U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Racing: Still Crazy After All These Years

In Environment, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, Public Health, War on March 20, 2018 at 1:00 am

By Andrew Lichterman and John Burroughs, truthdig, March 26, 2018
President Vladimir Putin’s major address on March 1 to Russia’s Federal Assembly was candid about the economic and social challenges facing Russians. What attracted attention in the United States, however, was a detailed description, complete with video animations, of an array of new nuclear weapons delivery systems, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an underwater drone.

A month earlier, on Feb. 2, the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review. The review’s assessment of prospects for U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control is grim. It proposes two new capabilities, both aimed at Russia, a low-yield warhead deployed on submarine-launched missiles, and a sea-based, nuclear-armed cruise missile. It also endorses existing plans to sustain and upgrade existing nuclear forces and infrastructure to the tune of well over a trillion dollars over the next three decades.

While not as sensational as the weapons described by Putin, the Pentagon’s proposals manifest a commitment to an increasing and long-term reliance on nuclear arms. The review also lowers the threshold for use of nuclear weapons, emphasizing the role of such weapons in responding to “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” notably cyberattacks. The recommendation for increased nuclear weapons spending comes at a time when Congress has approved a budget deal providing for military spending of $700 billion in 2018 and $716 billion in 2019, figures well above those in play just last year.

For most Americans, the emergence of a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia comes as a surprise. Since the end of the Cold War, public discussion about nuclear weapons in the U.S. has been dominated by purported threats of nuclear weapons in the hands of nonstate actors or regional adversaries. In 2010, President Barack Obama proclaimed: “Today, the threat of global nuclear war has passed, but the danger of nuclear proliferation endures. …” As recently as 2013, the Defense Department declared the most pressing nuclear dangers to be proliferation and “nuclear terrorism.”

The crisis precipitated by the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s government and Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, for the U.S. public, the first intimation that great-power nuclear arsenals still pose catastrophic dangers. For the first time since the Cold War, Russian and American nuclear-armed forces were conducting exercises and patrols in the same region, while each backed opposing factions in a civil war. As the Ukraine confrontation settled into a tense stalemate, it disappeared from the front pages along with the dangers posed by the immense nuclear arsenals still deployed by the U.S. and Russia. Donald Trump’s ascendance, featuring disturbingly misinformed campaign comments and then his profoundly alarming confrontation with North Korea, brought nuclear weapons back into mainstream public discussion—but U.S. and Russian nuclear forces still remained in the background, out of focus.

Origins of the Current Confrontation

Despite appearances, plans for new Russian nuclear weapon systems are not a response to the Nuclear Posture Review or to Trump’s casual rhetoric about U.S. nuclear might. The causes of the resurgent confrontation between the two countries that possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons extend back decades, to decisions made in the early 1990s. The disintegration of the Soviet Union also marked the end of the Cold War—a titanic, half-century confrontation for which no formal settlement ever was negotiated, only a series of piecemeal arms control measures and political agreements. The spirit and in some cases the letter of this partial Cold War settlement was ignored by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Instead of engaging Russia as a partner in a new, potentially more cooperative order, they instead took every opportunity to exploit the political and economic weakness of the post-Soviet states. Despite assurances from Western governments that NATO would not be expanded to the East, the military alliance now includes not only many of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies but also the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Even today, NATO membership for Georgia remains on the table, and an effort at some point to include Ukraine is not out of the question.

NATO’s expansion eastward proceeded in tandem with the economic subordination of former Warsaw Pact countries. It was driven as well by the interests of Western arms makers seeking new markets for their wares, and new rationales for endless high-tech weapons development in a post-Cold War world. For them, the confrontational aspect of NATO expansion was and continues to be an opportunity, not a risk.

Confident that Russia no longer presented a significant military challenge, both Republican and Democratic administrations squandered the crucial post-Cold War opportunity to eliminate the existential threat to humanity posed by huge nuclear arsenals. Beginning in the mid-1990s, when Russian economic and military power was at its nadir, the United States embarked on a long-term effort to modernize its nuclear weapons, as well as the laboratories and factories that sustain them. U.S. military spending began to climb out of its brief post-Cold War trough at the same time, with the U.S. developing and deploying an array of powerful, accurate conventional armaments and stealthy delivery systems. Many of these were battle-tested in the wars that the U.S. has been conducting continuously since 1991. These conventional systems, which could destroy some targets previously only vulnerable to nuclear weapons, were seen as a strategic threat by both China and Russia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program was applying incremental upgrades to warheads and delivery systems. Perhaps most important of these was an upgrade of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads beginning in 2009 that increased their capability to destroy hardened targets like missile silos and command centers. Long-time observers of U.S. nuclear weapons programs characterized the changes as “revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal.” They concluded: “This increase in capability is astonishing—boosting the overall killing power of existing U.S. ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Despite its unparalleled conventional military dominance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. government failed to seize the opportunity to pursue elimination of nuclear weapons or at least the reduction of arsenals to very low levels. Informal agreements in the early 1990s took entire categories of tactical nuclear weapons out of service, but still left large numbers of operational nuclear weapons deployed. Although negotiations continued throughout the 1990s, no new bilateral arms control treaty entered into force. Subsequently, the Russia-U.S. nuclear arms agreements completed during the Bush and Obama administrations did little to change the fundamental character of either country’s nuclear arsenal, leaving in place forces still capable of ending human civilization in short order.

In an early sign of an emerging U.S. rejection of multilateral approaches to arms control, in 1999 the Senate refused to approve ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In 2000, Russia ratified the treaty. Since then it has periodically stressed that U.S. ratification is essential to advancing nuclear disarmament and global security. A commitment to complete negotiation of the CTBT had been central to a 1995 decision to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The current Nuclear Posture Review says that the U.S. will not ratify the CTBT, and does not rule out resumption of nuclear explosive testing.

U.S. Withdrawal From the ABM Treaty

In late 2001, the Bush administration announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which since 1971 had placed stringent limits on U.S. and Russian missile defenses. Just a year and a half earlier, the U.S. under the Clinton administration, Russia, and other participating states had agreed to a commitment in an NPT review outcome document to “preserving and strengthening the [ABM Treaty] as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.”

In his 2018 annual presidential address, Putin characterized the ABM Treaty in similar fashion, stating that Russia saw it as “the cornerstone of the international security system.” Together with U.S.-Russia agreements limiting nuclear arms, said Putin, “the ABM Treaty not only created an atmosphere of trust but also prevented either party from recklessly using nuclear weapons, which would have endangered humankind, because the limited number of ballistic missile defense systems made the potential aggressor vulnerable to a response strike.” As Putin said, and as former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov elaborated, Russia made strenuous attempts to dissuade the U.S. from ending the ABM Treaty, and subsequently sought to make new arrangements limiting missile defenses, all to no avail.

Putin portrayed the continuing development and ever wider deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems in the wake of the U.S. termination of the ABM Treaty as a growing threat: “However, in light of the plans to build a global anti-ballistic missile system, which are still being carried out today, all agreements signed within the framework of New START are now gradually being devaluated, because while the number of carriers and weapons is being reduced, one of the parties, namely, the U.S., is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential.”

U.S. officials over the years have maintained that U.S. missile defenses pose no threat to Russia’s nuclear forces due to their large number of deliverable warheads. But the Russians have some reason for concern. Together with U.S. nuclear warhead upgrades that put Russia’s missile silos and command centers at risk, unlimited development of ballistic missile defense systems, despite the technical challenges, in the long run perhaps could threaten Russia’s primarily land-based nuclear forces. Even moderately effective missile defenses that could significantly limit a depleted second strike would complicate an already dangerous strategic calculus, perhaps raising incentives on both sides to strike first and harder in a crisis.

U.S. development and deployment of missile defenses already have had deleterious effects on nuclear arms control. Following the conclusion in 2010 of negotiations on New START, which yielded modest reductions in deployed long-range, “strategic” nuclear weapons, Russia refused engagement on the ambitious follow-on program of bilateral nuclear arms reductions—to include non-strategic nuclear arms and, for the first time, verified dismantlement of warheads—proposed by the Obama administration. As Russian representatives repeatedly explained, concerns motivating its position included U.S. missile defense programs and development of U.S. conventional long-range strike capabilities. The Russian position was deplorable, but it was also predictable.

Russia’s Plans for New Nuclear Weapons Systems

It is against this background that Putin announced the development of Russia’s new nuclear weapons delivery systems. All of the new systems were framed as means to evade existing missile defenses, which are designed primarily to target ballistic missiles that follow a high-arcing, non-maneuvering flight path. These include a new, very long-range, multiple warhead missile that could take unconventional flight paths; a hypersonic, maneuvering air-launched cruise missile; and a gliding, maneuverable hypersonic delivery vehicle with a non-ballistic flight path. Similar hypersonic technologies, it should be noted, are being researched or are under development by both the U.S. and China.

Two more exotic systems that caught the attention of both specialists and the general media are nuclear-powered cruise missiles that are claimed to have unlimited range and nuclear-powered “unmanned underwater vehicles.” Putin characterized the unmanned submersible vehicles as suitable for attacking a range of targets, including “coastal fortifications and infrastructure,” and stated that the “the tests that were conducted enabled us to begin developing a new type of strategic weapon that would carry massive nuclear ordnance.” Although similar concepts had been explored by the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and in the case of a nuclear-armed torpedo designed to destroy shore installations, even briefly deployed by the Soviet Union), they struck many observers as outlandish.

Detonating a “massive nuclear ordnance” at harbor level would devastate any harbor city, and would mobilize immense amounts of radioactive debris into the atmosphere. A nuclear-powered cruise missile likely would leave a trail of radioactive contamination in its wake, and would be dangerous even to flight test (what happens, for example, at the end of the test?). Some speculated that they might be “Potemkin village” weapons, propaganda creations intended to underscore the Russian leadership’s displeasure with U.S. policies or ersatz chips to be bargained away in some future round of arms control negotiations.

Aside from arguable marginal scenarios, the use of nuclear arms of any type would violate international humanitarian law. That law requires the use of violence in war to be necessary, proportionate, and discriminate, with effects on both civilian populations and the natural environment part of the assessment. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review asserts in passing that “the conduct of nuclear operations would adhere” to those requirements. On the contrary, above all, nuclear weapons cannot be used in compliance with the requirement of discrimination, because their massive and uncontrollable effects—blast, heat, short- and long-term radiation, and, in urban areas, firestorms—make it impossible to distinguish between military targets and civilian populations and infrastructure.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was negotiated in 2017 by 122 states, not including, however, any nuclear-armed states. Its preamble “considers” that use of nuclear weapons would violate international humanitarian law and “reaffirms” that such use “would also be abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience”—factors with legal as well as moral value.

As the treaty’s reference to “principles of humanity” suggests, in many circumstances, certainly in attacks on cities, use of nuclear weapons goes so far beyond the boundaries of warfare that it likely would constitute not only violations of international humanitarian law but also crimes against humanity as most recently defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Use of a submersible drone carrying “massive nuclear ordnance” and of the radiation-trailing nuclear-powered cruise missile are examples—not the only ones—of this extreme deviation from the normal conduct of warfare. They likely would only be used in general nuclear war, and in this sense are true “doomsday” weapons. Even designing them is an implicit acknowledgement that once nuclear weapons are used, even in “limited” fashion, escalation may be difficult or impossible to control.

Erosion of International Law

There is another extremely important component of international law that Putin’s speech and the Nuclear Posture Review blatantly disregard. That is the obligation under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” According to a unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion, “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” the obligation requires states “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.” The obligation was reinforced by an NPT review conference “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination” of nuclear arsenals. It was to be implemented in part through fulfillment of another review conference commitment, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in order to minimize the risk of their use and to facilitate disarmament.

The Russian and U.S. plans for new nuclear weapons systems—and the lack of negotiations about them—plainly violate the obligation regarding “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date,” as well as the commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. The U.S. expansion of the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used additionally violates that commitment.

Moreover, the clear intent of both Russia and the U.S. to maintain large, diversified nuclear forces for decades to come betrays a lack of good faith in relation to the obligation to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arsenals. In the case of the United States, the Nuclear Posture Review fails to identify any concrete steps to pursue on nuclear arms control and disarmament. As to the U.S.-Russian relationship, emphasis is placed upon a claimed Russian violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The review does not even endorse extension of New START for five years when it expires in 2021, a step which Russia has supported. Additionally, in his speech Putin said: “Let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization.” Rhetoric perhaps, but why not test it?

Whether or not Russia’s program to develop nuclear-powered cruise missiles and underwater drones delivering massive nuclear warheads are “real,” even the fact that one of the world’s two leading nuclear-armed states is willing to threaten to build them is a worrisome development. It is a definitive marker that what opportunity there was in the post-Cold War period to eliminate humankind’s self-created mechanism of annihilation on a civilization scale was missed. We are in a new, far more dangerous age, and must discover anew the urgency of nuclear disarmament, and again take the first tentative steps that might lead us there.

