THE WAR TRAP
The Crisis Papers
December 15, 2009
Today, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nineteen
years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the military budget of
the United States is larger than at any time during the Cold War and
roughly equal to the total of all other military budgets throughout the
Why, in the midst of the greatest economic emergency in seventy
years, with the public sector of the U.S. economy starved for funds
required for economic recovery, and with urgent global climate and
energy crises directly before us, have we failed to benefit from a
"peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War? Why are we instead
engaged in two wars in nations that pose no threat to us?
It appears that Einstein was right: everything has changed except our
modes of thinking, and thus, as he warned, "we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
The good news is that we have the means to avoid catastrophe. The far
worse news is that there is little evidence that the political and
economic structures in place will allow us to escape that catastrophe
TIT FOR TAT
Last September, President Obama announced that the
was cancelling plans to establish a ballistic missile defense system (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic. This
decision, which appalled Republicans and neo-cons in the U.S., along
with many Czech and Polish politicians, delighted peace activists both
in the U. S. and throughout the world.
Also delighted were the Russians, who had regarded the missile
defense shield, first proposed by George Bush (the lesser), as a
provocation, aimed at neutralizing the Russian strategic missile
capability. The Russians were unconvinced by Bush’s assurance that the
BMD was designed as a defense against a missile attack from Iran, a
skepticism that was shared by many American critics.
Obama’s decision to cancel the BMD was shortly followed by a Russian
that it would not deploy missiles in
the Baltic city of Kaliningrad,
along with an indication that this decision was in
response to Obama’s announcement regarding the bases in Poland and the
Thus began the first two moves of a de-escalation strategy known to
game-theorists and political scientists as "Tit for Tat," whereby an
initiation of a conciliatory act is responded to in kind, and so on
reciprocally, until one player elects to take advantage of the
cooperating opponent (i.e., "defects").
This particular game came to an abrupt halt the following month when
Vice President Biden, in a visit to the Czech Republic, assured the
Czech President that the U.S. would, after all,
install a "modified"
missile defense shield.
One can only speculate as to what might have happened had the
American/Russian Tit For Tat game continued. Following the Kaliningrad
announcement, it was Obama’s "turn." Instead of reneging on the original
BMD decision, Obama might have announced that ICBMs would henceforth be
equipped with in-flight "abort" mechanisms, to minimize the chance of an
accidental nuclear war (which,
as I have argued
elsewhere, is the
most likely cause of a global thermonuclear catastrophe).
Russia’s turn? Presumably the same. Then, to "up the ante," perhaps
an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. and NATO in their opposition the
Iranian nuclear weapons program.
And so on. The opportunities and options for reciprocating "Tit For
Tat" cooperation and de-escalation are endless.
So why haven’t these opportunities been pursued and accomplished? The
question encompasses nothing less than the history of the Cold War and
the enormously complicated theories and ideologies of international
diplomacy. However, I have a simple suggestion: there is too much wealth
and power invested in diplomatic "business as usual" to allow
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA.
Great power rivalries have often been described as "prisoner’s
dilemmas" – a thought experiment also familiar to game theorists and
political scientists. This is the paradigm example:
Two conspiring prisoners are separately brought before a judge, who
presents each prisoner with this proposal: "If you confess and implicate
your accomplice and he remains silent, I will sentence him to ten years
and release you. If you both confess, I will sentence each of you to
five years. And if you both remain silent, I will sentence each of you
to one year."
If you reflect on this "deal," you will find some fascinating
implications, both moral and practical. First of all, "the best is the
enemy of the good"; the more each prisoner is inclined to achieve the
best outcome for himself, the less likely he is to get it. Second, the
best outcome for both (both silent, a year each) is not the best outcome
for each (release). Third, the more each prisoner trusts the other the
more likely the best outcome for both (i.e., both silent). (I examine
The Prisoner’s Dilemma in more detail
The Prisoner’s dilemma is much more than an idle thought-experiment.
