The Threat of Nuclear War Grows.

By Edward S. Herman
November, 2008

The Russian war with Georgia witnessed the U.S. mainstream media  rushing to the barricades in a now familiar and routine manner, as in their service in supporting the invasion-occupation of Iraq and their portrayal of the huge threat posed by  Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, Russia’s attack and occupation did differ from that of the United States in Iraq in a number of ways. For one thing, Georgia borders on Russia and has been armed and its military trained by powers not friendly to Russia (the United States and Israel), so that the national security threat it poses to Russia as a client of these foreign powers is not negligible. In contrast, Iraq is far distant from the United States, had been effectively disarmed, and was not a client of a threatening foreign power—hence its national security threat to the United States was negligible.

A second and closely related point is that the Western arming of Georgia and U.S. effort to get it into NATO have been part of  a larger program that has seriously jeopardized Russian national security. In allowing East Germany to join West Germany in 1990, Soviet President Gorbachev had received an assurance from U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not expand “one inch”  eastward, let alone incorporate all former Soviet clients into a Western military alliance. Not only was this promise violated, but the United States has also aggressively intervened in the political affairs of  a number of ex-Soviet states on Russia’s southern flank, and established bases in several of them, again posing a national security threat to Russia. More recently, the United States has even negotiated for the establishment of  anti-missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland, purportedly to protect against Iranian nuclear missiles that don’t exist and would not threaten  the host countries even if they did exist.  Again, by contrast, Iraq did not have any anti-U.S. program and was not part of an alliance that posed any national security threat to the United States.     

A further point of  great relevance is that the recent serious escalation of violence between Georgia and Russia began on the evening of  August 7th with Georgia bombarding Tskhinvali ,the capital city of South Ossetia,  and sending a substantial military force into the province. Given that Georgia was a U.S. client, that the United States (along with Israel)  had armed and trained Georgian forces, that only days before the Georgian attack it had participated  in joint maneuvers with Georgian forces, and that U.S. and Israeli personnel were present in Georgia at the time of the attack, it is very possible—even very likely-- that the Georgian attack was not  a foolish mistake by the Georgian leadership but rather  a proxy action carried out on behalf of the United States. Its design is not clear, but might have been to further humiliate Russia, which had failed to act in the long series of  encircling and other hostile Western moves;  or perhaps to provoke it into action to test its response capability, or to push the new Cold War to a higher level for political advantage (helping the war party and  John McCain—the expected “October surprise” one month early).

In any case,  Russia responded some 24 hours after the opening large-scale Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali, drove out the Georgians and attacked and occupied part of  Georgia proper in the next few days. For some years South Ossetia had been quasi-independent, though legally part of Georgia. Peace had been maintained previously by a status quo agreement that left South Ossetia independent and with a number of Russian and other peace-keepers present. The Georgian attack of  August 7-8 targeted, along with the civilian population of Tskhinvali, the residences of the Russian peace-keepers who suffered  a score or more deaths and many wounded. Once again, the contrast with the U.S. attack on Iraq is clear: Iraq had not attacked or threatened the United States; it was attacked on the basis of claims about Iraq that were false and were clearly to help market a planned invasion-occupation (in May 2003 Wolfowitz famously acknowledged that  weapons of mass destruction was featured for bureaucratic and political reasons).

The Applied Double Standard In Action

The way in which U.S. officials and the media handled the Russian response to the Georgian assault has been a lesson in bias, misrepresentation, decontextualization, and the applied double standard. It has also often been funny,

Russian Action Threatening Commencement of a New Cold War

One of the most remarkable and funny of the official and media cliché-responses has been the charge that Russia’s attack threatens the commencement of  a new Cold War. But the Cold War was re-inaugurated  immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991, with U.S. and Western support of  a program of  ultra-shock therapy and mass-thievery-privatization that crushed the Russian economy, assured an oligarchic structure of  economic control and non-democracy, and reduced Russia to almost Third World economic conditions and powerlessness. This was carried out under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, the “reformer,” who served as a de facto U.S. agent.

