To the Editor:
I want to commend Robert Jastrow for his article, “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” [December 1984]. His arguments are painfully correct in their direction, and, as a result, Mr. Jastrow has been attacked in a very sharp manner.
His detractors, some of whom are publicly well-known, have raised and will continue to raise the argument that Mr. Jastrow, lacking clearance, is inadequately informed. It is important to realize that by abstaining from getting clearance, Mr. Jastrow has retained his freedom of speech. This privilege is one of his main weapons, one which is not available to those of us who have spent years working on the problem of defensive weapons before supporting a major program for their development.
It is worth noting that Hans A. Bethe, one of the outspoken opponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), conceded during a classified discussion in February 1983 that the relevant arguments in physics supported the Livermore Laboratory strategic-defense position. Shortly thereafter, however, Mr. Bethe changed his mind—not because the scientific issues had changed, but on the basis of his ideas about proper politics and military strategy. Mr. Bethe has waited almost two years before scheduling another (forthcoming) visit to review the Livermore strategic-defense work, although he has felt free to attack it on the basis of his outdated knowledge in the interim.
The position taken, by Hans A. Bethe, Victor F. Weisskopf, and many other “concerned” scientists is strongly reminiscent of the hydrogen-bomb controversy which raged more than three decades ago. The argument then was that the project was not scientifically feasible, and if it were successful, the result would be too terrible to bear. Furthermore, the argument went on, if the United States did not attempt the project, probably the Soviets would also forbear.
As it turned out—according to Andrei Sakharov’s biographical statement in Sakharov Speaks (Knopf, 1974)—before the hydrogen-bomb debate began in the United States, the Soviet hydrogen-bomb project was already under way. Only months separated the successful tests of a fusion weapon by the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet the United States had the advantage that it had been physically untouched by World War II, while the Soviets had suffered terrible damage.
The consequences of a Soviet success on this project coupled with American non-participation would have speeded up the kind of behavior today being demonstrated by the Soviets on the basis of their military superiority. However, the consequences of the Soviets’ successful development of protective defenses and our failure to do so are incomparably greater. There is much evidence—evidence that in comparison with that available in the earlier controversy should be called overwhelming—that the Soviets are hard and successfully at work on strategic defense. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative would be more appropriately named if it were called the Strategic Defense Response. Yet Mr. Weisskopf, present for President Reagan’s original speech requesting the cooperation of the scientific community in this effort, appeared to disapprove before the President even had time to develop his point.
Returning to Mr. Jastrow’s article and. his purported lack of scientific information, I would end with a question. Which better represents the method of scientific inquiry: limited, careful arguments that include all of the pertinent perspectives, or dogged support of narrow convictions based on superficial assessments?
I appreciate Mr. Jastrow’s courage in attempting to bring reason and common sense to this vital discussion.
The Hoover Institution
To the Editor:
I read Robert Jastrow’s article with great interest. It has always been a matter of surprise to me that some members of the scientific community have been critical of the technical soundness of our strategic-defense efforts, when it is clear from my knowledge of the research program that the technical promise is great. Indeed, rapid progress has already been realized in some of the most critical areas. In addition, prospects for countering future missile defenses or overwhelming such defenses seem less and less likely as we come to understand better the potential of the new defensive technologies.
James A. Abrahamson
Lieutenant General, USAF
Director, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization
Department of Defense
To the Editor:
“The War Against ‘Star Wars’” by Robert Jastrow was as excellent an article on this major public-policy question as it was overdue. Those of us constrained by the restrictions of government security clearance often despair of responding effectively in public forums to critics of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Government classification rules perversely permit all manner of nonsensical “straw men” to be put forward and then kicked apart by those holding clearance and exploiting the prestige of being “in the know,” while strictly forbidding countervailing arguments containing compelling technical material to be aired publicly. Mr. Jastrow’s article demonstrated that a response to SDI critics on a more fundamental level is not only feasible but can be telling, for these critics unblushingly impeach themselves at levels of logical consistency recognizable by a perceptive undergraduate.
A notable example of this gambit of kicking apart a straw man of one’s own manufacture, and one with which I happen to be particularly familiar, involves X-ray laser technology, which has been singled out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as “the leading candidate” among pop-up defensive systems, and thus has been extensively assailed by them in public. The straw man in this case consists of the assertion that X-ray laser platforms having carefully chosen limitations, when popped up from carefully selected sea- or land-basing points in time of defensive need, cannot engage even present-generation ICBM’s, let alone ICBM’s of some future era employing hypothetical “fast-burn” boosters, due to limb-of-the-earth constraints on X-ray-laser-beam propagation from the platform to the booster targets.
In fact, it has been explained on many occasions, to a variety of government forums all over the country, why and how reasonably-sited, technologically-accessible, popped-up X-ray lasers can plausibly engage even fast-burn boosters, and at cost-exchange ratios which strongly favor the defense. Some of these occasions have involved face-to-face discussions with leading strategic-defense critics, none of whom has contested the technical points being made. Nonetheless, the public debate continues to be saturated with pessimistic assertions by these critics concerning this point which, to put it charitably, are disingenuous.
The stunningly effective supporting barrages laid down by sympathetic sectors of the news media amplify the efforts of SDI critics completely out of proportion to their minuscule numbers, ludicrously inflating them into “virtually all knowledgeable scientists”; even the Wizard of Oz was less flagrant in his mummery, more modest in his pretensions. This hyperinflation is the more remarkable as anti-strategic-defense arguments have fared uniformly poorly in technical debate in the classified surroundings required by government regulations. In spite of having failed to make their anti-SDI case to their well-informed colleagues in technical discourse, these critics continue to advocate their rejected positions to the public in impassioned terms, immune from the criticism of their technical peers.
Mr. Jastrow has performed a real service to the thoughtful public by documenting how sloppily this tiny group of scientists compound their nostrums, and with what generous dollops of bias. Focusing on this basic point, his article made devastatingly clear that these individuals, capable scientists though they may be, do not merit the political confidence of their fellow citizens.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow has done it again. He seems to be the greatest single asset we have in making a strategic-defense system an eventual reality. . . . Ever since I took part in a debate on strategic issues sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, I have realized the irrational fear of ABM systems among many intellectuals. People who would acquiesce in an actual U.S. surrender to the USSR to obviate the risk of nuclear war, but would not be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars to banish its possibility forever, show where their objectives really lie. . . .
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
Mr. Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative raises issues of the utmost gravity. We are astonished that COMMENTARY would present a brief for SDI in the guise of an uninformed attack against the report prepared by us under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars (Vintage, 1984). Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” takes issue with our criticisms of SDI by pretending that the entire enterprise stands or falls on a precise calculation of how many laser satellites would be required by the defense. There are some honest disagreements among knowledgeable experts that are central to the SDI debate which we wish to bring to your readers’ attention, but this is not one of them.
