TWO GIANT STEPS BACKWARD
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
Step One: "Strategic Defense" Ė
In 1983, Ronald Reagan proposed a "Strategic Defense Initiative"
Ė a "space shield" against incoming nuclear missiles. George W. Bush
promises to renew the "initiative," and Bill Clinton is toying with
the scheme, despite the strenuous objections of the NATO allies . Missile
defense was a bad idea during the Reagan era, and it is a bad idea now.
First of all, it probably would not work, and much more to the point, even if
(however improbably) it did work, it would be useless.
In a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, MIT
scientist, Theodore Postol, validates what we have heard and read about the
feasibility of the scheme. A determined effort by an aggressive power to defeat
missile defense, through the use of decoys, would probably succeed.
"Tests" of anti-ballistic devices are directed more toward the task of
persuading the public and the Congress, and at authentic research and
development. Critics have characterized such "tests" as
"strapped chicken demonstrations."
Back in the Reagan/SDI days, we pointed out the ease with which missile
defense might be defeated, and so we will not repeat that argument here. (See
Wars: The National Sanity Test,"
But never mind all that. Just suppose that we might devise a system that
could stop an errant ICBM, launched by some "rogue state." What would
that accomplish? Virtually nothing, I suggest.
The trajectory of an ICBM launched at an American city can be plotted with
near certainty back to the launch site. If such a missile successfully took out
its target, we can be sure that North Korea or Iraq or some such "rogue
state" responsible for the launch would soon be reduced to rubble. In
short, an ICBM launch is a plain act of personal and national suicide.
So clearly, any national or sub-national entity (e.g., the mafia or the Abu
Nidal group, etc.) would choose a delivery system that would hide the place or
group of origin. These might include "suitcase devices" in autos,
aircraft or ships, or possibly an off-shore "lob". In addition, none
of these require the advanced technology, inflated budgets and readily
detectable trail of evidence entailed by the deployment of ICBMs.
And none of these far more likely scenarios would be the least bit affected
by an anti-missile defense system.
There are other consequences as well. The 1972 ABM treaty with Russia will
have to be revised or, assuming a likely Russian refusal to revise, abrogated.
Facing an opposing missile defense system, the Russian government would be under
irresistible pressure to reactivate and expand its offensive missile forces.
This is a safe assumption since it precisely what the West would do if faced
with the prospect of a Russian missile defense system.
It takes little historical memory to realize that this is precisely the
mind-set that dominated, and arguably prolonged, the Cold War. Despite the
advice of wiser and cooler heads among Western European leaders, it is a
mind-set that has apparently recaptured the adherence of the American leaders of
Moreover, this confrontational mind-set is totally inappropriate to the
greater nuclear dangers that we face today. The greatest danger, by far, is a
terrorist act, with the nuclear "device" delivered by briefcase or
truck, as with World Trade Center or the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Prevention of such a disaster calls for close cooperation and coordination among
international and state security agencies, such as Interpol, the CIA and FBI in
the United States, and the FSB in Russia. "Human intelligence" must be
cultivated within terrorist groups and "rogue nations," security files
and surveillance data of many nations must be integrated, international
inspection agencies must be reactivated, and acutely sensitive radiation
detection devices must be developed and deployed.
If, somehow, "missile defense" is a technological imperative that
cannot be stopped, then it should be made an international project Ė not
merely "shared" with Russia, China, and NATO, but still more openly developed
with and deployed by these powers. Only then might we avoid a renewed
Alas, "integration" and "cooperation" seems furthest from
the minds of our national leaders, including it seems the ex-KGB officer who is
now the President of Russia. "Strategic theory" that was hard-wired in
the heads of our leaders during the cold war and which remains active in
numerous careers and investments, still seems to control our policies.
How else are we to explain the return of the "missile defense"
Step Two: The Putin Putsch
With a stroke of the Presidential pen, "the Russian environmental
crisis" has been eliminated Ė at least, as a matter of official concern
of the federal government. For in late May President Vladimir Putin abolished
the State Committee for Environmental Protection (Goskomekology).