You can see it in action almost every week on TV in "Law and Order" or
other such crime dramas. It’s called "plea bargaining." We all know the
script: "here’s the deal – you give up the other guy and we’ll go easy
on you. Your buddy is in the other room right now, and the first to
cooperate gets the deal. Your time is running out."
This is how the prisoner’s dilemma might apply to an arms race:
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each had a
choice: to arm or to disarm. Disarming, while the other did not, invited
attack and/or economic and political defeat (loss of global dominance).
Mutual disarmament allowed national resources to be invested in the
domestic economies. Mutual arming – i.e., the arms race – resulted in
the impoverishment of both economies and a constant "hair-trigger"
danger of a catastrophic thermonuclear exchange.
As we all know, it was the last option that was followed by the great
powers until, with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and
perestroika, the Soviet Union unilaterally disarmed. To the amazement of
the Cold Warriors on both sides, this did not, as feared, result in an
attack by the U.S. and NATO nor the defeat of Russia, though it did
accompany the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Today, a pale vestige of the Cold War remains, as both the United
States and Russia still have strategic nuclear missiles armed and ready
and, as the dispute over the Czech and Polish BMD sites testify, each
side is suspicious of the intentions of the other. Both sides face
severe economic crises, and thus have much to gain by disarming and
directing their national resources to dealing with domestic issues.
There is much more cooperation and trust today between the United States
and Russia than there was during the Cold War. Accordingly, the time is
right, at long last, to prevent the outbreak of a new Cold War and to
secure a lasting peace between the United States and Russia.
So why was Joe Biden dispatched to Prague to put an end to the
developing "benign circle" of Tit For Tat mutual de-escalation?
That question is a small piece of a much larger question: Why does
the United States government find it necessary to spend close to a
trillion dollars on "national defense" – roughly equal to the military
budgets of all other nations combined – while this nation is in the
midst of the greatest economic crisis in seventy years, and as the
entire planet faces the catastrophic consequences of climate change and
end of abundant fossil energy sources? We are told that we are engaged
in a "war on terror" against a band of outlaws, hiding in caves and
remote tribal villages. Why, then, do we build multi-billion dollar
nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers to use against an "enemy"
without a navy, and build fighters and bombers to use against an "enemy"
without an air force?
EISENHOWER HAD IT RIGHT
In the councils of
government, we must guard
against the acquisition of
unwarranted influence, whether
sought or unsought, by the
military-industrial complex. The
potential for the disastrous
rise of misplaced power exists
and will persist.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
The answer is compelling: Obama and Biden chose not to play Tit
For Tat with the Russians, simply because "the powers that be" in
Washington, Wall Street, and the Military-Industrial Complex do not
desire a de-escalation, and furthermore would be rather pleased to see a
resumption of the Cold War.
I understand that this sounds unspeakably paranoid. But consider the
stakes involved. In January, 2002, the Pentagon auditors admitted that
2.3 trillion dollars of defense budgets were "unaccounted for." That’s
"trillion" with a "T" – 2.3 million times a million. Now where do you
suppose all those trillions went? And as we are well aware, billions
upon billions of public money is going into the private hands of the
"contractors" in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for Iraq, Halliburton, Inc.,
now awash in public cash, would be bankrupt due to the mismanagement of
its former CEO, one Richard Cheney. And Cheney is by no means the
only beneficiary of Pentagon largesse. In short, enormous fortunes and
thousands of careers, both military and industrial, depend upon a
continuation of strategic business as usual.
Now of course, nobody wants a nuclear war. But face it, the threat of
nuclear war, or of nuclear terrorism, is a gift to the military
industrial complex that keeps on giving. No threat, no fear – no
As the late economist, Kenneth Boulding, commented to me some
twenty-five years ago, "the American and Soviet military establishments
are symbiotic allies ‘at war’ with their own domestic economies."
Not only does a hypertrophic military suck
the lifeblood out of our domestic economy, still worse it succumbs to
Maslow's rule: "to a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer."
Madeleine Albright admitted as much when she said to Colin Powell, "what's
the point of [having] this superb military ... if we can't use it?"
