Full-Court Press: The “Four Horsemen” Call for a Nuclear Weapons Spending Surge

Full-Court Press: The "Four Horsemen" Call for a Nuclear Weapons Spending Surge

In the December edition of Z Magazine we published a lengthy feature examining the new politics of “anti-nuclear nuclearism,” a rhetoric whereby hawkish elites vaguely tout the goal of “disarmament” in order to actually boost nuclear weapons spending and advance a long-term, militarized, pro-nuclear vision. We focused in on the Hoover Institution’s pivotal role in shaping US nuclear weapons policies to the advantage of particular corporations and conservative political constituents, especially the nation’s two nuclear weapons design labs: the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Northern California.

Hoover has been the home base of an ongoing, ostensibly anti-nuclear campaign led by former US Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former US Defense Secretary William Perry, and former US Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman Sam Nunn. The two single most effective vehicles of this effort to shape public opinions and political possibilities have been a pair of widely circulated op-eds in The Wall Street Journal in January 2007 and January 2008, in which the “Four Horsemen” called for policies to reduce “nuclear dangers” and invoke a vision of eventual nuclear disarmament.

In a major political and moral blunder, many nuclear abolitionists and antiwar organizations immediately rallied behind the Four Horsemen, heralding their essays as a signal that the US national security state was poised to pursue an enlightened course of de-escalation toward eventual disarmament. A marginalized contingent of anti-nuclear activists and critics warned, however, that association with this elite-driven “disarmament” campaign was counterproductive, that it ceded the moral high ground to men personally and institutionally invested in the nuclear weapons establishment, and that the Four Horsemen’s plan would ultimately prove antithetical to the actual goal of nuclear abolition.

Then in The Wall Street Journal’s January 19, 2010, edition, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn published a third and drastically different op-ed, tellingly entitled “How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.” In this essay they not only lay to rest any doubt about their long-term support for a nuclear-armed American empire, but have gone so far as to call for a surge in nuclear weapons spending at the national laboratories.

The Four Horsemen endorse the view of a recent Congressional committee on nuclear weapons policy (conveniently co-led by Perry), which concluded that “investments are urgently needed to undo the adverse consequences of deep reductions over the past five years in the laboratories’ budgets for the science, technology, and engineering programs that support and underwrite the nation’s nuclear deterrent.” That’s in spite of the fact that the labs’ budgets for weapons have held steady throughout that period. The labs’ overall budgets, in fact, remain fixed at nearly 1.5 times their Cold War average, adjusting for inflation.

The Hoover quartet’s very public and very pro-nuclear about-face has been strategically timed, just as their earlier feel-good words in praise of disarmament were calculated to elicit a specific political response from the military establishment, Obama administration and pesky anti-nuclear and arms-control organizations. For the latter, their earlier essays were mostly designed to outflank and neutralize groups working to reduce spending on nuclear weapons.

The White House’s Nuclear Posture Review – the nation’s guiding framework on the role of nuclear weapons in its overall military strategy – is in the midst of being drafted. Due for release in March, the document will affirm the nuclear weapons complex’s activities for the remainder of Obama’s term in office. Additionally, there are three major treaties concerning nuclear weapons being negotiated, considered for ratification or reviewed for further implementation. Many disarmament-inclined government officials and activists who are trying to shape a less-militarized and costly US nuclear weapons policy have mistakenly assumed that the NPR document and arms-control treaties will create a policy trajectory to guide spending and infrastructure costs in the nuclear weapons complex. Disarmament and demilitarization, in other words, are thought of as occurring at the level of presidential declaration and international diplomacy.

The reality of nuclear weapons policy formation is much more complex and political, however. Rather than allowing a neat policy process carried out at the executive level to determine the future of the nuclear weapons complex, forces with financial and political stakes in nuclear weaponry, working through think tanks like Hoover or corporate entities like Bechtel and the University of California, are actively attempting to lock in a de-facto set of policies by building a new research, design and production infrastructure that will ensure nuclear weapons are a centerpiece of the US military empire far into the future. Their ability to accomplish this is dependent on the anti-nuclear nuclearist strategy concocted by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn. In turn, this strategy is being ably served by naive embraces of disarmament rhetoric, as well as the illusion, strongly held among arms controllers, disarmament activists and allies in foreign governments, that the future will ultimately be shaped by what the Nuclear Posture Review says, and whether negotiation of arms control and nonproliferation treaties results in reducing arsenal counts.

The Four Horsemen’s most recent pro-nuclear op-ed is a negotiating posture: part of a larger process of political deal-making that will play out in the months to come. President Obama has indicated that the cornerstone of his nuclear arms control agenda will be a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II). Successful ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which narrowly eluded the Clinton administration in 1999, is likely to be hoisted to the top of the current president’s international agenda in advance of the 2012 election as well. The Obama administration is seeking these treaty accomplishments primarily because they will provide for political “wins,” not because they will meaningfully reduce the United States’ reliance on nuclear weapons. Lest it be forgotten, many of the White House’s current foreign policy advisers are firm believers in nuclear weaponry, having no desire to phase them out through international accords.

