense conservative political pressure at home by abandoning the SALT II Treaty, deploying intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, and signing Presidential Directive 59 justifying a U.S. nuclear war-fighting strategy; Clinton’s 1999 endorsement of the pared-down successor to Reagan’s misbegotten Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); and Hillary Clinton’s campaign-inspired resurrection of John Foster Dulles’ “massive retaliation” threat, warning that should Iran “foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.” Scoblic’s conservatives have much to answer for, but not every deplorable development and hyperbolic pronouncement since 1950 can fairly be laid at their doorstep.
Although he effectively documents how ideological rigidity has undermined conservatives’ approach to security issues, Scoblic seems less attuned to how ideology has also subtly influenced the realist-pragmatists he admires. His focus on conservatives’ historical distortions and blind spots plays down how realists too have sometimes uncritically relied on treaties, governmental assurances, and even sketchy inspection procedures, missing violations and clandestine programs. Reagan’s mantra of “trust but verify” embodied an important truth. (The skepticism it expresses must, of course, be applied to the United States no less than to other countries.)
Further, Scoblic’s close attention to the conservative and realist approaches to security issues tends to marginalize the liberal internationalists who emphasize the role of the UN and other international agencies. This Wilsonian vision reached its peak of influence in the early post-World War II campaign for the international control of atomic energy, which the Truman administration briefly endorsed and Scoblic himself supports in his conclusion. Although never dominant, liberal internationalism has remained influential, espoused by respected organizations, policy institutes, journals of opinion, and writers such as Jonathan Schell, author of such powerful works as The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Abolition (1984), and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (2007). It influenced policy in the early Carter administration, and even the current Bush administration grudgingly acknowledges the importance of the UN and its security agencies.
Generally excellent on policy debates, U.S. vs. Them pays less attention to the larger political/cultural milieu within which these debates unfolded. We learn little, for example, of the nuclear test ban movement of the later 1950s and early ‘60s. The National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, religious leaders, physicians, science fiction writers, satirist Tom Lehrer, and filmmakers such as Stanley Kramer (On the Beach) and Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) all helped generate the powerful cultural headwinds that made it easier for Kennedy to negotiate the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, opening the door to subsequent arms control agreements. The nuclear weapons freeze campaign of the early 1980s, the crucial background for Reagan’s 1983 SDI speech, receives two paragraphs.
Although stressing the essentially religious nature of the conservative worldview and noting Buckley’s devout Catholicism, Scoblic provides few specifics on the role of religion in this deeply religious nation, both in resisting and supporting the conservative cause. Many religious leaders over the years vigorously challenged the conservatives’ position, impeding their growing influence. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” for example, bluntly rejected hard-line conservative views on nuclear weapons policy and urged redoubled disarmament efforts.
On the other hand, the upsurge of evangelicalism that gripped Protestant America in these years buttressed the conservative cause. Anticipating Team B, Billy Graham’s apocalyptic sermons in the 1950s warned of an imminent Soviet attack. In the 1970s and beyond, Bible-prophecy popularizers such as paperback writer Hal Lindsey and televangelist Jerry Falwell foresaw a nuclear holocaust as God’s way of finally imposing moral clarity on wicked humanity. Newly politicized evangelicals helped assure Reagan’s victory in 1980, rallied to Bush in 2000 and 2004, and provided consistent grassroots support (with some defections recently) for the militarized, hypermoralistic foreign policy ideology that Scoblic examines.
Scoblic’s concluding reflections on “Why We Cling to Good and Evil” address a key question: If conservative ideologists have so disastrously undermined U.S. security, how have they accumulated such power and influence? His rather generic psychological explanation—leaders who promise security in fearful times can win support even if their promises prove hollow—certainly makes sense. Yet, a closer look at specific cultural and religious trends in contemporary America would have deepened his analysis.
Scoblic’s own policy advice focuses on how the benefits of nuclear power may be extended to developing countries without encouraging nuclear weapons proliferation. (He favors the international control of fissionable material, first proposed in the Acheson-Lilienthal plan of 1946.) This is an important issue, but only one of many that demand attention if we are to extricate ourselves from the slow-motion train wreck that has resulted from the conservative hijacking of U.S. strategy and foreign policy.
If Scoblic’s own prescriptions remain sketchy, he leaves no doubt about the ideological reorientation he believes is essential if we are to put our diplomatic and strategic thinking back on track:
Conservatives are right: There is evil in the world—and there always will be. All we can do is to identify the threat it poses to the United States and to minimize it. Rejecting the goal of victory in a war between good and evil—indeed rejecting the very concept of such a war—is not immoral or even amoral.… After all, there is nothing moral about leaving the American people vulnerable to nuclear threats…. When the national interest is cast in ideological rather than empirical terms, it is usually miscast.… Defining America’s enemy as “evil” renders the threats we face abstract and therefore unsolvable; moral clarity becomes obfuscating.
In short, nonproliferation, nuclear arms reduction, and the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world must be primary and continuing objectives of U.S. diplomacy, important in their own right, and not merely demands applied selectively depending on whether a given country is currently considered a friend or foe or whether a regime meets American standards of democracy and freedom. Governments change; alignments among nations evolve; the nuclear threat remains. When arms control is subordinated to ideologically driven objectives, particularly those rooted in a Manichean good-versus-evil worldview, true security suffers, however lofty the rhetoric.
U.S. vs. Them lucidly traces a half century of strategic thinking and arms control debates while probing the gaping flaws in the conservative worldview. All concerned citizens, policymakers included, could benefit from a thoughtful reading of this impressive book, one that brings genuine clarity, not the illusion of clarity, to the vital issues it addresses.
Paul Boyer, professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985) and Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter With Nuclear Weapons (1998).