(Albright, Madam Secretary, p. 182) Diplomacy? Negotiations?
International law? Treaties? The United Nations?
Fagetaboutit! Send the Marines!
Face it, if there were no "enemy"
to keep the military-industrial complex humming along would it not be necessary to
invent one? Come to think of it, perhaps, in large part, the enemy has
been invented. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense published
an annual report, Soviet Military Power: An Analysis of the Threat.
Primarily addressed to the Congress, it was in effect a wish list and a
sales pitch for an ever-increasing military budget. When, after the fall
of the Soviet Union, the military capability of the Soviets was closely
inspected, the DoD assessment was found to be wildly inflated. (See my
About The Russians? Personal Encounters).
And now, the "necessary enemy" is Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda,
Whatever would we do without OBL? Had Osama ("wanted dead or alive" –
George Bush) been captured or killed shortly after the 9/11 attacks,
what then would have become of "the War on Terror:" Gitmo, "enhanced
interrogation," The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, suspension of
habeas corpus. How might the 2004 election have turned out? So we
ask today, how was it possible for OBL to escape when he was surrounded
at Tora Bora? And how is it possible for an individual with failing
kidneys on dialysis to survive in the Afghan wilderness for eight years? "If there were no enemy,
would it not be necessary to invent one?" Just wondering.
SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES
There is a need to create
ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve
them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope
and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless
If these "paranoid" suspicions are even partially correct – if the
military-industrial complex has a death-grip on our economy and politics
– how can we possibly escape? After all, just about the only thriving
manufacturing enterprise remaining in the United States is the defense
industry. If the Department of Defense appropriations were cut to a
"reasonable" one-third, would not unemployment skyrocket and tax revenues
plunge? Would not our already sick economy lapse into critical
condition? In short, can we afford peace?
We can and we must, for the environmental and resource perils immediately
before us far outweigh any military threats, either real or imagined.
If managed skillfully, a drastic cut in the military budget, far from
aggravating the current economic crisis, can lead us out of it. After
all, we’ve done it before. Just as, in 1942, the U.S. economy mobilized
from a peacetime to a war economy in months, and then, in 1945, reversed
the process in less time and led to a sustained era of prosperity, we
can do it again.
What it will take is a unified sense of national purpose – a
realization that as we take leave of a fictional crisis, we are facing
an actual global emergency: global warming and the end of the petroleum
And just as World War II ended the great depression of the thirties,
the new crises might put an end to the present economic emergency and
inaugurate a renaissance of education, research,
development, and industrialization, which means innovation, jobs and
investments. New sources of energy and modes of transportation might be
developed and installed. The next generations must then be educated to
deal with the new world that we are leaving to them.
Simply stated, the military-industrial complex must not be
dismantled, it must be converted.
All this is possible. But as long as the present political and
economic structures prevail, I fear that it is very unlikely.
Quite frankly, I don’t see a way out. I’m not saying that there is no
escape, just I can’t see one. But history has a way of surprising us. In
1933, new leaders took power in Germany and in the United States. One
led his nation to ruin, and the other to renewal. "Two roads diverge..."
I once believed that Barack Obama might be another FDR who might
inspire and unite the American people to overcome the dreadful crisis
that he inherited from the disastrous Bush regime. But now, that hope
has faded as Obama has apparently been co-opted by "the enemy."
As I have often noted before, the situation before us appears to be
hopeless: as hopeless as George Washington’s prospects at Valley Forge,
as hopeless as Gandhi’s struggle against the British Empire, as hopeless
as Martin Luther King’s Birmingham bus boycott, as hopeless as Andrei
Sakharov’s protest against Soviet oppression.
And yet, somehow, they all ultimately prevailed.
In the final analysis, the oligarchs who own our government and
control the media, however wealthy and powerful, are few. Their victims
– all the rest of us – are many, and we are the ultimate source of their
wealth and, through our passive acquiescence, of their power.
Shakespeare’s Cassius spoke to us as well a Brutus, when he said:
"men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is
not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings."