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August 28, 1988

Arms and the Resume: The Unraveling Odyssey of George Bush

Until fairly recently, it had always been easy for George Bush. Most of the days of his years were spent on that windless glide path that economic wherewithal provides, and the landings were always three-point and smooth, even when they were not. Of late, his history has been exhaustively delineated: the patrician origins, the preppie and Ivy League schooling, a combat experience which has provided unlimited mileage, enough inherited money to generate more money, and the succession of political offices which are so often the equivalent of a religious vocation for those of means. In short, a straight-ahead life, virtually undisturbed by the grubbiness of most people's existence, all his detours carefully calibrated. On paper, it has been the sturdiest of résumé-edifices, and until the first cracks in the foundation began to appear with his remark about Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, it remained virtually unbesmirched.

Obviously, the past two years have been less than kind to Bush. Iran-Contra, Noriega, the state of the economy, and a questionable choice of a vice-presidential running mate have left him embattled as he heads into the meaty vortex of his presidential campaign. I'd like to think that Bush is only going through the motions; that he has sensed the mood of the country, distrustingly glimpsed his recent rise in the polls, and knows he deserves to be defeated in November. He may well, in fact, know himself to be "the guiltiest man in America," as Hunter Thompson recently suggested, but that's all the more reason to believe Bush will come out flailing. This will be a very vicious, vituperative campaign, doo-doo deep in invective; Bush's very political life hinges on the outcome, and there will be no eleventh-hour New Hampshire--like reprieve again if he loses. During the primaries, Bush discovered that he responded best when backed against the wall, and lately his advisers have intimated that they prefer he feel some sense of impending doom; as someone ever in search of an elusive manhood, this campaign appears tailor-made to eliminate Bush's pedigreed reticence. Kismet is the way Bush might well phrase it, and weighted down as he is with eight years of pungent baggage, he has no choice but to mount an offense which will pull out all the tested shibboleths and fear-inducing buzzword-maxims there are. His choice of the contentious Quayle as a running mate seems to confirm that approach, but unfortunately for the ticket, the polls continue to indicate that on economic matters sufficient numbers of independent and conservative blue-collar voters --- determinate again and heretofore converts to Reagan --- appear to be seeing through the sheen this time, and Bush will have to approach them on the only level where the polls indicate he has a chance: defense and foreign policy issues.

Bush will therefore have to make our current international standing appear to be the most significant accomplishment of the Reagan administration; realistically, it is the only effective, substantive card he has left to play. On a number of fronts he can fashion an argument for accolades with a measure of political comfort: Grenada, Afghanistan, Libya, and the Persian Gulf. But on the remaining and most significant one --- bringing the Soviets to the bargaining table, doing away with a whole class of nuclear missiles, etc. --- he stands to let himself become unraveled with the mixed message he will send out to the electorate.

How Bush will deal with arms control issues during the campaign can be gleaned from the much-vaunted Bush resume. It furnished the first necessary clues, placing his initial foraging for the trail to the white House in the period when he was CIA director. His invitation in 1976 to the membership of the Committee on the Present Danger to author a CIA study of Soviet military spending solidified both his aspirant credentials and his contact-base among the emergent neoconservatives who were readying to take over Washington. As Robert Scheer and others have pointed out, that still-unreleased study was rife with conveniently distorted conclusions, but exactly the conclusions that would set in motion the events of the last eight years. Once the creme-de-la-creme of America's hawks had postulated the fiction that the Soviets were outspending us on arms and preparing for a preemptive first strike, the road was cleared for the most squalid of all American secrets, furnishing this coterie of rightists whose unisoned hearts beat wildly with the true belief that nuclear war was winnable and that the Soviet Union did not have the right to exist with the excuse to formulate the ultimate strategy.The think-tank boys and the war-game programmers would comprise the other elements in the vast towel-swatting sauna-camaraderie of entrenched administration zealots, and the quest for the first-strike checkmate grail was on. Combined with the fortuitous election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, it all must have seemed as if it had been scripted by some invisible hand, with everything working with the precision only found in studio backlot fantasy.

All that remained to do, quite simply, was to scare the hell out of the American people. But that has never proven to be a difficult task, and with pop-culture assistance from the celluloid geopolitics of Sylvester Stallone and the tidy bipolar simplicities of professional wrestling, it was achieved effortlessly. Our deliberate poor-mouthing about our military capability vis-à-vis the equally deliberately overblown Soviet buildup resulted in the voracious amalgam of MX, SDI, Cruise/Pershing, Trident D-5, B-1B, Stealth, Midgetman, and "follow-on force attack" weaponry. We loaded up for Russian bear (ominous pictures of which we saw implied in TV commercials for years) that we knew did not have --- and has never had --- the decisive strategic claws we would lead the American people to believe it possessed. It was a para--hard sell and it worked; the extent to which this country's purse- opened without complaint is astounding. And so it would go until Reykjavik, where that impetus toward nuclear checkmate born of perception--game cunning and the hatred unique to former leftists for the deities of their youth would finally begin to be slowed.

* * *

In truth, the events of Reykjavik stood this administration on its head. Gorbachev's challenge to rid the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000 completely caught us off guard. It was clearly tantamount to an admission that the Soviets could not match our military strength, but Gorbachev's bold approach in proffering a plan for mutual disarmament was the last thing we wanted to hear. In effect, as someone has said, the Soviets had let go of their end of the rope in the tug-of-war. The reverse spin utilized by a surprisingly p.r.-adept Gorbachev in calling our bluff on whether we really wanted the peacemaking that our most virulent intercontinental missile had been named after shook this administration to its roots.

It meant that the neocon dream of strategic checkmate was over, and it further gave us the sad spectacle of a Soviet leader treating a 75-year-old American president as if the latter were a child, firmly but reasonably chiding him with the admonition that it would be necessary for him to rid himself of the puerile idea that the Soviets would ever let themselves get missile-rattled into surrendering or let their economy crumble by getting sucked any deeper into an arms race. It was handled deftly and without rancor by an adversary who, in the end, would adroitly and paradoxically let Reagan be Reagan by holding out to him the old Hollywood axiom that you're only as good as your last film. It was a masterful lure, feeding the old actor's vanity and his wife's protective nature, while at the same time offering a hedge against the accusation that no major foreign policy accomplishments were achieved during his presidency. Moreover, and of much more significance, it did nothing less than ensure the future survival of the Society Union. Given the obvious predilections of their foes, the Soviets realized things could go either one of two ways: back toward detente, or toward the apocalyptically-imbued strategic pique of their enemies.The Soviets knew their proposal had to be bold and unprecedented. It was, and the ball remains in our lap, a Soviet talisman become Bush's hot potato.

The summit ended morosely on disagreement over SDI. Gorbachev was yielded nothing as Reagan clung with ashen-faced tenacity to his pet program whose implementation would probably work rather effectively in dealing with the 5% of Soviet missiles left after an American first strike. What remained for Gorbachev to do next was to agree to the INF accord --- which, as the concluding section of this article details, Bush will necessarily have to boost as this administration's crowning achievement while assiduously backing away from its down-the-road implications in order to distance himself from Reagan and confront Dukakis. To be sure, the agreement was a considerable Soviet concession, given their long-standing intransigence on the issue, but their coming back to the table on intermediate missiles was, in reality, a tactical victory for them. Reagan might not budge on SDI, but the process had irretrievably been set in motion, and the initial Soviet survival gambit on disarmament at Reykjavik necessitated a rapid and complete series of linked concessionary moves. Having agreed to INF, Soviet-initiated troop withdrawal offers would soon follow as a prelude to discussions about ICBMs and air- and sea-launched Cruise missiles; but as a first step, the removal of American Pershing and Cruise missiles from Europe, with their 6-minute flight time from Moscow, would have to be achieved. Unquestionably, their removal was a substantial blow to the European component of our forward-based first strike profile. Their emplacement had tilted the balance overwhelmingly in our favor; it was the culmination of a process begun almost twenty years earlier when we had taken our land-based Thor and Jupiter missiles out of Europe because we had completed our MIRVing of submarine-launched Poseidons. When the Soviets played MIRV-catchup and replaced their aging SS-4s and -5s with their own triple-warhead SS-20, we began the convenient screams that nuclear parity always induces in us. The Cruises and the Pershings, having already been planned for nearly a decade, were then put into operation.

The INF agreement, as a result, keeps intact --- at least to some small, but nonetheless very significant  extent --- the undergirding element of Soviet war-fighting strategy which has existed since Hiroshima: Backed into a corner and faced with nuclear destruction, their only tactical recourse for the past 43 years has been the ability to overrun Europe and hold it for ransom against the threat of imminent attack. No analysis of geostrategic nuclear war-fighting can be coherent without understanding this bedrock equation, and unlike most of the Soviets' predominantly defensive war-fighting strategies, this tactic has always been redolent of en extremus last-gasp desperation; for a people who have suffered like no other in modern times, keeping their regime intact politically would mean having to sacrifice their population. It is assuredly no accident that the Soviets have constantly harped upon the fact that, unlike the U.S., they do not have the luxury of two oceans between them and their enemies. Perennially hemmed in with superior firepower, and playing nuclear catchup to the detriment of the economic and social well-being of their people, the Soviets have traditionally "leapfrogged" their own borders as a consequence, seeking out friends less in the attempt to forge an international order which they realistically lack the long-term strength or ability to dominate than in the attempt to create a bulwark against encirclement. Most notably, in the past, the Soviets' reaction to the formation of NATO marked the first attempts at "expansion" of their influence into countries outside Eastern Europe. Historically, the Soviets have strenuously viewed NATO as our means of keeping their troops and leadership bottled up behind their own borders, thus leaving them strategically defenseless; but unlike the pattern of their past reactions to NATO, they reacted to the bait represented by the emplacement of Cruises and Pershings in a completely unexpected way. Ultimately, they refused to take the lure and enact a further buildup spiral in an effort to negate the effect of our new missiles. They would agree to INF. And then they would initiate efforts for mutual troop withdrawals. They might no longer enjoy the same facility for "breakout" into Europe, but at the same time they would see to it that we could not conclusively close off that outlet with conventional forces or utilize European terrain with advanced forward-based first strike nuclear systems. The Soviets had indeed come back to the table, and they have done so in a way that has left the Bush people reeling. They have taken the peace issue and barreled us over with it, embarrassing us into a kind of parity we couldn't envision because for most of this century we have been too busy painting them as the embodiment of evil.

* * *

The expected tenor of Bush's campaign was first broached in a San Francisco speech in June when he declared that the changes going on in the Soviet Union are a direct result of "reinvigorated American strength." Not surprisingly, he attempted to justify the administration's military buildup with the claim that it had the intended results: in effect, the only way the "Evil Empire" could have changed internally was by massive external pressure. He would certainly be loath to admit that glasnost and perestroika were ushered in by Andropov --- begun when the latter was the head of the KGB --- who opened the gates for the younger party officials who had coalesced around the Khrushchev reforms of 35 years ago and who have been waiting patiently in the wings since. To make that admission, of course, would confer on the Soviets a semblance of the humanity we have diligently denied them for four decades. That they might have come to the conclusion on their own that their society had to change --- irrespective of external pressure --- might well necessitate our looking at them in a new light. And the pressure to implement that new appraisal might involve legitimacy, which could lead to Most Favored Nation status and an end to the prohibition on technological and electronic trade goods the Soviets have long awaited. As Gorbachev has pointed out, the possibility that an efficient, decentralized command economy, without the worry of boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism and with cradle-to-grave benefits and stores full of consumer goods might outpace the U.S. is something the Bush crew obviously fears. The simple fact that the American military buildup was merely another obstacle --- albeit the most formidable --- along the path to the makeover of Soviet society and not the genesis for it is something Bush is well aware of. He is also fully aware that the linchpin dynamic of Soviet behavior requires a continued lessening of international tensions in order for their domestic changes to proceed, and Bush has no recourse but to play upon that with all the gamesmanship at his disposal. Among Soviet military leaders, there has already emerged a unanimity of belief that the U.S.will attempt to waffle on further arms control measures, and given the muddle of Bush's situation, the logic of his position is that it can only be enhanced by having glasnost founder and Soviet hard-liners reassert their strength; the continuity of familiar fixed confrontation is Bush's political life raft, and he literally cannot afford anything more than a tenuous acceptance of the Soviets' "yes" answer. The path he treads around Reagan's embrace of Gorbachev and the charge of weakness on foreign policy he would like to saddle Dukakis with threatens to be the undoing of George Bush. It is less a tightrope walk than a maneuver to outflank both of them to the right, lauding Reagan's final encore while simultaneously attempting to dissuade the public form making a sympathetic link between Reagan's and Dukakis's positions on Soviet relations. In effect, Bush has become a man isolated and stretched taut in the vast web of deceit he has had a considerable hand in spinning since the mid-1970s, and he will adamantly save face with whatever it takes to do so. He knows that what is at stake ultimately is the frightening prospect that the American people might come to realize that the financial futures of their already-debtridden children have been sacrificed in large part to a needless, corrupt, hate-driven $2.6 trillion siege of militarism. The engine of military Keynesianism which undergirds our economy and has provided the Reagan administration with the ample imagery and illusion of strength contains the seeds of our decline, and to stave off the possibility of that kind of reckoning day will be Bush's focus throughout this campaign. Significantly enough, he ended his speech here with the resounding statement that the Cold war is not over, and that "we must be prepared for the protracted conflict."

For all intents and purposes, however, it is over. This administration's purse-emptying military buildup and its attendant strategic fantasy of dictating to the Soviets on our terms has failed. Not content with letting the Soviets maintain military parity, we have deviously upped the ante with a barrage of sophisticated new weaponry and forced them to go another route, one where they have called our bluff and challenged us to peace based on mutual disarmament. We are now put in a position of having to "out-peace" them, which is something the mind-set of this administration is woefully unprepared to deal with. The considerable influence of the religious right on that mind-set, with its livid denunciation of "moral equivalency," saturates the political landscape still, as the Pat Robertson wing of the Republican Party clearly demonstrated with the party platform. By any objective international criteria, the momentum now belongs to the Soviets, and we have become the side which is boxed in. The Bush-initiated war-game mentality which sought to blanket-target the Russian land mass a hundred times over and thereby send a message to Third World countries about whom they should cast their lot with has become meaningless. At the beginning of Reagan's first term, the Soviets had less friends in the Third World than they had 30 years ago; and now, eight years later, non-aligned countries throughout the world have witnessed the plodding, clumsy Soviet Union face us down with as sophisticated a bit of jujitsu as diplomatic history has even seen.

As usual, the only people who have been fooled are the American people. The greatest debtor nation on earth now waits for George Bush and his boy scout running mate to tell us about this administration's national security accomplishments, how the "military weakness of the 1970s" has been rectified, and how much more powerful and respected we are as a result.

---Copyright John Hutchison 1988

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