Both Russia’s program and the Nuclear Posture Review display a kind of contempt for treaty obligations and for international law generally, underscoring an observation by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 opinion that today seems prophetic: “In the long run, international law, and with it the stability of the international order which it is intended to govern, are bound to suffer from the continuing difference of views with regard to the legal status of weapons as deadly as nuclear weapons.”

Twenty-two years later, the corrosive effect on international law and the stability of the international order of nuclear weapons and differing views regarding who is entitled to have them is evident. Nuclear weapons and the threat of their proliferation has been used as a stalking horse for the geopolitical agendas of the world’s most powerful states. It has sparked an unlawful war based on questionable intelligence. In the confrontation between the United States and North Korea, it has brought us again to the brink of war between nuclear-armed countries.

As the court concluded: “It is consequently important to put an end to this state of affairs: the long-promised complete nuclear disarmament appears to be the most appropriate means of achieving that result.”

The interests of the world’s populations and their governments are as far apart as they have been in a long time. This reflects the growing disparities in wealth and power between those who rule and the rest of us, and the erosion of what democracy had been achieved. Extreme nationalist elements are ascendant worldwide, their common characteristic being a politics that redirects the emotions evoked by those developments—fear, resentment, and a pervasive sense of loss—against vulnerable minorities at home and enemies abroad. Authoritarian nationalists are in power in Russia and in several ex-Warsaw Pact NATO states, and also hold the presidency and constitute a substantial, perhaps dominant, portion of the majority party in the Congress of the United States.

The revanchist intentions of Russia’s government and ruling oligarchs have been exaggerated in the U.S. press due to the peculiar entanglement of U.S.-Russia relations with domestic partisan politics in this moment. This does not mean, however, that no such aims exist. Neither the elites nor the general populations of Eastern Europe see renewed Russian dominance as an attractive option, and authoritarian nationalist governments in front-line NATO states have their own reasons for whipping up fear of a resurgent Russia. Beyond Europe, there are other regions where encounters between U.S. and Russian policies and deployed forces could go awry, from Syria to the border most forget Russia shares with North Korea. With a U.S. government that appears adrift at the top but that still possesses a formidable and well-organized military, this is a combustible mix, with ample opportunities for each side to misjudge the intentions, and the fears, of the other.

The Nuclear Dilemma

The Korea crisis, and the recent hopeful signs regarding its resolution, should be taken as both an urgent warning and as an opportunity to rethink the meaning of nuclear weapons. We will never know how close to disaster we have come in recent months, and still may come. As that danger grew, discussion of the immeasurable horrors of a full-scale warfare between two large modern militaries in densely populated Northeast Asia—even if nuclear weapons were not used—grew more concrete. A full-scale war between Russia and the United States would dwarf our worst imaginings about war between the U.S. and its regional allies and North Korea.

In thinking about the deeper nature of our nuclear dilemma, it is significant that South Korea has taken the lead in seeking—and, as it looks now, achieving—a diplomatic breakthrough with its North Korean counterparts that could end the immediate crisis, and that might lead eventually to a more lasting peace on the peninsula. As was the case for Europeans during the Cold War, South Koreans found themselves trapped between nuclear-armed adversaries, one an ally. And as was the case of NATO countries hosting U.S. nuclear missiles, they faced the possibility that a nuclear war could be fought on their soil without their own government’s consent. This raises a question seldom asked by inhabitants of nuclear-armed countries: Whose nuclear weapons are they, really? Whose interests do they protect?

This question then leads naturally to others. As E.P. Thompson, a founder of European Nuclear Disarmament, asked in 1981 in “A Letter to America,” “Is nuclear war preferable to being overcome by the enemy? Are the deaths of fifteen or twenty million and the utter destruction of the country preferable to an occupation which might offer the possibility, after some years, of resurgence and recuperation?” and finally, “Are we ourselves prepared to endorse the use of such weapons against the innocent, the children and the aged, of an ‘enemy’?” The people of every nuclear-armed country should be asking these questions today.

There are other lessons we should have learned by now. No system or country is immune to corruption, or collapse. No country can guarantee that a class of leaders will not rise to power who are shortsighted and self-serving, and who place their own welfare above that of their people, or of humanity itself. No system or “way of life” is so perfect that its preservation merits risking humanity’s future, and thinking it to be so is a form of madness. Recent events may have sharpened our focus on these realities, but they have been true all along. Nuclear weapons are unsafe in any hands.


The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, Public Health, War on March 19, 2018 at 11:13 am


Julian Zelizer, ed., The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, March 13, 2018).

The Old Over the New

Professional historians are a conservative crew (with a nice number of great exceptions) for the most part – in a “liberal” and Democratic Party kind of way. Part of this has to with their mental wiring. As the leading psychologists and “time perception” theorists Phillip Zimbrano and Rosemary Sword have written, “people who focus primarily on the past value the old over the new; the familiar over the novel, and the cautionary, conservative approach over the daring, more liberal or riskier one.”

No wonder, perhaps, that received the ringing endorsement of 227 U.S. historians, including (remarkably enough) a number who identified as leftists, who signed practically hero-worshipping “Historians for Obama” letter in the spring of 2008. The previous year, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate: “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

Left Warnings

The MacFarquhar piece was just one of numerous and widely available indications well before the 2008 election that an Obama presidency would never stray far, if at all, from the policy and political preferences of those atop the nation’s reigning corporate, financial, and imperial power structures – or from the nation’s attachment to objectively racist and white-supremacist social and institutional structures and practices. MacFarquhar’s findings were already very well understood by a number of writers and activists on the Left (the present writer included), who began warning pro-left-progressives and liberals about Obama’s basically wealth- and power-friendly, right-wing essence as early as June of 2003. The Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. caught the pseudo-progressive bourgeois-neoliberal essence of Obama as early as January of 1996, right after Obama first won election to the Illinois legislature:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”

A decade later, progressive journalist Ken Silverstein wrote a retrospectively predictive report titled “Obama, Inc.” for Harpers’ Magazine. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Silverstein observed, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

That was precisely the centrist, Big Business-, Empire,- and white-friendly Barack Obama that I observed and occasionally even had to deal with as an anti-poverty and civil rights policy researcher and advocate in Chicago and Illinois during the late 1990s and early 21st century. By the time Obama emerged as a strong candidate to become what I fully expected to be the United States’ first technically Black president in 2007 and 2008, I, myself a onetime and future historian, had already gone through many of state (1996-2005) and U.S. (2005-2009) senator Obama’s speeches, talks, votes, campaign finance records, policy actions, and writings (key primary sources telling us what to expect from a President Obama) to produce a considerable number of critical essays and a book – bearing the over-neutral title Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics – warning liberals and progressives of just how painfully little they should expect from an Obama White House.

Obama’s past and coming service to Big Business was only one of the things I hopelessly asked intellectuals and activists to reflect upon. I also detailed and predicted (in a chapter titled “How ‘Antiwar’? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) both Obama’s past and coming military imperialism and (in a chapter titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era”) Obama’s ironic past and coming service to institutional racism, including racist mass incarceration.

Among my forewarnings was the prediction that a president Obama’s abject fealty to the nation’s reigning financial institutions and corporations and the military-industrial complex would combine with his skin color and party affiliation to spark an ugly white-nationalist and reactionary, capitalist-manipulated fake- populist upsurge that would fill the angry popular vacuum left by his cooptation of left, more genuinely populist progressive forces even while he governed in accord to the needs and values of the wealthy Few – the top 1 percent that Democratic contender John Edwards had railed against in Iowa and New Hampshire.

A Blunt Lesson About Power

With no small help from the Great Recession that broke out on the eve of the 2008 elections, my warnings were born out by Obama’s continuation and expansion of the extravagant federal bailouts of the financial parasites who recklessly caused the economic crisis and the rise of the Tea Party and the vicious, proto-fascistic white-nationalist Trump phenomenon. Obama’s “dollar value” would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, the Pulitzer Prize-winner author Ron Suskind wrote, there was “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S.

No such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans:

“watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney.

As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics.

We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.

Then came Obama’s insistent but failed championing of the highly unpopular arch-global-corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership – so widely hated that even the uber-neoliberal Wall Street candidate Hillary Clinton had to pretend to be against it in 2016.

Along the way, Obama would continue his nasty bourgeois habit of lecturing poor Black people on their personal and cultural responsibility for their privation. He told young Black Americans to respect “law and order” as a newly exposed epidemic of racist police murders sparked mass civil rights protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Obama undertook no significant or major programs specifically targeting Black needs and racism, eliciting criticism even from petit-bourgeois centrist Obama fans like Ta-Nehesi Coates.

