Beltway Wonkdom: Where Clever Words Disguise Odious Arguments

Dr. Christopher A. Ford is a Senior Fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, and regarded by the Beltway set as something of a conservative expert on matters nuclear and on nonproliferation. He and i have locked horns a few times – on one occasion he called me an “opportunistic listserve dilletante”, a badge I wear with pride. I acknowedge that Ford is a massively bright guy, and knows his subject matter very well – it’s just that the loops he ties in the facts to justify his neocon ideology in big Beltway confabs turns my stomach. In that, he’s representative of what the Beltway accepts as “serious analysis” because it is dressed up in the approved way, while they scorn as “ideological rhetoric” more plainspoken forms of argument. There’s something seriously broken in the decision-makers’ system, in my opinion.

To illustrate, after the jump there’s an excerpt from Chris’ latest talk at a wonk event, a link to the whole thing, and my own plain analysis.

Disarmament and Nonproliferation in the Next Four Years:

One of the things that nuclear policy boffins outside government are obviously wondering these days is where the disarmament agenda will go over the next four years.  With President Barack Obama having just been re-elected, we will presumably see a renewed push from at least some in the international disarmament community to get the United States to make good on the disarmament-friendly rhetoric of the beginning of Obama’s first term.  (Perhaps, for instance, they will urge the president retroactively actually to earn the apparently anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize he was given in 2009 in large part on the strength of such posturing.)  And indeed there is surely at least some chance that the president – having now been effectively immunized from accountability to the American electorate and having already signaled to the Russians his expectation of having greater “flexibility” in a second term – will oblige such entreaties by rededicating himself to “global zero.”

I have heard Obama Administration officials disclaim any interest in unilateral U.S. reductions, and they claim to be laying the groundwork for a follow-on accord to the Russo-American “New START” agreement of 2010.  Given the various obstacles that stand in the way of negotiating a new treaty with Moscow, and given how hard it was to ratify even the supremely modest provisions of New START, it is far from clear that such plans are realistic.  (A deal might be more feasible if Russia came to see things differently when New START is about to expire and Moscow faces the prospect of having no arms control framework in place the United States, but by that point Obama will have already left office.)  So one should perhaps take present disavowals of unilateral reductions with a grain of salt.  Two or three years from now, one might imagine unilateralism looking rather more attractive to an increasingly desperate, “legacy”-seeking administration faced with the prospect of accomplishing “nothing” on disarmament during Obama’s entire second term.

In that context, one might expect the White House to explore unilateral moves – perhaps claiming to be modeled on the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of 1991 – that would attempt to evade Congressional accountability.  At any rate, whether unilateral or otherwise, some new push to reinvigorate the dream of “zero” is certainly possible.  Such a push would not, however, be very wise.  Ironically, I suspect that such a drive would probably not consolidate but in fact taint President Obama’s nuclear legacy, and indeed the cause of disarmament more broadly.

This irony comes from the fact that it has become clear over the past four years that there is indeed much good work that can be done in forging and implementing a bipartisan U.S. consensus on nuclear weapons policy, at least in the medium term.  Specifically, while hawks and doves within the U.S. policy community may yet disagree on the ultimate destination (i.e., over the merits of “zero” versus a future of indefinitely-prolonged nuclear deterrence), there is room for broad agreement on what to do for quite some time yet.  Even in his signature April 2009 disarmament speech in Prague, President Obama said that he does not expect nuclear weapons to disappear in his lifetime.  Until they do, however – if they do – it is essential that we have a sound deterrent.

Accordingly, for so long as we retain any nuclear weapons, deterrence and crisis stability require that they be safe, secure, reliable, credibly usable, survivable, and as well-tailored to their potential missions as possible.  We will also need to ensure that our weapons infrastructure is capable of being genuinely responsive to future threats, not least because keeping state-of-the-art weapon design capabilities and a robust production capacity is a critical hedge against future uncertainty without which we would likely need to keep in existence a larger nuclear arsenal.   Such requirements do not lessen with reductions in our nuclear arsenal, and may even increase.  The fewer weapons we possess, the more important it is that those we keep are optimized for modern needs in all these respects, and the more important it is that we maintain the ability to reverse course if we need to.  Such qualitative improvements, therefore, are essential to any serious thinking about numerical reductions – especially in an environment in which others are modernizing and/or enlarging and/or acquiring new nuclear arsenals.

If taken seriously, a dovish “reductions” agenda thus overlaps with a more hawkish “deterrence” agenda in many important respects, at least for quite a few years.

Please, read the whole thing as my notes below pertain to more than the section excerpted above.

First, it should be noted that Dr. Chris Ford’s innate ability to obscure via the medium of multisyllabic loquaciousness the paucity of empirical evidence for his ideological gyrations is surely unparalleled during this geological period.

If I may unpack in plainspeak.

Chris believes Obama has been a radical and partisan president but offers no evidence for this – which is just as well because all the evidence is that Obama has bent over backwards to try to negotiate with a recalcitrant Republican House.

Chris believes nuclear deterrence is a great thing as long as its only available to those who have already managed to build nukes.

Moreover, Chris believes that the prospect of a couple of second rate nations building a handfull of second rate nukes is a rationale for the US spending hundreds of billions it doesn’t have on hundreds of shiny new nukes in case at some hypothetical and far off dimension where the US falls behind in the ability, not to destroy the planet, but to destroy the planet *efficiently*.

Chris believes “global zero” is a great thing as long as no-one who already has nukes – especially the US – ever actually tries to get there.

Chris believes the US has “ceded to nonproliferation’s enemies” the intellectual terrain of NPT debate – despite UNSCR resolutions of dubious legality and one of the most crippling international sanctions regimes in history. Ummm, I can only assume *not* ceding the terrain would involve using some of those sparkly new and improved nukes Chris wants the US to build to show the perfidious Persions what’s what.

He also believes that those who have built nukes but remain outside the NPT are somehow just fine and the US is not in any way ceding “the legal and intellectual terrain that we have hitherto so foolishly ceded to nonproliferation’s enemies” by supporting three out of four of those nations, however nations who are inside the NPT but haven’t yet built nukes are a massive threat to non-proliferation which cannot be tolerated.

Personally, I’m amazed and full of admiration. Chris actually gets paid, and paid well, for producing this gumph. However, Chris can comfortably discount my unloquacious analysis. I’m not a “serious person” after all. On to the next lucrative speaking contract!

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • Realated News:

    Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite who has bucked party leaders to back challenges to centrist veterans he didn’t view as conservative enough, said Thursday he was resigning to take the helm of a conservative think tank.

    The South Carolina lawmaker said in a statement he was stepping down to become president of the Heritage Foundation.

    Heritage is the neocon mothership, and DeMint has found himself a cushy little earner where the Beltway thinktank set will take him seriously simply because he’s “one of them”. Meanwhile, he gets a $856,000 raise. Ugh.

  • Simply maintaining status quo in the U.S. nuclear arsenal costs billions of dollars every year, not to mention upgrading it, which Obama himself has approved. If conservatives wanted to really reduce the deficit AND make the world a safer place, reducing the nuke arsenal by two-thirds would be a wise move.

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