  This was accompanied or followed by the expansion of  NATO to the Russian border, the war against and dismantling of Russia’s ally Serbia, the second Bush administration’s cancellation of the ABM treaty, the building of  new clients and bases in the ex-Soviet states of the south, ABM missiles in Eastern Europe, and the arming of  Georgia.  Even Thomas Friedman acknowledges that the Clinton foreign policy team chose “to  cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats because Moscow is weak, and by the way, they’ll get used to it”  (“What Did We Expect?,”  Aug. 20, 2008). But of course this doesn’t cause Friedman to actually  call the NATO program “expansionism” or “imperialism,” or to explain that Putin deserves credit for finally resisting such a program, which has included open aggression. No, Putin still gets a “gold medal for brutish stupidity,” while Clinton and Bush only get bronze for “short-sightedness.”  Friedman doesn’t explain what Putin could have done to end the exploitation of  Russian weakness, nor does he explain why the Russian attack, which the Georgians themselves claim resulted in only several hundred civilian deaths, is brutish while the U.S. attack on Iraq, with a million civilian deaths is not designated beyond brutish and possibly genocidal.

Russian Resort to FORCE—a No-No for the Enlightened

In a new Orwellian classic Condoleeza Rice stated recently--and  indignantly--that in its attack on Georgia Russia has turned to a policy of FORCE, which is a shocking and terrible thing in this enlightened age. “Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that’s its military power.  That’s not the way to deal in the 21st century.”  As Glen Greenwald points out,  she said this “with a straight face,”  and it elicited no mainstream media (MSM) comment, which proves that U.S. officials can say anything and get away with it. Rice speaks for a government that has used and continues to use extreme force in two major  wars carried out in violation of the UN Charter, and which has openly claimed the right to engage in preemptive violence outside the rule of law. Rice is also famous for her apologetics for the Israeli policy of force in Lebanon in 2006 as mere “birth pangs of a new Middle East” that she did not wish to interrupt. 

There is nothing new in this ultra-self-deception or hypocrisy. Back in 1965, James Reston, the top journalist of the New York Times, asserted that we were in Vietnam to establish the principle that force doesn’t pay:  that “no state shall use military force or the threat of military force to achieve its political objectives.” He said this in face of the fact that all knowledgeable officials and analysts recognized that the “enemy,” the National Liberation Front, had mass support in South Vietnam, that our minority clique had very little and would not survive for a month without U.S. military support, and that the entire rationale of  U.S. policy rested on the idea that the enemy would surrender as we escalated and put into play our massive force. (See Gareth Porter’s The Perils of Dominance for a study of how the U.S. reliance on force led easily into the genocidal U.S. use of force in Indochina.)

Aggression and Expansionism versus Response to National Security Threat

It is amazing to watch the U.S. imperialist establishment, including the MSM, wax indignant about “Russian aggression,”  Russian “brutality,”  and a renewal of  Russian “expansionism.” This is the establishment of  a country that can never admit its own  regular, serial, and massive aggressions—the word was never used by mainstream reporters or editors to describe the attack on Vietnam, 1954-75, or Iraq in 2003 and onward, and the Iraq war has never been ascribed to a planned expansionism, although this “projection of power” in the Middle East and beyond was actually announced in advance in the Project for a New American Century’s Rebuilding America’s Defenses (2000) and the National Security Policy program of 2002. We may kill millions in Indochina and Iraq—including in the latter the 500,000 children deaths from the “sanctions of mass destruction” that were “worth it” (to Madeleine Albright)—but this is not “brutal,” a word used freely in the case of the hundreds killed in the Russian aggression. What this shows is that the U.S. establishment can swallow anything, no matter how outlandish, to rationalize that projection of power now built-in to the U.S. political economy, and while a McCain relishes it an Obama also bows down to it as he seeks electoral victory here.

We and our “defense department” are protecting U.S. “national security,”  according to the cliché-myth. That the electoral intervention, political capture, arming, and proposed absorption of Georgia into NATO posed a security threat to Russia was barely recognized in the West. If the Russians (or Chinese) had entered into a military alliance with Mexico, supplied it with arms and military advisors, used a  Russian or Chinese version of the “National Endowment for Democracy” and other agents to bring about political change in Mexico (and recall that Mexico has had a series of elections won by fraud), and perhaps put some ABMs in place to protect Mexico against a possible threat from Colombia, can you imagine the frenzy of  U.S. politicos and the Free Press? And how easily a U.S. military response would be contrived at this threat to U.S. “national security”?  But for the imperialist establishment only this country and its clients have “national security” threats—like a disarmed Iraq! Or Sandinista Nicaragua only a day’s march from Texas (Reagan)!  Certainly the Russians don’t, even as we encircle them and arrange for ABMs on their very borders.

When it is occasionally recognized that the NATO expansion and U.S.-client status and arming of  Georgia does worry Russia, this isn’t accompanied by suggestions that maybe we should lay off, withdraw, and stop trying to bully Russia (or China) into subservience; no, it is used to explain that this gave Russia an excuse to resume its expansionist ways—it “gave Putin an easy excuse to exercise his iron fist” (Friedman, “What Did We Expect?,” Aug. 20).