In his “Star Wars” speech, Mr. Reagan proposed to defend the population of the United States against Soviet nuclear-armed missiles, and thereby to replace deterrence as the bedrock of our national security. As recently as December 23, 1984, the President and his Secretary of Defense restated this objective in order to proscribe heresies within their administration: SDI would not be bargained away, they asserted, or be devoted to the lesser goal of merely defending American missile silos.
A ballistic-missile defense (BMD) of cities is inconceivable unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s could be destroyed while their fragile booster engines are still burning brightly. Missiles that survive this “boost phase” would pose a much more formidable threat to any defense because they would release a large number of elusive and far less vulnerable warheads immersed in a vast swarm of decoys and other “penetration aids.” The subsequent defensive layers could not, it is widely acknowledged, cope with such a prodigious “threat cloud.” The fact that the earth is round requires an attack on Soviet boosters to be launched from space.
We examined all credible proposals for boost-phase defense. (While infrared and laser homing projectiles are promising interceptors for mid-course and terminal defense, they are implausible boost-phase weapons because of their low speed.) Orbiting defenses suffer from a fatal flaw: they would rely on delicate precision instruments which would be exquisitely vulnerable to attack. We share this conclusion with Edward Teller, an ardent SDI advocate, who has said that “lasers in space won’t fill the bill—they must be deployed in great numbers at terrible cost and could be destroyed in advance of an attack.” As we shall see, Mr. Jastrow’s own argument leads to the conclusion that countering new Soviet ICBM deployments with orbiting lasers would be ludicrously expensive.
These pitfalls could be averted if the defensive weapons were “popped-up” into space on warning of attack. But this would pose insuperable time constraints: the defensive weapon must rise to a height of at least 650 miles before the enemy booster completes firing, feasible with current slow-burning Soviet missiles, but hardly practical against a Soviet equivalent of the much faster MX. Furthermore, the Soviets could readily develop boosters that finish burning too soon for any pop-up scheme to work.1 Claims that the Soviets would find it difficult to develop such “fast-burn” boosters should be laid to rest by noting that our SPRINT missile, which operated as a BMD interceptor in 1974, already demonstrated this technology.
In sum, no technical scheme exists for a comprehensive strategic defense free of fundamental conceptual flaws. As former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger has said, “In our lifetime and that of our children, cities will be protected by the forbearance of those on the other side, or through effective deterrence.” Nor is there any basis for Mr. Jastrow’s assertion that the reports of the “blue-ribbon panels,” appointed at the President’s request, are “as different” from our report “as day is from night.” The technical [Fletcher] panel’s summary emphasizes that “survivability of the system components is a critical issue whose resolution requires a combination of technologies and tactics that remain to be worked out.” Major General John C. Too may, the panel’s Deputy Chairman, has said that the panel tended to be “pessimistic whether these technical objectives could be realized but felt that, on balance, the research and engineering was well worth doing,” and that the difference between the panel’s qualified assessment and its recommendation is “like the difference between the horse you bet on and the sentimental favorite.”2
Not only is there no technical scheme, there is not even the vaguest outline for a political scenario that might propel us toward a defense-dominated world. That political factors are essential was recognized in the Fletcher report, which stated that the effectiveness of the defense would depend not only on technology, but also on the degree to which Soviet offensive forces could be constrained. Moreover, the Hoffman panel, which considered the strategic implications of SDI for the President, noted that the past behavior of the Soviets “suggests that they would be more likely to respond with a continuing build-up of their long-range offensive forces.”
Hence our disagreement with knowledgeable and candid supporters of SDI is one of risk assessment. They are gambling on the President’s “sentimental favorite,” in the hope that unforeseen technical advances might transform the prospects for strategic defense, and are not as troubled as we are by the risks that the pursuit of SDI would entail. Our studies persuaded us that all the envisaged BMD schemes are ruinously expensive, and could not protect the United States from utter destruction because they could be readily overwhelmed or outfoxed at much less cost. We shall also explain why the very attempt to proceed toward a comprehensive missile defense will provoke a massive escalation of the competition in offensive nuclear weapons, and increase the likelihood of nuclear war.
Why should a thrust toward strategic defense have any risks beyond galloping budget deficits? What is the harm in trying? This has been answered by the Hoffman panel: defenses that could withstand a small attack, but would collapse under a large onslaught, are highly provocative. In the early stages of BMD deployment we would have just such a defense, as well as vulnerable land-based missiles. This would have two grave hazards. First, the Soviets would fear that if the U.S. were to attack preemptively our defense could cope with their surviving missiles; they would also know that our defense could, at most, provide poor protection of our vulnerable missiles against a Soviet first strike. This would greatly enhance their incentive to attack preemptively in a serious crisis.
Second, Soviet leaders have asserted that they would avert this predicament by enlarging their offensive capabilities. This build-up would emphasize submarine-based cruise missiles, which underfly space defenses and provide little warning; ICBM’s equipped with countermeasures against U.S. defense; and anti-satellite weapons to attack our BMD space platforms. Painfully aware of the fragility of our embryonic defense, we would find such Soviet moves highly provocative, and respond in kind. A budding BMD system is therefore a catalyst for an acceleration of the offensive arms race, not for reductions in offensive arms, as many SDI advocates claim.
SDI is often portrayed as a benign research program. But a program launched from the Oval Office, described as a vital element in the nation’s future strategic posture, and funded at already so lavish a level, is not merely a research project. It will not be so treated by the Soviets, no matter what we may say or believe. Modern military systems take many years to develop, so the Soviets will feel compelled to initiate programs to counter the still unborn U.S. defense. Hence SDI is likely to enmesh us in a more dangerous offensive confrontation even if it is eventually abandoned before any defenses are deployed. Those who find this farfetched have not learned the saga of MIRV—the multiple-warhead ICBM. We invented MIRV’s as a BMD countermeasure. When the Soviets installed a rudimentary ABM system, we forged ahead with MIRV development, and then to deployment after the ABM treaty prevented the Soviets from installing a defense that made MIRV’s necessary. The Soviets then followed suit. As a result, the incentive for a preemptive strike has grown because a single warhead can destroy many MIRVed enemy warheads before they are launched. Now there is a consensus that MIRVing was a dangerous mistake; former MIRV advocates such as Henry Kissinger look back fondly to the days of one warhead per missile.
We are also disturbed that the mere prospect of lavish funds is already giving SDI a life of its own. With jobs, university research, profits, and promotions at stake, such an enterprise can quickly turn into a juggernaut that cannot be stopped even when it is clear that its goals are unattainable.
Many officials now realize that SDI holds no promise for population defense, and so ersatz rationales are coming into vogue. The most popular is that a partially effective BMD would bolster deterrence because defenses would compound the problem of planning an attack.3 True enough, if the offense stays frozen while the defense is installed. But each superpower’s highest priority is a nuclear arsenal that can, with full confidence, penetrate to its opponent’s vital targets. Only technologies far more robust and inexpensive than anything now dreamed of could alter that priority.4
Another fashionable rationale is that even a modest BMD could protect us from accidental launches and from terrorists. But protection from accidental launch by the superpowers does not require space weapons. Devices installed on ballistic missiles to destroy them on receipt of secure, encrypted radio messages would suffice. And attack by terrorists would hardly come via ICBM. Delivery of nuclear explosives by plane, ship, or diplomatic pouch would be far easier. A nuclear weapon hidden in a bale of marijuana would apparently find ready entry into the U.S. The cost of one laser battle station uselessly orbiting would pay for legions of secret agents who could actually grapple with this threat.
There are those who favor SDI because they believe it best exploits the great U.S. advantage in high technology. Their position seems to be supported by the apprehension that Soviet leaders express so vigorously about SDI. Is that not enough reason to pursue the program?
We have observed and participated in the nuclear competition since its inception. Thanks to U.S. technological superiority, virtually every new technical initative has come from the United States: the fission bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental bomber, submarine-launched missiles, high-accuracy ICBM’s, MIRV’s, and high-accuracy long-range cruise missiles. The only significant Soviet initiative was the ICBM itself, but our ICBM’s quickly surpassed those of the Soviets in both quality and numbers. The net result has been a steady erosion of American security. There is no evidence that space weapons will be an exception. It is true that we have a significant edge in all the technologies that strategic defense would depend on. But in the nuclear era a sophisticated defense can be foiled by relatively rudimentary means. Which is easier: the construction or the disruption of an exquisitely shaped mirror 30-feet across which must swiftly turn from one target to another with very high accuracy? Moreover, it is cheap to build devastating weapons that could readily penetrate our exorbitantly expensive “shield.” Unless there is a breakthrough in defense as revolutionary as nuclear weapons themselves, the strategic offense will reign supreme.
But if so, why are the Soviets so opposed to SDI? Because they are exceedingly cautious, and have been playing catch-up with American nuclear technology since 1945. Soviet military planners are obliged to take American pronouncements, however implausible, much more seriously than American strategists, and will respond with an offensive build-up and by expanding their already significant BMD research effort.5 They seem to recognize that this will require vast expenditures they can ill afford, and that the net result will be a decrease in their national security. The same would be true for us.
We should vigorously exploit our technological advantage to acquire military intelligence about the Soviet Union, to strengthen our strategic command-and-control systems, and to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons. The search for new BMD techniques must go on, but the distinction between research and deployment should not be blurred. But in assessing military technologies we must recognize that any attempt by either superpower to increase the threat to the other’s survival will soon redound to its own disadvantage.
We now return to Mr. Jastrow’s caricature of our case against SDI. He would have readers believe that the prospects for SDI can be decided on the basis of just two numbers that we had calculated incorrectly in our earliest report, Space-Based Ballistic Missile Defense (Union of Concerned Scientists, March 1984); and that our “many major errors . . . go in one direction only—toward making the President’s plan seem impractical, costly, and ineffective.”
What did we set out to do? Since there is no plausible concept for strategic defense, we sought to fill this void. To that end the technical portions of our report assessed separately the interception mechanisms; illustrated the magnitude of the defender’s task by estimating the size of the defensive system required in the absence of all countermeasures; and examined a large variety of countermeasures. A realistic net assessment would integrate the last two items, and incorporate the likely enhancements of Soviet offensive capabilities. Had we carried that through in a hard-nosed fashion it would have led to the conclusion that the cost and size of the defensive system are unbounded. Why? Because the largely unknown defensive technologies, whose ultimate effectiveness is still a matter of speculation, would be pitted against prodigiously effective weapons and many known countermeasures invented during twenty-five years of BMD research. We firmly believe that countermeasures will carry the day into the foreseeable future.
Mr. Jastrow’s two make-or-break numbers are the size of the laser constellation that would have to be in orbit and the weight of a neutral-particle-beam weapon. Regarding the satellite number, he claims that “the whole ‘Star Wars’ plan rested on this one point.” But it is at least as important whether orbiting lasers could themselves withstand attack. As for neutral-particle-beam weapons, he asserts that they are “that most promising destroyer of Soviet missiles and warheads,” but neglects to mention that once fast-burn boosters are developed they would be completely shielded from such beams by the atmosphere—the reason we relegated our discussion of the characteristics of such devices to a technical appendix.6
Mr. Jastrow’s allegation that our work contains “many major errors” is both false and undocumented. We erred twice in our first report: in arriving at the number of 2,400 satellites and in estimating the weight of the particle-beam weapon; but these errors had hardly any bearing on our overall assessment of SDI, were corrected in public at our first opportunity five weeks after the initial report was issued, and do not appear in any of our subsequent publications.
The calculation of the number of satellites is not simple. For example, the “fine work by the theoretical physicists at Los Alamos,” to which Mr. Jastrow alludes,7 makes just the mistake that we had made, even though it appeared four months after our report was publicly corrected. The claim that “the experts had been looking at this problem for more than ten years, and the accurate results were well known” is not correct.
How many satellites must then dance on top of a laser beam? Mr. Jastrow implies that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, a clear absurdity. A small satellite fleet is much more vunerable than a large one. Indeed, there is no “right” number of satellites, for it depends on a host of unknown performance parameters, the nature of the attack, etc. Given the present level of ignorance, all such calculations are based on ad-hoc assumptions of varying degrees of implausibility. They are meant to be illustrative, and bear no relation to actual designs, since they all ignore a host of factors that would greatly increase the number of satellites. Taking the rather small differences in assumed parameters into account, our corrected estimate of 300 laser stations is consistent with those by Carter, Drell et. al,8 a fact Mr. Jastrow neglected to mention.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jastrow has failed to notice that he is impaled on his own sword, blunt instrument though it may be. “Everyone acknowledges that these satellites are going to be extremely expensive; each one will cost a billon dollars or more,” he says. Quite so. What would be the cost trade-off if the Soviets were to deploy a cluster of 3,000 small three-warhead fast-burn ICBM’s at a cost of about $50 billion?9 Let us accept Mr. Jastrow’s favorite satellite-number calculation,10 and his cost per satellite. We then find that it would cost the U.S. $1 trillion to deploy the additional space defenses required by this new $50 billion threat!11
Mr. Jastrow has painted a picture of the Senate hearing at which our errors were rectified that does not conform with the hearing record.12 He asserts that our statement on the particle-beam weapon ended with the sentence: “Our colleagues have pointed out that the area could be increased after the beam leaves the small accelerator.” Mr. Jastrow then charges us with deceiving the Senators because we did not say that this correction brought with it a great saving in weight. But that was not all that happened. The written testimony of our witness, Richard L. Garwin, distributed before the hearing to the press and the committee, and reproduced in the hearing record, actually reads: “. . . leaves the small accelerator, saving a great deal of weight” (emphasis added). Before our witness took the floor, Donald Kerr, the Director of Los Alamos, had said:
I think the UCS report in many ways helps to illustrate the great difficulty involved in first devising and then developing the technology that might be used for strategic defense. They have properly focused on the concerns with command and control, countermeasures, and vulnerability. In some cases I think their analysis has either been overly simplified for the purpose of the public document that it is, or at least in one case, they are totally in error.