The great U.S.-American imperial military-machine stayed “set on kill” (Allan Nairn) under Obama, with disastrous consequences in Libya and across much of Africa (where Obama dramatically increased the Pentagon’s presence) and the Middle East. Obama’s dramatically expanded and personally directed drone war helped spread jihad across a much broader stretch of geography than had George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

A Professional Class Obama-JFK Love Letter

I was not the only Left writer to have raised alarms about Obama long before this dismal, dollar-drenched denouement. Warnings came from numerous other portsiders, including John Pilger, Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Doug Henwood, Arun Gupta, Juan Santos, and many others.

The “Historians for Obama” knew better than Left writers and activists working with real-time primary sources and experiences. The Obamanist historians’ April 2008 love letter was embarrassing. It dripped with ardor for Obama – a former Harvard Law Review Editor and “constitutional lawyer” (adjunct law professor, actually) – as an embodiment of academic and professional class “meritocracy.” It praised Obama for possessing an “acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class” and the means “to speak beyond them.” It childishly proclaimed that, as president, Obama would, “begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world.” It was revealingly loaded with creepy historical lust for both Obama and his great historical likeness (the historians approvingly sensed) – the corporate-imperialist and reckless, Third World-attacking Cold Warrior John F. Kennedy:

“But it is his qualities of mind and temperament that really separate Obama from the rest of the pack. He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness – or provided Americans with a symbolic opportunity to break with a tradition of bigotry older than the nation itself. Like Kennedy, he also inspires young people who see him as a great exception in a political world that seems mired in cynicism and corruption.”

“Tell it,” I wrote to one signatory at the time. “to the descendants of the victims of Kennedy’s military escalation in Vietnam, his terror attacks on Cuba, and the right-wing dictators he supported in Latin America.”

“The Most Impressive Resume Imaginable”

How interesting, now to read a new collection of essays written by elite U.S. historians under the editorship of Princeton historian Julius Zelizer: The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press. 2018). All but 3 of the volume’s 17 contributors are established historians at elite United States universities (the only exceptions are a Princeton sociologist, a University of Virginia law professor, and a Princeton-minted post-doctoral fellow). Five of the contributors are employed by Princeton University, the volume’s publisher.

The essayists range from slightly left-of-center to liberal centrist, consistent with the narrow but standard partisan and ideological profile of the liberal arts and social sciences professoriate. The volume’s editor, Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, reports that nearly all the contributors were in “a state of shock” when Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton, who Zelizer revealingly calls (reflecting the meritocratic ideology of the professional class) “someone with one of the most impressive resume’s imaginable” – a curious description of a terrible and monstrous candidate who professor Reed quite rightly described in the summer of 2016 as a “lying neoliberal warmonger.” I would be somewhat surprised to learn that any of the contributors is not a registered Democrat.

Seven Thumbs Up and Three Neutral

Despite their shared political and upper-echelon academic ground, however, the top-drawer professors are not without differences on how to assess Obama’s presidential record and legacy. Seven of the essayists write about the Obama presidency with liberal and even in some cases leftish approval:

+ Princeton sociologist Paul Starr thinks that Obama can be shown to have “made significant progress in mitigating and reducing inequality” when tax policy, health care policy, and government transfer payments for the poor are factored in – an achievement for which Starr thinks Obama has not received proper “political credit.”

+ University of California at Davis historian Eric Rauchway says that Obama deserves admiration for “avert[ing] an economic crisis of comparable severity to the Great Depression.”

+ Princeton historian Meg Jacobs gives Obama lukewarm but nonetheless undeserved approval for “bold[ly]” using direct executive actions to “fight against global warming.”

+ Imperialist University of Texas historian Jeremi Suri foolishly hails Barack the Drone King and Libya-Wrecker Obama for advancing “a liberal internationalist agenda that resisted the use of military force.” Tell it to the people of Bola Bulk, professor Suri!

+ University of Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle lauds Obama for overcoming a “hostile political environment” to “superintend…an economic recovery much more robust than what Europe achieved.” Gerstle also hails Obama for bringing “a half-century campaign for national health insurance to successful conclusion” and (above all) for advancing “a vision of civic nationalism [that] inspired millions of young nonwhites to believe that they could find opportunity and liberty, and democracy, in America.” Gerstle reasonably and positively contrasts Obama’s multicultural and cross-racial “civic nationalism” with the GOP and Trump’s horrifying “racial nationalism,” rooted in the longstanding “belief that American is a land meant for whites, or Europeans, and their descendants.”