At the core of any likely deal will be a surge in nuclear weapons spending. This surge will be requested in the February 1 budget request. The surge will build a multibillion-dollar infrastructure for manufacturing plutonium bombs. The deal might also possibly involve the expansion of programmatic authority and facilities at the weapons labs to pursue new warhead designs. How much the weapons complex wins depends mostly on how many abstract or irrelevant arms-control treaties the Obama administration wants to sign, or how far the administration wants to push its idealistic talk about eventual nuclear abolition, in the distant, not foreseeable future.

The technocratic corps of LANL and LLNL have long been known as powerful bulwarks against international treaties that limit nuclear arms development, and they will undoubtedly try to extract the greatest concessions possible from Obama as part of agreeing on any new treaties. With their direct links to the corporations that manage the weapons labs (at a hefty profit) the Four Horsemen are the chief negotiators working through public forums to limit the extent of arms control treaties and extract the biggest pro-nuclear lab concessions.

At the top of the weapons labs’ wish list is a new plutonium bomb core (“pit”) manufacturing facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, called the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project. Costing at least $2 billion, the CMRR, which would be the largest single construction project in the history of the State of New Mexico (excepting perhaps the interstate freeways), would be capable of manufacturing more than 200 plutonium pits per year. Plutonium pit manufacturing is the pivotal, messy step in creating a new generation of nuclear bombs. Therefore, the CMRR is the centerpiece of the nuclear establishment’s plans to renew the nuclear weapons complex. William Perry’s Congressional commission admitted as much. A new multibillion-dollar uranium enrichment facility at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is also high on the weapons complex’s wish list.

Not only would these facilities help enable a new generation of nuclear arms development, they would reinvigorate the esprit de corps of the entire US nuclear weapons complex, which has been plagued by a sort of existential crisis during the last decade in particular. The Four Horsemen acknowledge as much in their latest op-ed, citing a report by the national security science advisory group JASON in 2006; “expertise is threatened by lack of program stability, perceived lack of mission importance, and degradation of the work environment.” New pit manufacturing and uranium enrichment may be the last, best chance the nuclear weapons complex has of turning back into something like the hive of single-minded determination it often was during its Cold War glory days. Should Obama render these sorts of concessions, it would make whatever “arms control” achievements his administration achieves far worse than useless since it would reinvigorate the biggest obstacle to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament – the weapons labs in all their bureaucratic depth, ideological fervor, pork barrel riches and jingoist prestige.

The final team player in this full court press is none other than Obama’s own undersecretary of arms control and international security at the State Department, Ellen Tauscher. Charged with crafting the international treaties that will be exchanged for domestic nuclear weapons spending increases, it would be impossible for the nuclear weapons complex to have a better ally in the administration. During her tenure in Congress, Tauscher represented California’s conservative 10th Congressional District, which includes the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Lockheed Martin’s Sandia Lab campus in Livermore, Travis Air Force Base and a cluster of Bay Area military-industrial firms that contract at these sites. Tauscher’s entire career has been characterized by her magnanimous efforts to bring home the bacon for Livermore Laboratory and the wider nuclear weapons complex. When all is said and done, her role as a US representative and now a State Department official is to boost nuclear weapons spending at the labs. As Tauscher told the US Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium in late 2009:

“The Obama administration and key stakeholders must address the serious need to bolster the human capital and infrastructure necessary to maintain a credible, safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile. As our nuclear arsenal is reduced to its appropriate level, these capabilities will become even more critical. A loss of the skilled engineers, technicians, planners and operators increases the risks and uncertainties we could face in the years to come.”

That is the essence of anti-nuclear nuclearism: massive investments in the nuclear complex under the guise of arms control and nonproliferation. Tauscher is clear about the deals to be made. The START follow-on treaty will be exchanged for the nuclear weapons funding surge to come in February, as well as support for the CMRR and UPF facilities. The CTBT, when and if it comes time, will be exchanged possibly for authorization at the labs to design and build a new warhead. Years ago when the Bush administration proposed the RRW, a new warhead, Tauscher explained to an audience at Los Alamos Laboratory; “The ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty should be the logical end-result of a successful RRW program.”

With the Nuclear Posture Review brewing, the START follow-on treaty talks still underway, talk of pushing for CTBT ratification, and the upcoming Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, pro-nuclear forces, informed by the Four Horsemen’s anti-nuclear nuclearist strategy, are making a full court press to ensure increases in nuclear weapons spending. Thus far, this rhetorical strategy has served to fix the attention of disarmament and antiwar activists on abstract levels of policy declaration and international negotiation. This has unfortunately blinded them to the political deal-making process at hand, one that is influenced more by the concrete that is being poured right now at Los Alamos and Y-12, and the dollars being spent at Livermore and Sandia this year, than by the hopeful and idealistic statements of politicians and elder statesmen about “a world free of nuclear weapons.”