June 12 , 2000

Poverty in America:

Turning the Tables
Welfare reform face a time limit of its own.

Allied Forces
The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support

Poverty in a Gilded Age
An interview with Frances Fox Piven.

Out of Sight
In many cities, being homeless is against the law.

Leave the Kids Alone
Poverty is the real problem

The Union Difference

Down and Out on Polk Street

Other Features:

Star Wars: Episode Two
The Pentagon's latest missile defense fantasy.

"This Is Not Life. This Is Prison"
Kosovo one year after the NATO bombing.

Bosnian Serbs Still Look to Belgrade

News & Views

Memo to third parties: Face Reality.


A Terry Laban Cartoon

Marching On
Unity 2000 plans to disrupt this summer's GOP convention

The Other Side of the Street
Food workers target Goldman Sachs

Going to Waste
Health Care Without Harm cleans up toxic hospitals

Flour Power

Forgotten America
BY Juan Gonzalez
Bombs Away


Ancient Daze
FILM: Ridley Scott's Gladiator

A Class by Itself
BOOKS: David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise

A Different Point of View
TV: P.O.V. on PBS


Star Wars: Episode Two
The Pentagon's Latest Missile Defense Fantasy

By Jeffrey St. Clair

It's wrong to say that Star Wars is back. The hare - brained scheme hatched on the fly by Ronald Reagan in 1983 has never gone away. Quietly but relentlessly a Star Wars industry, under the rubric of Ballistic Missile Defense, has mushroomed.

The corporate press, which rightly heckled the plan in its early days, soon got bored with the story and left it for dead. Then in 1992, the missile shield's putative critics took over the White House and became its new masters. In the intervening years, billions of dollars poured into the Pentagon's Space and Missile Defense Command Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to production plants spread across key congressional districts, and into the plump accounts of a portfolio of defense contractors and high - tech firms.
Credit: Terry Laban

In a 1995 review of the program in DefenseIssues, an internal Pentagon newsletter, Lt. Gen. Malcolm O'Neill, then head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, rhapsodized about a "synergized" network of high - powered, space - based lasers, satellites, radar and sea - , air - and ground - launched "exoatmospheric kill vehicles" that would save U.S. cities from "theater - class ballistic missiles, advanced cruise missiles and other air - breathing threats as well." Feel safer?

Now the Pentagon is seeking approval to put part of its system into operation. The first phase is a ground - based system of 100 Interceptor missiles and a ring of new radar stations, both to be based in the Alaskan tundra. Clinton has said he will make a final decision on the system this summer. All indications are that he will give it the green light.

Of course, there are problems. Namely, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and corporate America's coddling of China, why in the world would the United States need to deploy such a system? Such questions prompt the most absurd frenzy of threat - inflation since the notion that the Marxist government of Grenada posed a grave danger to the Western Hemisphere. A coven of atomic warriors has been rolled out to fulminate about "rogue nations" and "global terrorists" who threaten what the Pentagon brass calls the "early post - Cold War paradigm." Of course, if Osama Bin Laden ever decides to strike back at his former friends in the U.S. government, his payload is much more likely to be delivered via FedEx in a Louis Vuitton suitcase than a rocket launched from his camp in the Hindu Kush.

Another stumbling block is the 1972 Anti - Ballistic Missile Treaty that flatly prohibits such a system, which the architects of the ABM treaty rightly saw as a destabilizing force that would spur proliferation and stockpiling of weapons. But the Clinton - Gore administration views the ABM treaty as outmoded and, in a now customary display of hubris, on April 25, U.S. Ambassador James Collins delivered a draft copy of proposed changes to Moscow. The tenor of the U.S. rewrite didn't sit well with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who warned it could prove a "fatal mistake." "Everyone should be aware that the collapse of the ABM treaty would have a destructive domino effect for the existing system of disarmament agreements," he said. "We would be back in an era of suspicion and confrontation."