+ Georgetown historian and Dissent editor Michael Kazin offers ironic praise to president Obama for sparking a resurgence of “the Left” – with the curious exception of the antiwar movement – by failing to deliver on candidate Obama’s progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric and imagery. (The key developments Kazin mentions are the rise of the Occupy Movement, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and the 2015-16 Bernie Sanders campaign.) At the same time, Kazin dismisses those who would “ignore, or quickly disparage, reforms that Obama and a Democratic Congress managed to enact during the first two years of his administration” – the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank “regulation of high finance.”

+ Rutgers historian Timothy Stewart-Winter acclaims Obama as “The Gay Rights President” for “major civil rights accomplishments on military service and marriage equality.”

Three of the essays are neutral on the Obama record:

+ Zelizer’s opening two contributions, which split the blame between Obama’s poor political strategy and a hostile political environment fueled by Republican intransigence in explaining Obama’s failure to turn policy victories into political gains for the Democratic Party. The title of Zelizer’s second essay tells much of the story: “Tea-Partied: President Obama’s Encounter with the Conservative-Industrial Complex.”

+ University of Virginia history and law professor Risa Goluboff and University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger note commonsensically that the U.S. Supreme Court under Obama was not “Obama’s court.” They are relieved that the high court did not undertake a deep conservative transformation during Obama’s presidency. They rightly note that the Republican U.S. Senate’s “refusal to consider [Merrick] Garland [Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee] was unprecedented and a significant breach of constitutional norms.”

Seven Thumbs Down

The seven remaining contributors are more critical of Obama’s presidential record:

+ University of Pennsylvania history professor Jonathan Zimmerman properly criticizes Obama’s “Race to the Top” schools program for advancing the same neoliberal and teacher-bashing standardized test-based education agenda promoted by George W. Bush and embodied in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

+ University of California at Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted rightly assails Obama’s “surprising” program of “targeted kills of suspected terrorists” – just “one of several hardline Bush administration counterterrorism polices that Obama chose to continue.” Olmsted notes that Obama insidiously acted “to normalize his predecessor’s [criminal and terrorist ‘counterterrorism’] practices and make them legal…Under Obama’s leadership,” Olmsted reminds us, “American liberals embraced exactly the sort of national security policies that they had condemned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.”

+ Princeton historian Jacob Dlamini criticizes Obama for violating African sovereignty and African wishes by joining England and France in recklessly pursuing regime change in Libya. Dlamini also notes that Obama deepened and expanded the United States’ lethal military presence in Africa while doing nothing to fulfill hopes that the president (famously the son of a Kenyan national) would develop a special and positive relationship with Africa.

+ New York University historian Thomas Sugrue notes that Obama’s “too cautious” urban policy left metropolitan America’s core inequalities and related harsh race-class segregation untouched thanks largely to the president’s excessive attachment to “market-based solutions.” Sugrue finds this unsurprising since Obama “was a product of the bipartisan neoliberalism of the 1990s, too enamored of market-based solutions and public-private partnerships to fight for a more vigorous public sector.” (Thank you, Thomas Sugrue).

+ University of Michigan historian Matthew Lassiter traces the “resilience of the [Nixon-Reagan] war on drugs” under Obama. Lassiter finds that Obama’s drug policies “reflec[ed] the bipartisan [and failed] consensus that the criminal justice system should ultimately regulate the illicit drug market and the parallel refusal to acknowledge that prohibition itself creates the context for violence and crime, whether by traffickers or law enforcement, both domestically and internationally.”

+ University of Texas historian Peniel Joseph concludes that “Obama’s election, with its lofty and inspiring rhetoric about hope and change, represents an opportunity found and frustratingly lost for advocates of criminal justice reform” – for people who hoped that the first Black president would undertake substantive steps to roll back racist mass incarceration and felony-marking. Joseph blames Obama’s “dream big but go slow” approach, which “contradict[ed] his audacious and successful presidential campaign.” Joseph thinks Obama’s weak performance on the “the new Jim Crow” (racist mass incarceration and criminal branding) was consistent with Obama’s famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, where the future president alarmingly found “moral equivalency in black anger over slavery and white supremacy with white resentment against affirmative action and perceptions of black entitlement.”

+ Southern Methodist University U.S. History Fellow Sarah Coleman finds that Barack “Deporter-in-Chief” Obama “ended his two terms with few successes and a mixed legacy in immigration and refugee policy.”

Assessing the Assessment

The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment will not find very many readers outside “higher education.” It’s a smooth little vitae-booster unlikely to gather much attention beyond a small circle of incestuous and self-referential “experts.” A riveting page-turner it is not.