Kerr then described our error concerning satellite numbers, and explained how we had overestimated the weight of the particle-beam weapon. He then went on to say:
So I think on the one hand UCS has done a service to the country in raising these issues. I would hope that a longer-term, more sophisticated analysis, albeit one still in the open unclassified literature, might dispel some of the inaccuracies that are also in it.
That analysis was already under way, and is continuing. It is reflected in our October 1984 Scientific American article and in our book, The Fallacy of Star Wars. When our witness testified, there was little point in going over these errors yet again.13
The allegation that we systematically tilted the case against “the President’s plan” is untrue. In fact, we granted it every benefit of the doubt allowed by the laws of physics: beams that would be aimed instantly from one booster to the next without ever missing; laser weapons having a lethality far beyond that for which not even conceptual designs exist; no redundancy to compensate for attrition due to enemy action; no growth in the size and capability of the Soviet ICBM force. No military system in history has ever attained the level of perfection that we granted to “the President’s plan.” (One of us, Richard L. Garwin, even made an original suggestion that greatly improves the prosspects for the ground-based laser scheme.)
Mr. Jastrow opens his attack on our treatment of countermeasures by admitting that “I am not an expert in this dark area,” and then reveals that (always anonymous) professionals of his acquaintance “regard many of [the UCS] proposals as bordering on inanity.” His rendition of our treatment of countermeasures is another caricature. It is he who emphasizes “tricks” like spinning the missile or “putting a shine on it.” We focused on techniques that would prevent accurate targeting on the booster, on measures that would greatly increase the power levels needed for destruction, and on the inherent vulnerability of spacecraft. He would also have readers believe that decoy balloons are a kind of schoolboy prank, but in reality they have been studied for over two decades14 by “defense professionals,” and are taken very seriously.
This picture of us as babes in the cruel woods of countermeasures does not wash. One of us (Richard L. Garwin) recently participated in the Discrimination Countermeasures Panel of the Army’s BMD Program Office. We (in particular Richard L. Garwin and Kurt Gottfried) have had repeated contacts with senior members of the Fletcher panel. They have given our countermeasure suggestions serious consideration in those few cases where they had not already been studied by the panel. Since some of these men are devoted advocates of SDI, and not shy, we wonder why these charges of “inanity” have not been voiced in public, but have been whispered only into Mr. Jastrow’s ear.
Mr. Jastrow seems perplexed as to how some of “the giants of 20th-century physics” could have “lent their names” to an effort that is “pretty good for high-school students, but not good enough to stand up to more than a thirty-minute scrutiny by the defense professionals.” He attempts to resolve his paradox by quoting Lowell Wood of Livermore: “Is Hans Bethe a good physicist? Yes, he’s one of the best alive. Is he a rocket engineer? No. Is he a military-systems engineer? No. Is he a general? No.”
As this quotation is intended to discredit all our work on these matters, we reluctantly respond. Three of us (Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and Henry W. Kendall) have together had a total of over eight decades of extensive experience with a wide variety of military systems, including BMD technologies and countermeasures, extending to nuclear-weapons designs and effects and missile-and-reentry-vehicle development. Another (Carl Sagan) has a twenty-five-year continuing involvement in the development of major U.S. space projects. While none of us is a general (in contrast, we presume, to Messrs. Jastrow and Wood), a member of our study panel, Noel Gayler, is an admiral who has served as Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Director of the National Security Agency, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Research and Development, and as Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which is responsible for the operational plans for all our strategic-nuclear forces.
Mr. Jastrow concedes that we did not engage “in a deliberate, conscious effort to deceive,” but surmises that our “rational judgments [were] clouded by ideological preconceptions.” What are these “preconceptions”? A defense against Soviet missiles, he quotes us as believing, would “‘have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the nuclear balance, increasing the risk of nuclear war,’” and “‘could well produce higher numbers of fatalities’ than no defense at all.” But those are not ideological preconceptions. They are the unhappy conclusions to which our analysis has inexorably led. We stand by them.
Hans A. Bethe
Richard L. Garwin
Henry W. Kendall
Victor F. Weisskopf
Ithaca, New York
Massachusetts Institute of
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow attempts to defend “Star Wars” by criticizing other analysts rather than by setting forth his own analysis. This approach would be inconclusive even if Mr. Jastrow were correct. As it happens, Mr. Jastrow’s four criticisms of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Background Paper which I authored are technically in error. His essay therefore does not offer a serious alternative treatment of this vital national-security issue.
Let me take the four points in turn.
Mr. Jastrow’s first and main criticism rests on his proposition that if the Soviet Union increased its arsenal of missiles by a certain factor to try to overwhelm a U.S. laser defense, the U.S. would have to increase its constellation of orbiting lasers by the square root of that factor. This is wrong. The true dependence is closer to a direct proportionality, which the OTA report uses. Mr. Jastrow’s proposition would be true if Soviet missiles were distributed uniformly over an enormous area and the U.S. laser satellites were at the same altitude as the missiles. These are hardly good approximations to the real world, where Soviet missiles are deployed in a band stretching from east to west across the Soviet Union and the lasers are in space. Careful calculations making few simplifying assumptions have recently been completed by competent government scientists, notably at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Mr. Jastrow’s most misleading error, of course, is implying that constellation size is the key to judgments of the plausibility of “perfect” defense, whereas in fact it is a relatively insignificant issue.
Second, in his footnote 10, Mr. Jastrow criticizes a pedagogical device used in the OTA report, which involved deploying satellites in clusters. This short-cut has little effect on most calculations, since time averages of the constellation coverage enter these calculations. This pedagogy was intended to avoid confusing the reader, but seems to have confused Mr. Jastrow, who thinks it is a serious “error.”
Third, Mr. Jastrow misunderstands the calculation of the number of terminal interceptors needed for nationwide coverage. One thousand defensive batteries are needed for nationwide defense because the missile interceptors in each battery have limited range, not because “1,000 sites in the United States need to be defended,” as Mr. Jastrow supposes. The OTA report makes clear that 280,000 interceptors would be needed only if one aspired to a literally leakproof defense that would prevent all Soviet warheads from detonating on U.S. territory. The point of the calculation was to show how absurd that aspiration is. Mr. Jastrow got the point, but missed the irony.
Fourth, Mr. Jastrow claims that the OTA report said that one-tenth of an inch of lead could shield a Soviet booster from a neutral particle beam. This is indeed untrue, as Mr. Jastrow suggests, but the report does not say any such thing. Mr. Jastrow has confused “a few centimeters of lead” on page 49 of the OTA report with “a few grams per square centimeter” on page 50. The point made on those pages was that covering the entire upper-missile stage rather than just parts of it with enough shielding is impractical, a point with which Mr. Jastrow agrees but thinks the report missed.
Mr. Jastrow is therefore wrong on every single point. But there is an interesting pattern to his errors. Last July some Defense Department contractors, in an equally clumsy attack on the OTA report, made exacty the same spurious “criticisms”! How did Mr. Jastrow hit upon precisely the same points as these contractors? Obviously he was simply parroting them, unaware that they were incorrect.
It is furthermore a matter of public record that OTA convened a panel last summer to review these criticisms of its report. The results of this review were conveyed by OTA’s Director to Congress and to the Department of Defense. The panel consisted of Charles Townes (Nobel laureate, discoverer of the laser, and adviser to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger), William Perry (former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering), and General Glenn Kent (USAF, retired). This panel also found no substance to precisely those criticisms that now, six months later, Mr. Jastrow “discovers.”
Robert Jastrow has taken up the lonely task of championing the notion of perfect defense of the United States, a task that is widely agreed to be a poor basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative’s research program. To succeed he will need to ask those who are aiding him to keep him better informed.
The issue of strategic defense is not a simple one of “for” and “against.” There are many shades in between. The dim prospect for leakproof nuclear defense is a fact that will not be dispelled by shooting the messenger. Moreover, recognizing that fact does not end, but just begins, a serious discussion of other missions for missile defense. COMMENTARY would serve its readers better by drawing out this variety of views rather than by seeking simplistically to set up opposing camps.
Ashton B. Carter
John F. Kennedy School of Government
To the Editor:
I always look forward to the writings of Robert Jastrow, who manages to be lucid when analyzing the most complex subjects. All the more bewildering, then, his paragraph disposing of decoy balloons.
The picture he paints of laser beams sorting out the decoys from the warheads, after which particle or other beams go after the warheads, somehow does not jibe with my vision of one bullet hitting another, both traveling at enormous speed through the immensity of space. How does one “observe” the recoil of a tapped balloon at such great distances and blazing speeds? Are all the balloons tapped simultaneously, with separate laser beams? Does the device then remember which ones carry warheads, all the while tracking each one? If each of the balloons must be intercepted for identification, why not use the same number of beams to attack? If it is possible to intercept them all, is it not then irrelevant which of them carry warheads? Please, Mr. Jastrow, this subscriber would appreciate a bit more detail.
A. L. Drumwright
To the Editor:
As an engineer, I would like to disagree with one aspect of Robert Jastrow’s defense of the “Star Wars” ABM concept.
His technique for making such a system sound plausible, and for making the possible defensive measures against it sound absurd, is to attribute virtually unlimited ingenuity to those people who are to design the missile-destroying system, and virtual imbecility to those who are to foil it. For example, he says that if the Soviets try, among other things, to spin their missiles and shine them up, “their missile program will be tied in knots.” And what is the fatal flaw in the shininess defense? According to Mr. Jastrow, simply that “no shine is perfect,” and, given time, a sufficiently powerful laser could burn through it. With a wave of his authoritative hand he has implied that we can deliver massive amounts of focused radiative energy against a distant target for as long as necessary, whereas the Soviets will throw in the towel at the very prospect of mirroring their missiles. Is this the kind of meticulous analysis that Mr. Jastrow would substitute for the supposedly biased science of the Union of Concerned Scientists? In reality, there are many pros and cons to the idea of a durable, reflective missile surface. How reflective can a surface be made? Can we allow it to erode like a heat shield while maintaining control of the missile? On the other hand, can we invent a weapon, by an effort which will not tie our military economy in knots, which can overcome with near 100 percent reliability an optimally reflective, robust missile surface?
Such questions are real. One need not be soft on Communism to contemplate them. Perhaps shininess and all other possible defensive measures could be overcome by some attainable, affordable laser technology. However, it is certainly possible that they might not; the idea of missile durability does not “border on inanity.” If Mr. Jastrow really thinks so, then I suggest that his judgment is at least as “clouded by ideological preconceptions” as he claims that of the UCS scientists to be, despite his pose of sweet reasonableness.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” was, like all his writing, clearly conceived and powerfully delivered. I agree completely with his scientific arguments; they needed to be made. Yet in the end I was alarmed and frustrated; Mr. Jastrow has provided the right answers, but in doing so he has legitimized some very wrong questions.
The most crucial fact in this entire debate is one that has been totally ignored: “Star Wars” is not an American initiative, it is a response. The Soviet Union has the initiative. . . .
The data supporting this statement are easily researched; they have been available in the popular press for at least seven years, and important scientific clues have been available in technical journals for nearly a decade before that. The most important article, “Soviets Push for Beam Weapons,” was published in the May 2, 1977 issue of Aviation Week. The intelligence data contained in the article suggested that the Soviet program was at that point already six to ten years old and was very broad and deep. Jane’s Defense Weekly, this year, reported that the Soviets are clearly ahead despite the very broad industrial base America can draw from.
The ramifications of this simple fact are enormous. For instance, Mr. Jastrow excuses the Union of Concerned Scientists on the grounds that “their rational judgments can be clouded by their ideological preconceptions.” Yet most of these scientists, led by Harold Brown, were deeply involved in the effort to discount all the evidence of the Soviet program throughout the 70’s. Interestingly, this brought them in direct conflict with Air Force intelligence and the data gathered by reconnaissance satellites, the very sources these same scientists claimed could be relied upon for verification of SALT provisions, negating the need for on-site inspections. No, these scientists are not innocents, they are quite familiar with Soviet efforts in this field. . . .
But the more important issue is the way such weapons tie in with the evolving strategic picture. The Soviets already possess a first-strike capability, an existing ABM system which violates the ABM treaty and forms the basis for a multilayered ballistic-missile-defense system, and an extensive civil-defense program. Were they to succeed in being first to emplace even an austere version of “Star Wars,” the temptation to launch a first strike would very likely be irresistible. Whatever would be left of the U.S. strategic forces after a first strike might well be handled by the defensive system they are currently building. Even if events proved them wrong, once they acted upon obvious calculations, the world would see a nuclear war. Thus, Mr. Jastrow’s tacit acceptance of the UCS argument that “Star Wars” is potentially destabilizing legitimizes a very wrong-headed perception of reality—the situation is already seriously destabilized and the Strategic Defense Initiative is a minimum attempt to restabilize it.
Even the MX missile plays a significant role in the accurate perception of “Star Wars.” All our current ballistic missiles, both ICBM’s and SLBM’s, are so weight-limited that they offer no potential for modifications which might make them effective a decade from now. Only MX and a projected version of Trident provide sufficient flexibility to incorporate a response to whatever emerges from the massive Soviet beam-weapon program. Midgetman, against any potential Soviet defense system, is an anachronistic joke.
One more point—no matter how permeable or vulnerable the space battle stations envisaged in the Strategic Defense Initiative might be, in launching a first strike the Soviets would have to deal with them first. Such action eliminates all possibility of surprise. Indeed, it eliminates even the very idea of a first strike, since action against American satellites would fully justify a launch-on-warning stance for American strategic forces, as well as immediate counter-strikes against Soviet satellites and any battle stations. The corollary of this time-sequencing is that, while launching a thousand complex missiles within thirty minutes is a very difficult technical feat, launching sufficient numbers to overwhelm a “Star Wars” defense within the time-frame necessary to achieve an effective first strike is likely to remain impossible for quite a while. . .