Unfortunately, the air and water of Russia remain as polluted as ever,
nuclear wastes remain in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Japan, and in the soil
of Chelyabinsk and Semipalatinsk. The life expectancy of the Russians is the
lowest in Europe, and is falling, as is the population of Russia. All these
tragic legacies of environmental neglect during the Soviet regime remain, and,
with Putinís decree, are even less likely to receive the attention and
remedies that are so urgently needed.
By abolishing Goskomekology, Putin appears to share the view of many leaders
of the US Congress along with their corporate sponsors Ė namely, that
environmental protection and renewal are subversive of economic growth and
prosperity. This complaint, which has been heard persistently since the first
Earth Day thirty years ago, has been thoroughly demolished by the economic
performance of the industrial world during the same interval. The
"economics vs. environment" argument has even less credence in Russia,
which is unlikely to experience economic prosperity with a work force devastated
by environmentally induced illness and with a perpetually deteriorating
resource base. Gaylord Nelsonís rule applies universally: "the economy is
a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment." There is no prosperity on a
The community of Russian environmentalists has not received news of Putinís
decree passively. The deposed Minister of Environmental Protection, Viktor
Danilov-Danilyan denounced Putinís decision in a public news conference.
Former Presidential advisor and leading activist, Alexey Yablokov along with
numerous members of the Russian Academy of Scientists have publicly protested
the move, as have leaders of the Socio-Ecological Union. Indeed, protests from
across the spectrum of Russian Environmental NGOs have been sent to the
As the accompanying material will testify (see
Putin / Goskomekology Controversy, this site) , the Russian
environmental leaders have called upon concerned environmental scientists and
activists throughout the world to express their displeasure at Putinís decree,
and we herein convey that call to our readers. (See,
Express Your Opinion," this site). Unfortunately, the force of
international protest may be muted in Putinís ears, since he has often
expressed his belief that domestic environmental groups serve as havens for
Late word from our Russian friends is that Putinís decision is not set in
stone, and that he might be persuaded to rescind it. If so, then perhaps at this
very moment, the Presidential mind may be an arena of conflict between two
contending perspectives: one is the surviving mind-set of a former KGB officer
and cold-warrior, who suspects nefarious foreign subversion behind domestic
political dissent. The other is of an educated lawyer and a recent associate of
a progressive political leader (the late Anatoly Sobchuk), capable of being
persuaded by scientific evidence and expertise, and open to an appreciation of
the global scope of an environmental crisis that unites an international
community of scholars and activists in a common cause.
We suggest that Vladimir Putin be given the benefit of the doubt, as he is
respectfully if forcefully presented with the weight of informed scientific
opinion regarding the gravity of the environmental conditions in Russia. He
should also be allowed space and opportunity for a "graceful retreat."
Greatness of leadership is measured, not only by correct decisions, but also
by a leaderís response to erroneous decisions. Eisenhowerís behavior after
the U2 incident, Khruschevís decision to remove the missiles from Cuba,
Kennedyís acceptance of blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, all come to mind. In
contradistinction, history does not kindly judge a leaderís dogged refusal to
admit error. Lyndon Johnsonís pursuit of the VietNam War is a case in point.
By abolishing the Committee on Environmental Protection, President Putin has
made a portentous error. Now, in the face of national and international protest,
he faces another decision. He might display a stubborn courage of his
unfortunate conviction, or he may yield to the evidence of Russian and world
science, and to the manifest needs and sentiments of the Russian people. If the
latter, he may more than recover the stature lost by his decree; he will also
receive the gratitude and admiration of his compatriots and of people throughout
the world who sincerely wish for the success of the new Russian democracy.
These "two steps" Ė missile defense and the abolition of
Goskomekology Ė move the governments and peoples of Russia and the West
further apart, and set both nations upon a course leading to further separation
and even conflict.
A unilateral American program in missile defense will surely renew Russian
suspicions of US intentions which will lead in turn to a resumption of the arms
race. An abolition in Russia of a Federal ministry of environmental protection,
combined with a libeling of environmental NGOs as "subversive,"
separates Russia from the cooperative international effort toward global
environmental protection and renewal.
This is not what we had expected or hoped for, a decade ago, when the Soviet
Union fell and a Russian democracy was in prospect. Both of these ominous
backward "steps" are recent enough to be open for reconsideration, halted in their
tracks, and reversed.
Dare we hope?
Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge