Andrew Lichterman

The headlines in recent weeks have been full of the latest “threat,” this time a possible missile test by North Korea. The Bush administration has filled the airways once again with bellicose rhetoric, ranging from the now-routine “all options are on the table” to threats to shoot the missile down with U.S. ballistic missile defense interceptors. As Jeff Lewis and Victoria Sampson argue persuasively in a series of posts at, the shoot-down talk is almost certainly an empty threat, intended only for consumption by those who know nothing about either ballistic missile defense or the likely trajectory of North Korean missile tests.

Not to be outdone, leading Democratic Party “national security” figures, including Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Perry, are suggesting a pre-emptive strike against the North Korean launch site, claiming that the outcome of this unvarnished act of aggression would be not only predictable but positive. The mainstream media and U.S. political elites seem permanently locked in a deadly symbiotic embrace: for the media, “if it bleeds it leads,” for the political elites, “if we kill it sells.” Or so it seems, more and more in this grim new American Century, where “diplomacy” seems to mean little more to those who wield American power than threatening force for a bit longer before using it.

The confrontation between the U.S. military behemoth and North Korea’s possible nuclear weapons and its still-theoretical long range missile capability works well enough, in any case, for the elites of both states, each growing progressively more isolated from the rest of the world, although in different ways. What each may fear most is their own growing irrelevance: North Korea to the world as a whole, the United States to East Asia, where convincing key states– such as Japan and South Korea–that it remains an “indispensable nation” is a critical element in slowing U.S. descent from the zenith of its power (now clearly in the rear-view mirror of the U.S. juggernaut, however much we may debate how many mileposts have passed since the peak). For North Korea, fueling up the missile (if that is what they actually are doing) gets the world’s attention by slapping the “rogue leader with nukes (maybe)” bargaining chip on the table once more, particularly with the U.S. government and its echo-chamber media playing the role of both predictable antagonist and massive message amplifier. Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger and company may have invented the “madman theory” of deterrence and diplomacy, but no one has gotten more mileage off less fuel with it than North Korea.

As for U.S. elites, the North Korean “threat,” particularly with the added fillip of an endless nuclear and missile crisis, is a good excuse for the U.S. to maintain its massive military presence in the region. It also is a major selling point for ballistic missile defense, both at home and abroad. Defenses against strategic missiles are an arms contractor’s dream: arcane, extremely expensive technology, for which there is a potentially unlimited demand, that is unlikely to be tested in any battle likely to be followed by rational debate over its success or failure. In this regard, the current round of North Korea missile-threat fear mongering may already have served its purpose. Last week the United States and Japan inked a pact for further cooperation on missile defense development, and this week Japan agreed to the deployment of Patriot 3 missiles, designed for defense against aircraft, cruise missiles, and shorter range missiles. While neither of these agreements may have been caused by the current North Korea missile test scare, they may provide useful political cover for the government of Japan, where increased cooperation with the U.S. military is controversial.

Largely unnoticed in this country (except by the Washington Post’s William Arkin), the North Korean missile “crisis” also coincided with “Valiant Shield 2006,” described by the military “as the largest joint exercise in recent history.” Conducted in the Western Pacific, it involved three Navy carrier groups, hundreds of aircraft, and over twenty thousand military personnel from all the services. We likely will never know the exact relationship between this massive show of force and the North Korean missile preparations (if indeed there are such). Who made the first “threat” in this round of high-stakes ritual posturing? All we can know for sure is that what appears on the front pages bears only the most distant relationship to any truth worth knowing.

“Valiant Shield” was preceded by a “joint photo exercise” which ” featured 14 ships as well as 17 aircraft from Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corp including a B2 bomber.” Its purpose and message was clear. At the cost of many millions of dollars, the “Photoex” undoubtedly will provide crucial support to the legions of Pentagon budget warriors, providing vital imagery for the next several years of PowerPoint presentations. The message: give us more, more, always more.

In this festival of violent posturing, the U.S. announcement that it was activating its U.S.-based ballistic missile interceptors stood out as a particularly surreal moment. It is probably best understood as one in a long line of Bush Administration production numbers staged in front of one or another false background– a brightly lit and carefully sanitized New Orleans square, the rubble and despair carefully effaced by the surrounding darkness, the Iraq war “triumph” of “mission accomplished” declared by a President in a pilot outfit symbolizing the military service he in fact largely evaded, on the deck of an aircraft carrier half a planet away from a devastated country where the war had just begun. Now, a threat to use a “missile defense system” that likely can’t hit a thing, to shoot down a missile launch that could be anything from a propaganda gambit (ours or theirs) to a peaceful satellite launch, that if it does occur likely will have a trajectory outside the range of U.S. based interceptors. Another day, another advertisement for fear, for war, and for the promise of high-tech weapons as the solution to all our problems.

Also in the rear view mirror of U.S. elites in their accelerating descent from global hegemony is their projection of a global order based on the rule of law. Bare-knuckled threats against North Korea are only the latest bit of evidence that lawfulness of any kind now takes last place in the U.S. approach to any foreign policy “crisis,” real or manufactured. Global hegemony to a considerable degree requires consent. A vision of the rule of law in international affairs played a central role in the ideology deployed by the U.S. to garner such consent in its period of greatest power, in the decades after WWII. Although often contradicted by U.S. actions, its most basic tenets, such as the prohibitions against wars of aggression and against torture, have not been openly rejected until now.

The advocacy by several members of the Democratic Party national security “A team” of a brazen attack against a country that poses no imminent threat to the United States, and that has no reason to launch a war against us, manifests the breadth and depth of the moral, legal, and diplomatic bankruptcy of U.S. “national security” elites. It is becoming increasingly apparent that they have painted themselves into a corner, unable to imagine any future path for the United States other than using its still-unparalleled military industrial complex, backed ultimately by the threat of nuclear annihilation, to extend U.S. economic dominance as long as possible. Anything which might require a significantly different distribution of wealth, or even a technology mix that might threaten the pre-eminence of dominant factions, lies outside the realm of permissible discourse in the U.S., a country whose dominant elements have devoted much of their post-Cold War energies to systematically eliminating the mechanisms for peaceful social change. Ideologically foreclosed from learning anything at all from the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have done their best to recreate one of its fatal flaws: a political system where information and new ideas cannot flow upward.

As in most such frenzies over the ambitions of small distant states to acquire one or two of the weapons that the United States possessed by the thousands half a century ago, the fact that this country continues to lead the world in the development of new and improved weapons of mass destruction seldom is mentioned. As North Korea is rumored to be fueling up a missile that may or may not be able to deliver a small payload to the outer reaches of the Western United States, the United States pushes ahead with development of a new generation of missiles and other delivery systems. On June 14th, the United States launched a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base delivering three dummy nuclear warheads across the Pacific to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. In the words of the 30th Space Wing press release, the goal of this particular test (for Minuteman flight tests are ongoing) was to “provide key accuracy and reliability data for on-going and future modifications to the weapon system, which are key to improving the already impressive effectiveness of the Minuteman III force.” And as this blog has documented, this is only one small part of a wide-ranging effort to develop the next generation of U.S. strategic weapons, with the intention of being able to strike targets anywhere on earth in hours or less.

Nonetheless, what dissent there is in Washington remains focused on a small range of strategic weapons programs, with disproportionate attention to nuclear warheads. Despite ongoing upgrades to virtually every existing U.S. strategic delivery system, from bombers to sea and land-based strategic missiles, and active planning for a wide variety of new delivery systems including exotic concepts like unmanned long-range bombers and highly accurate, conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, there is little debate about delivery systems. With all mainstream arms control and disarmament organizations apparently having acceded to a supposedly “pragmatic” paradigm that seeks to achieve only what might be accomplished in the next year or two in a Congress dominated by a coalition that runs from neo-fascist militarists to the merely corrupt, bought representatives of the weapons makers, even advocacy of proposals that might sharpen the debate and help reveal the intentions of those in power have largely been abandoned.

One such proposal relevant to the current pseudo-crisis is development of a universal treaty regime for the control of ballistic missiles, beginning with a ban on flight testing long range ballistic missiles. Such a treaty would be easy to verify, as ballistic missile flight tests are impossible to conceal, and distinguishing other kinds of rocket launches from tests of missiles intended for weapons delivery likely would not pose insuperable problems. The Federation of American Scientists, for example, did good work developing this concept in the 1990’s. An attempt to revive the concept a few years ago (by this author and others), however, elicited no interest from the current D.C. “arms control and disarmament community.” In contrast, when speaking to ordinary Americans (and not just the already “converted,”) I found that the idea of a controlling missiles by beginning with a flight test ban is easily understood, and worked to spark reflection even in hostile audiences. It lead easily into substantive discussion of why the United States prefers spending hundreds of billions of dollars to build defenses against long-range missiles to arms control measures that could hold promise of eliminating supposed future “missile threats,” (like North Korea) and to why those in power here feel they need to constantly exercise and modernize the world’s leading arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

My point, however, is not that a missile control regime beginning with a flight test ban is some magic solution, or even that it is the best strategy to advocate it right now (it probably isn’t). Rather, it is that those who dominate the discourse in “arms control and disarmament” work today have set their sights so low that we are in danger of forgetting altogether what we are trying to accomplish. My own growing conviction is that all work here in the U.S. focused directly on Washington D.C. and international fora should be de-emphasized for the foreseeable future, with most resources devoted to building a movement for real democracy and real peace on the local and regional level capable of changing the boundaries of the politically possible (for more on this, see here and here.) Such things as proposals for a missile control regime, even as an educational tool, remain within the ambit of the professionalized, expert-dominated politics that has come to be the norm across the political spectrum. As such, they fall short of the far more fundamental rethinking and re-direction of our efforts that the real crisis we face–a crisis of democracy, of being citizens of an increasingly repressive state engaged in a series of aggressive wars– requires. As I have written elsewhere,

As Cornell West has pointed out, “without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations, there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousness– only professional conscientiousness survives… Without a credible sense of political struggle, there can be no shouldering of a courageous engagement– only cautious adjustment is undertaken.” The last two decades of progressive politics in the United States has been one “cautious adjustment” after another. Across the landscape of mainstream politics, careful careerist professionalism is the rule, courageous engagement is nowhere to be found. It is time to start building traditions of resistance anew. Such traditions cannot be designed by experts, mass-produced, and consumed. We must make them for ourselves, together, and by doing so discover who we truly are.