Only Russia has bad motives. Saakashvili merely made a “mistake,” or foolishly “baited” the Russians; the United States was careless or  not very observant in failing to constrain him—but neither of them was guilty of  aggression, brutality, blackmail, or expansionism. Those are words reserved for bad guys who slyly pounce on the innocents when opportunity arises.

Evasion of  Georgian Initiation of  the Conflict

It has been awkward for the Western establishment that Saakashvili actually began the serious conflict with a major and civilian-oriented bombardment and ground attack on  Tskhinvali. The Russians didn’t make the initiating and big move and can credibly claim to be responding to the Georgian attack. The U.S. establishment has handled this by (1) ignoring the basic fact of Georgia’s initiation; (2) ignoring the civilian-target orientation of  that opening attack; (3) arguing that the Russians had provoked Georgia and deliberately sucked it into a major conflict. But none of these responses work. The first two dodge the issue completely, and the third fails to explain why Saakashvili did such a seemingly self-destructive thing—and of course fails to consider the possibility that he either expected no Russian response, or expected Western military support, or was being used by the United States for its own ends. Whatever the answers, Georgia started the war, not Russia, and the West has had to evade and/or downplay that fact.

It is also interesting that the U.S. and EU have been completely unconcerned over  Georgia’s use of  powerful and indiscriminate Grad missiles in the initial attack on what seems to have been strictly civilian sites in Tskinvali. Back in 1996 the Yugoslav Tribunal found the Croatian Serb leader Milan Martic guilty of war crimes for having used a similarly indiscriminate weapon in attacking Zagreb, a densely populated area, although he claimed to be aiming at the Ministry of Defense and Airport. But the Tribunal concluded that he was trying to terrorize the population (whereas prosecutor Carla Del Ponte found that while NATO also used cluster bombs, “There is no indication cluster bombs were used in such a fashion by NATO.”)  Martic was given a 35-year sentence for using cluster bombs. I think we can safely conclude that Saakashvili’s use of cluster bombs will be treated like NATO’s rather than Milan Martic’s. 

Rediscovery of  the UN Charter, International Law and the Importance of the  Territorial Integrity of States

The UN Charter and International Law come and go in the U.S. MSM depending on whether the United States is ignoring and violating them or trying to use them for its own political ends. There could hardly be a grosser violation of  both than the attack on Iraq, but there was no mention of the words “UN Charter” or “international law” in the 70 New York Times editorials on Iraq that appeared between September 11, 2001 and  March 21, 2003 (Friel and Falk, Record of the Paper, 15). The Times finally did mention international law in late March 2003 when the Iraqi government paraded several U.S. POWs on TV, assailing Iraq, but also chiding the Bush administration for neglecting that law and thereby endangering our soldiers taken prisoner abroad! (ed., “Protecting Prisoners of War,” March 26, 2003).

As regards Russia and Georgia, the media haven’t focused explicitly on the UN Charter, but of course have repeatedly charged Russia with aggression, which is a fundamental UN Charter violation, as well as disproportionate violence, and failure to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. Russia’s action was “brazen” aggression,  but the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 were in a different category altogether, certainly not “brazen,” “unacceptable,” or calling for an international response. Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected, but Yugoslavia’s and Serbia’s were a “special case,” based on the rule of the double standard. Croatia’s invading and throwing out 250,000 Krajina Serbs in Operation Storm in August 1995, with several thousand Serbs killed in the process, was another special case: Croatia was a U.S. ally, hence no UN, EU or Security Council response.

The first Washington Post editorial assailing Russia on Georgia stressed how wonderful that victim state Georgia is, one of its accomplishments being its support for “the mission in Iraq” (ed., “Stopping Russia,” August 9, 2008). But the mission in Iraq, to which the worthy Georgia contributed 2,000 troops,  was and remains a major act of aggression, which makes the Russian attack on Georgia puny by comparison, and arguably an act of self-defense, which the U.S. aggression was not. The editors of an ideological institution like the Washington Post are of course completely oblivious to the irony in their pat on the back for aggression-victim Georgia’s support of  the more massive aggression..

Urgency of  Russian Withdrawal

Along with the rediscovery of the importance of law and territorial integrity, so the Free World has rushed to demand that the Russians exit quickly from Georgia, a primary objective of  French President Sarkozy’s quick visit to Moscow. The contrast here with Iraq is beyond dramatic—there the aggressor was quickly given Security Council sanction to stay on, and as his aggression produced a remarkable resistance and resulted in the death of  maybe a million (versus maybe 300 from the Russian attack on Georgia) and millions of refugees, there was still no demand for withdrawal, and the aggressor is now arranging for a permanent stay with “enduring bases” and oil company investment rights. But this was not “aggression” for the EU states, any more than Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians is “ethnic cleansing.” The double standard flowing from power is commanding on all fronts, at least as regards the response of  leaders as opposed to the judgments of  the underlying populations.

