Despite the fact that modern technological civilization is supposed to be founded on empiricism and rationality, most of our attitudes spring from emotions, indoctrination, or appeals to authority.
George Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface to Saint Joan that modern man was more superstitious than his medieval counterpart. While the peasant’s knowledge was accurate about the physical world that was accessible to him – the seasons, sowing crops, and so forth – the modern person’s head is filled with thousands of propositions the truth of which he or she has no direct knowledge, and thus believes them only because authority figures assert they are true.
We grant that Shaw was a professional contrarian and no doubt deliberately exaggerating, but there is some truth in what he was saying. Newton’s laws of gravitation and motion are three centuries old, but the average person can hardly give an accurate account of what they are and why they should be true (or, as updated by modern physics, approximately true on the scale of measure with which humans are familiar), even though modern machine civilization is entirely based upon them. Shaw says the reason this and other notions appeal to us is that there is something about our modern sensibility that is susceptible to them.
It is when the “knowledge” in question is used to prop up political opinions or moral values that empiricism truly goes out the window and absurdity becomes dogma. Tax cuts increase revenue, despite 30 years of evidence to the contrary. Armed intervention in the Middle East protects U.S. national security, when bitter experience says otherwise. Free trade increases domestic employment in the long run, which somehow never arrives.
When these or similar arguments are advanced by an elite authority figure or presented by a powerful institution, they become ipso facto true. On the other hand, there is Donald Trump.
The content of the real estate mogul’s pronouncements over the last several months has been such a stew of fact, fiction and exaggeration that the average listener is likely to get a headache. The truth value of his statements has been so heavily discounted by the marketplace of opinion that they might as well be Enron shares. Curiously, this condition actually makes him a useful reverse barometer for judging the factual and normative content of plans, policies, and doctrines in the political realm.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Trump unburdened himself on foreign policy matters. He suggested that in light of North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling, South Korea and Japan would do well to consider getting nuclear arms themselves, both for self-protection and to get the United States off the hook for defending them at considerable expense. He also suggested that he would not take nuclear weapons off the table when it came to the defense of Europe, presumably against Russian aggression.
In the predictable firestorm, Trump was characterized as laughably ignorant as well as irresponsibly belligerent. By coincidence, President Barack Obama was hosting a summit on nuclear proliferation a few days later, at which he was moved to describe Trump’s comments in the following fashion:
“They tell us the person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula or the world generally.” Then he added, “I’ve said before that, you know, people pay attention to American elections. What we do is really important to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, as Obama states, what we do is important and people are paying attention, or certainly ought to be doing so. Which makes it all the more curious that no one paid close attention to what actual U.S. policy or U.S. practice has been over the last several decades. Regardless of whether encouraging or acquiescing in other states’ obtaining nuclear weapons is good policy or not (I suspect it is not), what has been our conduct? How, we might ask, did Israel end up with an arsenal of an estimated 80 nuclear weapons, with material for up to 200?
Persuasive evidence exists that during the 1960s, the Johnson administration secretly connived with the government of Israel to help build the latter’s nuclear weapons program. In the process, 100-300 kilos of nuclear material were alleged to have disappeared from a nuclear plant near Pittsburgh. Later, during the Ford and Carter administration’s Johnson’s covert program was investigated but publicly suppressed because the subject was too politically sensitive.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration was fine with Pakistan moving ahead with a nuclear weapons program. After all, under dictator Muhammed Zia-Ul-Hak, the country was helping us arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, so what was not to like?
Eventually, an incensed Congress prohibited arms transfers to Pakistan without the administration’s certification that the country was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but Reagan’s national security team did its best to maliciously implement the law. Pakistan now is estimated to have over a hundred nuclear weapons.
Given Obama’s and the media’s reaction to Trump’s comments about introducing nuclear weapons into a European war, one would be tempted to think there is a policy prohibition on such an action. One would be wrong. For decades during the Cold War, stated policy was “Flexible Response,” a euphemism meaning not only that the United States would use nuclear weapons in retaliation for Soviet first use, but that we reserved the right to use them first even in the event of a conventional attack on NATO.
The Obama administration could have officially jettisoned that Cold War doctrine in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a quadrennial policy statement on the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy. Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague, where the President held out the idealistic hope of a nuclear weapon-free world, raised expectations of sweeping changes in nuclear policy.
Instead, a largely Pentagon-driven interagency process dictated that the review recommend the retention of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. Demonstrating the bureaucracy’s penchant for using new buzzwords to denote stale old concepts, the bureaucrats christened the doctrine (which was basically the same as Flexible Response) “Extended Deterrence.”
In essence, Trump was simply reiterating long-standing U.S. policy, for which he was castigated as an ignoramus! If getting Chicago vaporized because of our nuclear defense of Talinn sounds like stupidity when uttered by Trump, why is it wisdom when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or some other Beltway panjandrum sees fit to state it?
And far from adopting the goal of a nuclear-free world, the Obama administration is pursuing not only a modernization of its nuclear arsenal, but also a replacement of the bombers, missiles and submarines to deliver them. The 30-year cost of this project will be at least $1 trillion. Considering the Pentagon’s record of staggering cost overruns, the final price tag may be substantially more.
That is how foreign policy analysis works in what the late Gore Vidal called “the United States of Amnesia”: an existing doctrine is held to be a cornerstone of our security when enunciated by powerful institutions like the Pentagon – that is, when it hasn’t already become so much taken for granted that its existence is forgotten or psychologically repressed, in a kind of Orwellian double-think. Apparently it takes a berserker like Trump to reveal how unsavory the doctrine is, whereupon he is made solely responsible for it.
There are many other such hypocrisies rattling around like skeletons in our closet. Over the last decade and a half, the Improvised Explosive Device – the IED – was responsible for more U.S. casualties than any other cause. The national security establishment holds it to be a uniquely fiendish device, typical of the moral monsters who confront us.
But what is it, really? It’s a landmine. And the United States is the only First World nation that is not a party to the landmine treaty. Our refusal to sign is shared by such engines of moral improvement as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s frequently incoherent word salads of innuendo, contradictory statements, and off-topic filibustering often make it difficult to know what he is saying, or whether he means it. But precisely because he is untethered to the norms of the establishment, he is free to utter the occasional taboo that cannot be discussed according to the elites’ rules of acceptable discourse.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the public will become aware of these facts – that is, if the corporate media’s stunning lack of due diligence in interpreting his statement on nuclear policy is anything to go by.