Thomas J. Rath
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s dismissal of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ proposals for countermeasures to the “Star Wars” defensive system leaves me more than a bit confused about how thoroughly the author and the unnamed “experts” to whom he so often refers understand the criticisms they rebut.
Mr. Jastrow seems to refute the charge that cheap “balloon” decoys could degrade the performance of a defensive system by conceding the validity of the point. Decoys are intended to force a defensive system to waste precious time and energy by engaging both decoys and balloon-enclosed warheads. Mr. Jastrow’s announcement that “a sharp pulse of laser light” will cause decoy balloons to reveal their identity by their rate of recoil comes as no revelation to this inquisitive citizen, as I have never heard a “Star Wars” critic argue to the contrary.
Mr. Jastrow seems also not to have thought through his remarks on the utility of spinning and shining ICBM boosters as a means of complicating the job of defensive-beam weapons. Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and others have proposed the use of a strippable outer coating on missile boosters to reduce the dulling effect that launch would have on a booster shined to reflect laser light. The coating would shed once the missile moved above the atmosphere and within the range of laser weapons.
As for Mr. Jastrow’s observation that a laser firing in pulses would be able to concentrate its energy on a single point on a spinning missile, I must say that a lot of confidence is placed in the laser weapon’s ability to track and determine the rate of spin of a fast-moving object at long range. A simple countermeasure to a tactic such as Mr. Jastrow describes would be to vary the rate of spin of the missile once incident laser light is detected.
Specific counter-rebuttals aside, several of the tendencies apparent in the article were disturbing to me. Mr. Jastrow’s trust in the proclamations of his communicants in the defense community, whose “ideological preconceptions,” while unexamined, must certainly be as clouding of judgment as those of the UCS scientists, and his representation . . . that only professional military-systems analysts can assess competently the merits of the “Star Wars” proposal, lead me to suspect that Mr. Jastrow never undertook a dispassionate analysis but sought instead opinions that reinforced his original enthusiasm for the proposal.
I must note, also, that there is no unanimity of opinion on “Star Wars” within the traditionally pro-defense community. Richard D. DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, testified before the House Armed Services Committee that “any defensive system can be overcome with proliferation and decoys, decoys, decoys, decoys.” Edward Teller has criticized defensive proposals that depend on satellite-based systems because such systems are “costly to put up and cheap to shoot down.” . . .
The most bothersome of Mr. Jastrow’s prejudices is his refusal to see criticisms of “Star Wars” for what they are, that is, attempts to inform the public of the vulnerabilities of a system only the putative virtues of which have been presented publicly by the Reagan administration. Mr. Jastrow does not detail the “promising new developments” that might defend components of a defensive system from space- or ground-based attack. I, and I am sure others, would appreciate any information on progress toward remedying the problem of satellite vulnerability. . . .
Edward F. Hennessey
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow states that “90 satellites—and perhaps somewhat fewer—are needed to counter a Soviet attack.” His argument, however, contains one profound flaw. He deals solely with the defensive systems needed to neutralize a massive attack of Soviet land-based missiles. The actual attack scenario would almost certainly include substantial numbers of submarine-launched missiles as well as cruise missiles that can be fired from a variety of platforms, both moving and stationary. This consideration would exponentially magnify the task of the defense. Indeed, even if the oceans were rendered “transparent” by evolving technology, the cruise missile, relatively inexpensive and readily camouflaged, might easily overwhelm any combination of defensive systems.
Other considerations abound, such as the destabilizing nature of any truly effective defensive system and the obvious inference that its deployment might trigger the very suicidal confrontation that all nations seek to avoid.
I would also assume that any defensive system resulting in the physical destruction of thousands of warheads would result in a literal rain of radioactive bomb components into the atmosphere and thence to the surface of the earth. I wonder if Mr. Jastrow’s celluloid computer has taken this into account.
David R. Perles, M.D.
Woodruff Community Hospital
Long Beach, California
To the Editor:
Even if a satellite-type ABM system could be made 100-percent effective against ICBM’s, the U.S. would still be vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or cruise-type missiles launched from bombers.
Moreover, the deployment of the “Star Wars” system, intended only for defense, could lead to a far more precarious situation than we are in today.
If it were possible to place a working satellite system above the Soviet Union, our weapons-controllers would be tempted to arm those satellites with nuclear warheads; overwhelmingly tempted. The Soviets would certainly react, not necessarily by trying to disrupt or destroy our “Star Wars” system, but by deploying one of their own, albeit with inferior safety controls.
If such systems are deployed, they will dangerously diminish the response time to suspected attack. Instead of fifteen to thirty minutes, the President or Premier will have about sixty seconds to respond to signs of an adversary’s nuclear strike. Hence, both the U.S. and Soviet Union would almost certainly revert to a “launch-on-warning” system, computer-controlled and unalterable by human judgment.
Worse yet, the Soviets, knowing the inferiority of their own radar and signaling equipment, might place their whole nuclear network on a state of constant alert—in which the “red button” does not initiate but merely restrains the launching of their nuclear missiles. Hence, if that trigger were destroyed, a Soviet nuclear attack would automatically follow.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow exposes and dramatically debunks some of the errors committed by the enemies of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” proposal, in their blind attempt to kill this program. However, in addition to claiming erroneously that the hardware required to implement SDI would be virtually impossible to develop, opponents also offer flawed arguments that it would violate the ABM treaty and would stimulate a new defensive arms race.
One way SDI opponents bias their discussions against the feasibility of the hardware is to confine their attention to a perfectly leakproof defense . . ., even though the cost and technical risk of a partially effective nuclear-missile-defense system would be far less than the cost of a leakproof defense. Also, a leaky nuclear-missile defense would strengthen deterrence significantly by drastically reducing Soviet confidence in their ability to launch a successful first-strike nuclear attack. . . .
In an apparent attempt to frighten the public, opponents also declare that SDI violates the terms of the ABM treaty. But SDI is a research program of the kind that is not prohibited by the ABM treaty; it contains no development, testing, or deployment activities. If, in the future, the U.S. determines that it would be in the national interest to go beyond the research stage, then a new kind of activity not in the current SDI program would have to be initiated, and the U.S. would have to determine whether the new activity would violate treaty limits.
This attempt on the part of those who oppose SDI to mislead the public blurs the distinction between the administration’s SDI program, which is well within treaty limits, and some hypothetical program, which has neither been proposed nor planned, and which may or may not confront the treaty limits.