Fine Little “Elected Democracy” Threatened

Practically every article and editorial on the Russian-Georgian conflict refers to Georgia as an “elected democratic state,” sometimes also a “market oriented” democracy, sometimes “allied with the Western democracies,” and also “independent.” And president Saakashvili is “Western educated.” Also democratically elected, although his first electoral victory got him 96 percent of the vote, a number that would arouse suspicions if not won by a Western-educated leader.  His electoral victory in 2004 was one of those Western-Soros-NED-CIA supported operations which would be wildly illegal if carried out from abroad in the United States, and it is capable of overwhelming a small country. It is not Western “expansionism,” however, and Russian hostility to this interventionism and the establishing of a hostile client on its very border shows Russia’s attempt to establish “hegemony” in the Caucasus!

A number of observers have pointed out that Saakashvili has displayed marked authoritarian tendencies. His popularity decline from 2004’s 96 percent favorable vote to the present  has been dramatic. In the election of  2007-2008 tens of thousands of protesters who assembled in the streets of Tbilisi demanding democratic reformsIn this Kafkaesque age everything is stood on its head—the champion violator of  international law and sovereignty and the territorial integrity of  states is gung ho for respecting state sovereignty and territorial integrity (of Georgia, but not Pakistan); primary terrorist and ethnic cleansing states (the United States and Israel) invade, bomb, and torture, but wax indignant at retail terrorism that flows largely in response to their wholesale terror; and these same two states, brimming over with nuclear arms and increasingly threatening to use them, are aghast that Iran might want and someday be able to make a nuclear weapon.

These two states are mainly responsible for the steadily rising probability that nuclear weapons will again be used in the not too distant future. Both have a stock of  nuclear weapons and up-to-date delivery systems:  that of the United States is of course gigantic, but Israel’s is substantial (estimated as between 60 and 200 ready bombs). Israel has developed its nuclear capability outside the authority of  the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the collusion of  the Western powers, which have been so aggressive in denying any similar rights to Iran (except during the period of the rule of the Western-imposed dictator, the  Shah). This weapons accumulation and refusal to accept the NPT has entailed no penalty for Israel—no threats, no sanctions, no refusal to assist its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Israel has threatened to use its nuclear weapons, earlier against the Soviet Union, today against Iran. Its threat of an attack on Iran, which is in itself a violation of the UN Charter, has not been treated at all critically in the West—in contrast with the horror at Ahmadinejad’s fuzzy condemnations of Israel, which have never included any expressed threat to literally attack Israel.

The United States has also steadily violated both the letter and spirit of the NPT. It had agreed in signing on to this treaty in 1968 to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. Not only has it not done this, it has made them officially a core part of  national defense strategy and in recent years has worked steadily to make them more usable in warfare. It has also withdrawn its NPT promise not to use nuclear weapons against any state that signs on to the NPT and promises not to develop nuclear weapons. The United States has also violated the spirit of the NPT by helping and supporting Israel’s development of  a nuclear weapons capability, of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear development during years when it was serving as a useful client, and now recently agreeing to assist India’s nuclear program despite that country’s refusal to join the NPT. Pakistan and China of course resent this U.S. support of  a nuclear India, clearly based on political expediency and weakening further any control over nuclear weapons proliferation. 

The End of  Soviet Nuclear Containment

One important reason for Israel’s and the U.S.’s greater openness on the possibility of using nuclear arms is that the countries they threaten, with the exception of Russia, have no nuclear retaliatory capability. In earlier years the Soviet Union, with its own large nuclear weapons arsenal, was a barrier to nuclear threats, especially to countries which were allied with the Soviets. Its termination diminished the containing force that had previously put some limits on U.S. and Israeli violence.

A country like Iran would surely respond to a nuclear attack, but it couldn’t do so with a comparably devastating weapon. The stream of attacks in recent years by the two primary aggressor states has been grounded heavily in the imbalance of  power and weakness and limited ability to respond on the part of the victims (Panama, Serbia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq). A nuclear capability on the part of  potential victims would enhance their power of self defense—a terrifying threat to aggressor states.  

