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VIEWPOINTS: Temptation for first use in Middle East

Ken Hancock — May 1984

Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of five articles by Ken Hancock on “Nuclearism, Militarism and Third World Intervention.” The first article is a general introduction to the topic. Succeeding articles will examine (a) the actual ‘uses’ of nuclear weapons by the United States against the Third World; (b) nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and their link to Third World oppression; © Canada and US foreign policy; and (d) present trends in military strategies and their link to global political issues and struggles.

It is not often that I want to be seen agreeing with Henry Kissinger. After all, this man personally selected the targets of the massive US bombing of Cambodia. But when he stated in Vancouver last month that US policy-makers give no credence to the possibility of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, Kissinger revealed a strategic position which is often held by the more radical critics of US society.

Kissinger went on to say that, if we are really going to talk about a nuclear war, we must look to the present ‘conventional’ conflicts now raging in the Third World. More specifically, he stated that the most likely place for the beginning of a nuclear war is in the Middle East.

It is not often that one hears such open public statements from high-level strategists which, when analysed, can enlarge the narrow Cold War, East-West framework which currently limits our analysis of world tensions and events.

One can think back, for example, to the massive international rally in New York City on June 12, 1982. Many consider this to be one of the greatest organising successes the anti-nuclear movement has yet witnessed. But for others, it was a hollow victory. For, at the very time that the rally was taking place, Israel was invading Lebanon, and in the course of this invasion would kill 25-40,000 Palestinian and Lebanese people, and yet the leadership of the June 12 rally refused to allow any speakers that day to even address the invasion, let alone condemn it.

This not only raises questions of moral complicity in the face of actual killing of peoples in war today, it also reveals a fundamental ignorance (from which even Henry Kissinger does not suffer) about the actual political and military context in which a nuclear war will begin.

During the invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli army destroyed the Soviet embassy in Beirut, prompting a firm rebuke from the Soviet leadership. Later, the Israelis killed four Soviet advisors when they were spotted examining a downed Israeli jet. Responding to a major defeat in that war, Syria has committed itself to a major purchase of the newest Soviet war machinery.

The Soviet Union is planning to deploy some SS-20s north of Syria. The Israeli government is pressuring the Americans to provide Lance nuclear delivery systems. Israel, Taiwan and South Africa are in a consortium to build their own cruise missiles. The political tension mounts, and the very real potential for a new major conventional war grows, as does the possibility that it will go nuclear.

These conditions remind one of 1958, when the Marines landed in Lebanon equipped with short-range Honest John nuclear rockets. Or of 1973, when, in response to an Israeli threat to destroy the Egyptian army, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and the Americans responded by putting their forces on a red nuclear alert. Oh yes, Henry is right. Let us redirect our attention from our Coid War fixation on Berlin and Prague to the areas where the actual potential for nuclear war exists.
“In western Europe, there might not be such a great temptation for the other nations to initate (nuclear) war against us. But in the Middle East, where we have a much tougher job with conventional weapons systems, the renouncement of first use of nue/ear weapons would provide too great a temptation to whoever wants to go into those areas.”
— Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller, Deputy Director-Joint Strategic Planning Staff, 1976

The debate about cruise missiles in particular reveals a failure to place nuclear weapons systems in a broader political context. Many still believe that cruise deployment is a response to Soviet SS-20s. However, cruise missiles were given a serious commitment report after the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War. That was 1968, and the Tet offensive had made many in the US ruling elite critical of the way the war was being waged. New counterinsurgency plans began to emerge with tactical nuclear weapons playing a more agressive role in strategic thinking.

The idea of getting “bogged down” in another “loss” such as Vietnam terrified the more sophisticated members of the foreign policy elite. The new generation of nuclear weapons are a result of the changes made possible by technological revolutions and the changes made necessary by the increasing success of Third World revolutions.

The accuracy of these new weapons systems, the “flexibility” of tactical weapons, and the present commitment of the Reagan administration to 17,000 new warheads are all necessary to continue the global terror game of “resolve” and “will” that is so fundamental to the politics of intimidation.

Once we extricate ourselves from our Cold War fixations and analyse where (and against whom) cruise missiles will be deployed, the meaning of Kissinger’s policy statement becomes clearer. Cruise missiles will be deployed out of the new, permanent naval fleet in the Indian Ocean. Their target will be the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The cruise missiles in Comiso, Sicily, are aimed at the Middle East and North Africa. Asia is threatened by the cruise missiles in the Sea of Japan. While we continue to engage in the old arguments focussed on Europe, cruise missiles already have been deployed for several months on the battleship New Jersey off the coast of Lebanon.

The policy alluded to by Kissinger is not new. In 1951, Robert Oppenheimer, one of the “fathers” of the bomb, led a project called Project Vista which researched the construction of new, smaller tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield conditions. The 38th Parallel of division between North and South Korea is “protected” by a tripwire of nuclear mines. Recently analysts have commented on the fact that cruise and Pershing II might be deployed in South Korea. Geo-political reasons are the basis for such possibilities, including the fact that, as a Pentagon study reported, Korea “is one of the few US military bases worldwide where no one is trying to chase us out or raise the rent.”

This is not to say, of course, that Soviet / US relationships are irrelevant to the work of the peace movement. Far from it. But this relationship, as important as it is to world tensions, is in itself more indicative of forces indigenous to US society than is oftcn understood or acknowledged. For example, little is said of the fact that, had Jimmy Carter stayed in office, his military budget would have been greater than Reagan’s for 1984. American policy was being pushed to the right before Reagan, and before Afghanistan.

Essential to this more to the right were the stunning victories of Third World revolutions in the 1970s. Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, and Iran (initially a leftist revolt taken over by the right wing theocracy) all moved away from the US-dominated global system. Panic in ruling circles about the refusal of the population to support direct military intervention (the “Vietnam Syndrome”) has dominated the present struggle in foreign policy circles.

Some elite members are willing to live with a new form of “detente.” Robert McNamara talks of accepting nuclcar “parity” (as does Trudeau), and advocates a massive build-up of conventional forces to deter Soviet “agression.” But detente is not peace, and a peace movement. should not accept it. During Nixon’s 1972 detente trip to the Soviet Union, the US military was unleashing, against Hanoi, the most massive bombings in the history of the human race.

There is no doubt that US policy is now in the hands of an elite group who are moving away from “detente” to a more agressive “rollback” position. Leftwing victories will not be “contained” in acceptable areas of Soviet strategic interests. They will be agressively roll backed or defeated.

This undoubtedly creates a global environment of increased possibility for “conventional” conflicts to turn (like Cuba in 1962) into a testing ground of will (nuclear war). The threat is very real. And it is growing. This threat has been an important element in the growth of the peace movement. Any political movement has the potential to call for popular input into foreign policy. Neither liberals nor conservatives want that to happen. For many, the political blundering of the Reagan administration and the perceived over-emphasis on the Bomb as a tool of foreign policy can only add to the growing political dissent of the population. Liberal leadership in Canada and the United States wants to return to a less threatening policy so that the peace movement can be defused and the questions of foreign policy can be returned to the technocratic-political elite who have dominated the decision-making process. I believe that no matter who rules, a major contlict will occur by the end of the decade. Reagan’s re-election will hasten that process. The political-psychological gains of actually using the bomb are being lost. A need to re-assert the “will” to go “eyeball-to-eyeball” is presently threatening the planet. The actual context for this will be what is has always been the Third World revolutionary threats to global control. Our actions in the next years, and our understanding of the political base of events will play an essential role in saving the planet.

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