Arguments that SDI would trigger a new defensive arms race are contrary to the facts because the Soviets have been racing in this direction since well before the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972. During the past dozen years, they have developed a new, transportable, phased-array ABM radar and a new interceptor missile, both of which could be deployed rapidly should the Soviets choose to do so. (The U.S. has no equivalent deployable capability.) They have also upgraded the Moscow ABM defense system (the U.S. has no defense system), have deployed additional phased-array radars on their periphery for ABM target-acquisition support, and are now developing an advanced anti-tactical-missile-defense system that definitely has value for strategic-missile defense.
The attack against SDI seems to assume that all of the initiative in strategic defense lies with the U.S. It ignores the chilling and fairly obvious possibility that the Soviets will find it advantageous to accelerate their own strategic-defense programs or even break out of the ABM treaty. The political costs to the West of a substantial Soviet lead or break-out in defense would be great.
SDI should be pursued to give us a chance to strengthen the security of the U.S. and the rest of the world by making nuclear-ballistic missiles less useful as instruments of politics and war.
New York City
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow faults the Union of Concerned Scientists for some unfortunately flawed calculations concerning the size and weight of satellites required to set up a “Star Wars” defense against Soviet ICBM’s and the numbers of such satellites that would be needed. But the case against a “Star Wars” defense is far more substantial and is based upon serious technical matters. The numbers and dimensions of “Star Wars” satellites are significant only if the X-ray lasers, optical lasers, and particle beams will actually function. The UCS’s The Fallacy of Star Wars raises many doubts about these weapons, doubts which Mr. Jastrow ignores in his article. . . .
The use of X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions and launched at the time of a Soviet attack would require building a new fleet of submarines to launch the “pop-up” X-ray laser weapons, since we have no satisfactory land bases close enough to Soviet silos to enable us to intercept Soviet ICBM’s in the short time which will be available. We would also have to build attack submarines and surface vessels to protect the X-ray laser submarines. The X-rays of this type of laser are unable to penetrate the atmosphere, . . . and the Soviets could easily shorten the boost phase of their ICBM’s to end before the missiles have left the atmosphere. The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that “the X-ray laser is not a viable BMD weapon.” . . .
In addition, . . . the concept of using the weapons as “pop-up interceptions” is not feasible. The Soviets have located their silos in the area of the Trans-Siberian railway at about 55 degrees latitude. The area closest to these silos that American forces can reasonably use is the Arabian Sea to the south of Pakistan, about 23 degrees latitude. The X-ray lasers would have to be launched to a point where they can fire at the Soviet ICBM’s while they are out of the atmosphere and still boosting. Assuming an interception altitude of 110 kilometers, the distance from a submarine to a satisfactory interception firing point for an X-ray laser would have to be at least 1,200 kilometers.
Assuming far more powerful propellants than those currently in use, the minimum flight time of an X-ray laser from launch submarine to interception-firing point would be 120 seconds. To these 120 seconds we have to add the time involved in the decision to launch the X-ray lasers: the processing and verification of satellite warnings that ICBM’s are being launched: the acquisition, processing, and transmssion of targeting information; and the firing of the X-ray lasers from the submarines. According to John Steinbruner, in the January 1984 issue of Scientific American, 120 seconds would be needed merely to process and verify the data from the early-warning satellites. Regardless of how long this takes, the 120-second flight time of the X-ray lasers is far short of the 50-second booster time the Soviets would be able to achieve for their ICBM’s.
Submarines are also crippled by their inability to fire all their X-ray lasers in a single salvo. The first launch would give away the submarine’s position and invite a Soviet attack.
The interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase is the most important consideration of the “Star Wars” defense. The large ICBM’s are easier to locate and track than relatively small warheads after they have been released from the final stage of ICBM’s. The Reagan administration’s own Defense Technologies Study Team, headed by James C. Fletcher, agreed that a “Star Wars” defense is impossible unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s were intercepted during the boost-phase of their flight. X-ray lasers are clearly not feasible for boost-phase interception. The much-touted particle-beam weapons fired from orbiting satellites are also not feasible because of the effect of the atmosphere and the magnetic field of the earth upon particle beams. The particles from neutral-particle-beam weapons would, if fired into the atmosphere, encounter air molecules in the upper atmosphere and disintegrate into charged particles which would be pulled by the earth’s magnetic field, resulting in a steady increasing of the width and consequent decreasing of the intensity of the particle beam. . . .
Optical lasers, which emit light in the infrared (chemical lasers), ultraviolet (excimer lasers), and visible (free-electron lasers) portions of the spectrum, may also be unsuitable for interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase. The wave nature of light means that the edges of the beams will tend to spread out increasingly over increasing distance. This means that the size of a spot upon which a laser can be focused increases in proportion to the distance from the target. Since the energy carried by a laser beam spreads over distance, the effectiveness of a laser weapon decreases over distance in proportion to the square of the distance. The energy needed for optical lasers suggests they could be functional only in low orbits where they would be vulnerable to attack from Soviet anti-satellite weapons of various sorts. Clouds of fine abrasives, for example, could be used to damage the laser mirrors. Clouds of light-absorbing substances could be used to limit the efficiency of the mirrors. Battle stations in space are much more vulnerable than boost-phase ICBM’s to a wide variety of rather crude attacks.
The “Star Wars” defense would have to have battle-management systems that would deal with hundreds of thousands of objects. For this we would need computers able to carry out at least hundreds of millions and probably billions of authentic operations each second. Even if huge strides in computer technology were to produce hardware able to perform such gigantic numbers of operations per second, other problems connected with the implementation of a “‘Star Wars” defense would probably never be resolved.
One very serious problem is that of designing and developing the programs (software) needed to direct the defense computers. Experience with the software involved in other defense systems as well as non-defense software indicates it will be extremely difficult—if not impossible—to create software capable of functioning properly in a nuclear attack. . . .
We could never be reasonably confident that a “Star Wars” defense with all its complex facets would function harmoniously and effectively during a strategic-nuclear attack. The “Star Wars” defense would be a gigantic, intricate assemblage, novel in conception, involving the farthest limits of advanced technology, and required to meet an extremely high performance standard, even though it could never be adequately tested.
Complex designs generate complex problems. All large computer programs contain flaws or bugs which decrease over use but which may never be entirely eliminated. . . . But no amount of simulated battle situations could satisfactorily examine the actual response of a complex “Star Wars” defense system to an actual nuclear attack. This is so not only because of flaws or bugs in software . . . but also because the precise nature of a nuclear attack, along with the enemy’s countermeasures, can never be known in advance. . . .
Robert Jastrow writes:
Edward Teller’s letter makes an apt comparison between the controversy over the feasibility of “Star Wars” and the H-bomb controversy of the early 1950’s. Confident in the superiority of American scientists, we were certain at that time that the decision to build the weapon rested solely with us. But we now know that the Soviets were in fact hard at work on their version of the H-bomb as we argued over whether it should be built at all.