New Russian President Vladimir Putin has already upped the nuclear ante by authorizing changes in Russia's military doctrine that would allow it to launch a "first strike" nuclear attack. Anti - nuclear activist Daniel Ellsberg, the former government researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers, says that may have been the bizarre intention of the Pentagon all along. "In order to advance a domestic political agenda," he says, "the United States is encouraging the Russians to remain on and advance a launch - on - warning system."

It's the old game of escalating threats. The cheerleaders for the new Star Wars system now realize that the "rogue state" threat isn't credible. For one thing, North Korea, nearly crippled by drought and economic isolation, seems ready to consider a rapprochement with the South. Iran, the Pentagon's other favorite devil, doesn't have missiles that could reach the United States. And Iraq, still smoldering from years of unceasing U.S. air strikes, is barely able to maintain its water supply system, never mind construct a fleet of transcontinental ballistic missiles. Even that normally reliable intermediary for U.S. strategic interests, U.N. Secretary - General Kofi Annan, has publicly voiced his doubts about the new Star Wars scheme, saying it could reignite a global arms race.

Even some unrepentant cold warriors chafed at this chilling dialogue. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who rules the Foreign Relations Committee, vowed that any changes to the ABM Treaty agreed to by Russia would be "dead on arrival." The Republicans have a political motive to drag their feet. They don't want to give Al Gore a "hawkish" victory on the eve of the election or allow Clinton to add some more military luster to his legacy. "So, Mr. Clinton is in search of a legacy," Helms blustered. "La - de - da - he already has one. The Russian government should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame - duck administration will be binding on the next administration."

To top it off, the system doesn't work. There have been two high - profile tests of the Interceptor missile to date. One was an unmitigated failure. The other was initially touted as "a direct kill," but it later emerged that the Pentagon had fixed the test. The next firing is slated for June 26. A few months ago, Defense Secretary William Cohen pointed to this date as a make - it - or - break - it final exam for the program. But now top Pentagon officials are beginning to show signs of test anxiety. "It will depend on what caused the failure," hedges Pentagon spokesman Mike Biddle. "A mechanical failure isn't necessarily terminal."

Even the program's biggest boosters now concede that the missile shield would be all but useless against a nuclear strike launched by Russia, China or, one supposes, France, should Parisians ever seek to retaliate for the crimes of EuroDisney. A newly declassified State Department document, obtained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, shows that a minimum of four U.S. Interceptors would be needed to "kill" one incoming missile. This means that the entire system would be exhausted trying to down 20 missiles.

The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization projects the cost of the system at $36 billion, a typically modest appraisal. The Congressional Budget Office has come up with a slightly more robust number of $60 billion - a figure the government auditors admit is little more than a rough guess, since the administration hasn't yet put forward details on the next two phases of the plan. But even that number was enough to stagger some of the plan's most ardent backers. "That's out of sync with anything I've seen," said Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's panel on military research and development. "But you can't put a price tag on protecting American cities."

Despite the dearth of media coverage, the public is beginning to sour on the plan. According to a recent ABC News poll, public support for the Clinton/Gore version of national missile defense is sliding; 44 percent of Americans support the plan, down from 55 percent in 1985. So what's driving the bipartisan push for an increasingly unpopular new missile defense system that is extravagant, inept, unnecessary and destabilizing? You don't have to dig very deep to find an answer: Raytheon, TRW, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Each of these firms has secured a lucrative sector of the Star Wars program.

Of course, the companies do have to make some political offerings. And they haven't been miserly. Together these four companies have flushed more than $2.6 million to the two political parties in soft money alone since 1996. On top of that, the defense giants' PACs have sluiced $3.7 million to federal candidates in the past three years, making the Star Wars coalition one of the prime sponsors of our political system. What money can't buy, direct persuasion often can. These four companies spent more than $18 million lobbying Congress in 1998, sending out a legion of former senators, congressmen and retired Pentagon chieftains as their hired guns on the Hill.

This all gives a bracing new meaning to getting more bang for the buck.

Jeffrey St. Clair is a contributing editor of In These Times.



In These Times © 2000
Vol. 24, No. 14