Dumb on Purpose: Our Nuclear Predicament
Posted by Lorelei Kelly
The fact that the Bush administration is even mentioning nuclear options in dealing with Iran is only partly the last stand of the Neo-Cons. Likewise, it is caused by something more than a president whose political base is buckling up for their apocolyptic joyride. No, our predicament is deeper than that. It is a product of a conservative philosophy that has purposefully broken our open and fact based democratic government. Today’s bad dream of policy options toward Iran is not an accident, but an outcome.
In a democracy that works well, government cares for the institutional memory of big, important public interest issues—like the dangers of nuclear weapons. And long serving bureaucrats provide the steady ballast that keeps the government moving toward objective common goods—like reducing such dangers. That way, government weathers the storm of deviant Executives and keeps the public interest intact. The conservatives in power today are of a breed that does not believe in government virtue nor common goods. Katrina-style government is the result of our failure to maintain a dedicated federal staff for community disaster relief. The Bush Administration’s ability to threaten the nuclear option with little articulate resistance is at least partly because--for decades--conservatives have marginalized or destroyed our government’s ability to pursue arms control. Here are three examples:
The Arms Control & Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was established in 1961 during the administration of President John F. Kennedy to negotiate arms control treaties, both bilateral (U.S.-Soviet) and with many nations (such as the Chemical Weapons Convention). It was an independent foreign affairs agency that reported directly to the President as well as to the Secretary of State (who you report to means everything in the DC food chain). Thanks to a reorganization championed by arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms, ACDA was folded into the State Department and arms control has since steadily moved to the margin. Many specialists with decades of experience have either retired or left.
The Office of Technology Assessment was created in 1972 so that Congress had its own stable of critical scientific expertise and wouldn’t have to trust the Executive Branch’s information. It consisted of 143 smart people—public servants all—who sat in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue about a 3 blocks from Congress working to both educate and enlighten our legislature about both the benefits and hazards of technology. Part of their mission was to think long-term—everything from health care to energy alternatives. Of course, much of its work had an impact on defense matters and the beginning of the end came when some Defense Dept. missile defense fans ganged up with the conservative Heritage Foundation and lambasted OTA for issuing a critical report on their favored program. OTA was cheap help, costing around 21 million a year –and all reports were vetted by six Dems six Republicans. This organization and its invaluable memory were wiped out by the Contract with America in 1994.
Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus
This bipartisan and informal venue inside Congress helped Members in both the House and Senate keep up to speed on important national security issues—even when the Members weren’t on the foreign affairs or defense committees. It had staff who kept track of issues and advised members. In order to consolidate all the power of recognition to himself, Newt Gingrich effectively dismantled the entire caucus system through rules changes which deprived them of staff. He then outsourced much of the policy work to his army of conservative think tanks. There’s a reason Members don’t have the wherewithal to ask the hard questions about Iran. Congress was lobotomized 12 years ago and then pseudo-staffed by Stepford wonks.
So where was the intellectual firepower on the left to counter this destruction? There are many theories: The purging of liberal Republicans by their own party, the “we’ll win next round” denial of the Democrats, the generic “we hate government” chorus favored by both parties on the campaign trail. And our academics, lo, they remained on the clouds of truth and beauty while our government was lost to incompetence and greed. And still today, we are so much better at occupying knowledge than moving it strategically. There are many signs of hopeful change, but progressives must mobilize the manpower to correct this knowledge disconnect and answer the question "What is government for?" Our current stand-off with Iran illustrates what happens when you don't.