Russia could respond, but it is substantially weaker in its retaliatory potential than the Soviet Union: it is smaller and militarily less formidable in the wake of its economic disaster of 1992-1998, substantial cutbacks in military expenditures, and national demoralization. It has made some recovery in recent years with higher energy prices and a stronger and more independent government, and the short war with Georgia indicates that it is now prepared to resist the West’s (mainly U.S.’s) political and military encirclement and possible attempts at further dismantlement. But it is still vulnerable and justifiably worried about a U.S. first strike capability, enhanced by the planned placement of U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and the  Czech Republic, with perhaps others to follow. With God-instructed politicians in command in the United States, a  manageable (or ignorable) populace, and with its overweening power, aggressive nuclear attack and/or  misreadings that set off trigger-alerts are more likely than in the recent past.

Not only are the Russian triggers more alert and sensitive as a U.S. first strike potential and threat grows, Russia has also warned that it is elevating its tactical nuclear weapons to potential use where it is threatened by advanced electronic technology that it cannot match. During the years  after 1990, with its devastating economic and political setbacks, it fell further behind the United States in its weaponry, and feels obligated to offset this—or at least talk and threaten to offset this—with the formidable weaponry it still possesses. 

Deteriorating Moral Environment

Another important reason for the growing probability of nuclear warfare is the deteriorating moral environment.  This has resulted in good part from militarization and  war itself, both of which get people habituated to the resort to force and a steady diet of killing, which are normalized. Militarization and war also contribute to justifying the development and use of  outlandish weapons, allegedly needed to “defend” the home country and clients from the threat of  demonized enemies. Enlightenment values erode and disappear quickly in such a moral environment; mass killing becomes acceptable and even laudable--the large-scale killing of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the basis of  celebration in the United States.

One measure of the deteriorated moral environment is in fact the open acceptance of  aggressive war as an appropriate policy option even in the absence of a military attack or serious threat. This was notorious in the case of the 2003 attack on Iraq, and is equally obvious in the case of  the ongoing threats to attack Iran.  Pugnacity and a willingness—even eagerness—to use force is a political necessity, at least for  satisfying the establishment media and major election funders. What the public thinks on this is less clear—the public usually drags it feet in the war-making process, often preferring diplomacy and reliance on the UN, and has to be managed into a proper frame of mind, although once the bombs start falling patriotic zeal takes over. Writing during World War I, Thorstein Veblen pointed out, that “once a warlike enterprise has been entered upon, it will have the cordial support of popular sentiment even if it is patently an aggressive war.” Furthermore, “The higher the pitch of patriotic fervor, the more tenuous and more threadbare may be the requisite moral sanction.  By cumulative excitation some very remarkable results have latterly been attained along this line” (in his chapter “On the Nature and Uses of Patriotism,” in An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace [1917]).

The Democrats are deemed by the establishment to be less trustworthy as war-makers than the Republicans—they are supposedly weak on “national security.” This causes their politicians and aspiring political nominees to lean over backwards to demonstrate their bomb-worthiness. For both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all options were “on the table” in dealing with that gigantic threat that Iran might be able to defend itself some time in the future, and Obama has compensated for his Iraq war foot-dragging by promising an escalation in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan. He also chose Joe Biden as his running mate, for his “experience” (he’s been wrong lots of times) and known foreign policy pugnacity.

Biden has recently proclaimed that he is a “Zionist,” and in fact virtually every Democratic politician has appeared before AIPAC to pledge allegiance to the state of Israel. This steady genuflection, and the financial dependence of the Democrats on organized Zionist money, has been a further factor in moral degradation. It has completely stymied any political opposition to Israeli ethnic cleansing in Palestine and the war against Lebanon in 2006, and as Israeli leaders wanted the Iraq attack and are eager for a war with Iran, the Democratic Party went along with the Iraq war, dragged its feet in extrication even after the antiwar vote of 2006, and has demonized Iran and helped set the stage for war there. 

It has been pointed out by Michael MccGwire that of the two first class global threats, nuclear war and global warming, the first could be eliminated with small costs (actually, its elimination would release large resources for human improvement and welfare), whereas combating global warming will be quite expensive. But eliminating the nuclear warfare threat, and in the process, demilitarizing, would be contrary to the interests of  the Pentagon and rest of the military-industrial complex, and those special interests that benefit from or thrive on permanent warfare. At the moment these real special interests are in command. Whether the financial crisis and permanent war setbacks will change the situation and allow a move toward a decent and rational world order remains to be seen.

First published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has written extensively on economics, political economy and the media. Among his books are The Real Terror Network, Triumph of the Market, and Manufacturing Consent(with Noam Chomsky).

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