Zelizer really should have included a short contribution from a labor historian – Georgetown’s Joseph McCartin, for example – on the experience of American workers and unions under Obama. This conspicuous omission reflects, perhaps, he disfavor in which serious class analysis has fallen in the history profession. So does the absence of serious attention to the ruling-class composition (not to mention conduct) of Obama’s administration – a topic that was analyzed in brilliant historical and social science fashion in a remarkable book by the Dutch political scientists Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn and Nana de Graaff: American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks: The Open Door since the End of the Cold War (Routledge, 2015).

(Class isn’t sexy in higher education anymore. It gets dismissed far too quickly there these days.)

Neither the editor Zelizer nor any of his contributors show the slightest awareness that many writers on the Left (this reviewer included) predicted both the (not) “surprisingly” conservative” trajectory of the Obama presidency quite early on and the results of that presidency (including divergent insurgencies both left and right).

Goluboff and Schragger are wrong to see Obama in 2008 as a “Harvard-trained lawyer [who] thought social change [was] more likely to come from the grassroots.’’ Obama shed that belief before he went to Harvard. That abandonment was part of why he left community organizing and applied to the top law school in the first place. The primary sources are very clear on that.

Gerstle is wrong to see Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a successful culmination of “a half-century campaign for national health insurance.” The real U.S. national health insurance dream has always been for a single-payer system, Medicare for All, without corporate profiteering. Obama failed even to include a partial public option in his reform measure.

Olmsted would be less surprised by Obama’s murderous “counterterrorism” if she had closely read candidate Obama’s foreign policy writings and speeches – key primary sources that were absurdly ignored by Obama’s bamboozled progressive and antiwar fans in 2007 and 2008. We should think of Obama’s targeted assassination record as just plain terrorist, not counterterrorist, consistent with Noam Chomsky’s 2015 description of Obama’s drone program as “the most extreme global terrorist campaign the world has yet seen.”

Kazin is on flimsy ground to see a resurgent Left without an antiwar movement under Obama. No Left worth its salt can emerge without coming into conscious confrontation with the U.S. global military empire, a great source of inequality, authoritarianism, and oppression at home and abroad.

At the same time, Kazin owes an apology to the left business and political commentator Doug Henwood for not citing or perhaps even knowing about the silver lining Henwood attached to his warnings on Obama’s coming presidency in March of 2008. My June 2008 Obama book neared its conclusion with a brilliant quotation from Henwood on the ironic left potential of a neoliberal Obama presidency. Mass disillusionment with Obama’s ideologically foreordained failure to deliver on his lofty, expectation-raising promises of “a better world – more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane,” might help drive ordinary Americans to the left, Henwood wrote (“Would You Like Change with That?” Left Business Observer, no. 117, March 2008). It’s one thing to observe a phenomenon after it occurred; it’s another and more difficult thing to predict that phenomenon in advance.

Finally, Zelizer fails to understand that Obama’s Left-predicted (I again say) presidential neoliberalism is no small part of why the president got so effectively “Tea Partied.” If Obama had seized the moment provided by the Great Recession, the Iraq fiasco, and the Democratic Party takeover of Congress to pursue the progressive and even social-democratic agenda favored by most Americans, thing might well have proceeded in a different, more leftward and democratic direction.

The onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West reflected years ago on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.” Nobody in Zelizer’s collection seems to possess the elementary honesty to speak so plainly and honestly about what all-too predictably happened, with advance assistance from at least 227 American academic historians, under the Obama presidency, whose “blunt lesson about [ruling-class] power” is no small part of why Trump “shockingly” sits in the White House.

Credit is due, though, to Starr, for some instructive reflections on how inequality is mis-measured, to Gerstle for highly relevant reflections on the longstanding and living tension between “civic” and “racial” nationalism, and to the seven historians who had the courage to point out highly unpleasant facts about the presidency of Obama, whose legacy is being undeservedly enhanced by the almost unfathomable awfulness of Orange Satan – the Tangerine Caligula who fills the White House with a stench smelled around the world.

Trump’s tweet on nuclear weapons (thanks to Rick Wayman)

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on March 14, 2018 at 9:56 am

Quote by @realDonaldTrump today during his speech at a Marine base near San Diego ⬇️

“We have to be so far ahead of every country…we have to be prepared. In the nuclear front, we are so far and will be so far ahead of every other country. We have no choice.”

2:35 PM – 13 Mar 2018