Today, as we again debate the wisdom of research on another weapons system—this time, a system that destroys weapons rather than people—we assume that the decision will be made in this country, whereas in fact the Soviet Union is already hard at work on its own “Star Wars” program, and has been for many years. In the twelve years since the USSR signed the ABM treaty, the Soviet Union has, according to Secretary of Defense Weinberger, spent more on strategic defense than it has on its arsenal for strategic offense. Elements of the Soviet missile-defense effort that violate the ABM treaty in particularly conspicuous ways were publicized last October in a report to the President by the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. Because of this massive Soviet strategic-defense effort, Mr. Teller rightly concludes, our government’s missile-defense program, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, could better be called the Strategic Defense Response.
Soviet emphasis on a defense against missiles, and the total Soviet rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), go back at least two decades. Andrei Gromyko called for the deployment of a missile defense by the superpowers in a speech to the UN in 1962, in which he strongly criticized the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Gromyko said the “balance of fear,” as he called it, kept the world in a “a permanent state of feverish tension.” He compared MAD to a duel in which the superpowers “raise their pistols, aim at each other’s foreheads, and wait for the other to shoot.”
James A. Abrahamson’s letter underscores the fact that attacks on his program by a few academic scientists are entirely at variance with the rapid technical progress being made by thousands of scientists and engineers who work full time on the “Star Wars” project. Even without access to classified information, a diligent reader of aerospace trade journals can gain tantalizing hints of extraordinary developments taking place in the basic technologies of missile defense.
It is also reassuring to have General Abrahamson, who is in a better position to know than anyone else, agree that various Soviet countermeasures to our defense—highly touted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and discussed in my article—are not holding up well under the scrutiny of the defense professionals. The Soviets have confirmed General Abrahamson’s evaluation of their countermeasures. If they thought the proposals put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists were truly effective and inexpensive, they would not be trying so desperately to stop our “Star Wars” research. They would encourage us instead to go on with this expensive program that could be so cheaply countered by them. But they are fighting tooth and nail to kill the “Star Wars” project. Clearly, they disagree with the Union of Concerned Scientists and believe that it will cost them a great deal of money and trouble to counter our defense, if that can be done at all.
Lowell Wood of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory stresses a very significant point which has been made a number of times in my hearing by scientists working on defense matters. The university scientists who put forward the egregiously flawed arguments against missile defense have been repeatedly and firmly corrected by their colleagues in classified technical discussions that are not open to the public. But, as Mr. Wood notes with exasperation, after failing to make their case to their technical peers, they continue to present the same rejected arguments over and over again to the press and public.
One of the prime examples is the so-called “pop-up X-ray laser,” which requires much additional research and development but holds the promise of being a devastatingly effective destroyer of missiles. In the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and in the recently published UCS book, The Fallacy of Star Wars, the pop-up X-ray laser is dismissed as a useless device, readily countered by Soviet fast-burn boosters—that is, by missiles that accelerate very quickly and burn out at an altitude of 50 miles or less. One UCS criticism relates to the fact that a fast-burn booster may burn out in the atmosphere at depths to which X-rays cannot penetrate. But this criticism turns out to be invalid when classified information relating to the intensity of the X-ray laser beam is taken into account.
The classified information, Mr. Wood notes, has been presented in face-to-face discussions with the critics, who have not contested the technical points being made. Yet the critics continue to make their pessimistic comments in public where they cannot be countered by the classified facts.
This behavior seems to me and many of my colleagues to be less than responsible.
I share with George Fishman his puzzlement over the fears of a space-based missile defense expressed by many academics. These fears seem indeed to be “irrational,” as Mr. Fishman says, because the space-based weapons proposed for the “Star Wars” defense are not weapons of mass destruction, and cannot blow up a city or incinerate millions of civilians. The weapons that can do that are on the ground, in silos and submarines. “Star Wars” space weapons do not kill people; they destroy the weapons that kill people.
The letter by Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, Carl Sagan, et al. deals in its first section mainly with the strategic and political dimensions of missile defense. I should like to pass beyond these to the technical issues which were the principal thrust of my article, and take up those in order.
First, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say that fast-burn boosters protect the Soviets from our neutral particle beams, because the neutral particle beam does not penetrate the atmosphere. The thought here is that the booster will reach full speed in 50 seconds and burn out at an altitude too low to be reached by the beam. But, as my article noted, the neutral particle beam is just as effective against the bus carrying the warheads after the booster has burned out, as it is against the booster itself. If the beam catches the bus early on, while most of its warheads are still on board, the results are just as good for our defense as destroying the booster would have been.
If the Soviets try to escape the neutral particle beam by pushing their warheads off the bus while it is still within the atmosphere, air drag will seriously degrade the accuracy of the warheads, with disastrous consequences for Soviet hopes of taking out our retaliatory forces. That problem might be overcome by putting every warhead on its own mini-bus, with separate guidance and steering rockets. But if the Soviets do that, the extra weight required will substantially diminish the total number of warheads carried on the missile, probably by a factor of 2 to 5. And when the warheads are released, they are still vulnerable to the neutral particle beam during the long mid-course phase of their flight, which lasts many minutes. So, if the Soviets go to the enormous expense and trouble of replacing all their missiles with 50-second boosters—and, as George Keyworth, the President’s Science Adviser, has noted, that means wiping out a fifteen-year investment in their missile force—it will avail them nothing.
In fact, the consensus among the experts is that the fast-burn booster, so highly regarded by the UCS and by Ashton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, is not a useful ploy for the Soviets. This has been pointed out to Mr. Garwin and other critics in classified discussions, but they continue to present their discredited arguments to the public “immune from the criticism of their technical peers,” as Mr. Wood has said.
Not only are fast-burn boosters ineffective against several defenses being designed in General Abrahamson’s program, but there is even some doubt among missile experts as to whether such a thing as a 50-second booster can ever be built on a mass-production basis and perform reliably. A rocket that accelerates from a standing start to roughly 15,000 miles an hour in less than a minute presents horrendous technical problems to the missile designer. Fast-burn rockets tend to explode and are not reliable; they get very hot because they move through the atmosphere so rapidly; and their structure must be stiffened to protect them against the battering forces created by their own acceleration. This last point imposes a heavy penalty on the Soviets, because the added weight must be compensated by the loss of a quarter to a third of the missile’s payload.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues cite a report submitted to the Fletcher panel that suggests 50-second boosters are feasible, but fail to mention that after examining all the evidence available to it, the Fletcher panel concluded that the Soviets could not hope to deploy a missile of this kind before the 21st century. In the light of these circumstances, many people in the defense community find it impossible to understand why Mr. Bethe and the UCS put so much emphasis on the fast-burn booster as the Soviet response to our defense.
Turning to the question of the number of satellites needed for our defense, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues dispute my statement that the experts have been looking at this question for more than ten years. My remark was taken from an unclassified report dated May 9, 1984 by O. Judd of Los Alamos. I spoke with Mr. Judd recently and he confirmed the accuracy of the statement.
On this same matter, according to the Bethe letter, I imply that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, which is a “clear absurdity.” Not at all. I only note that the UCS calculations went from 2,400 satellites down to 800, then to 300, and, in the most recent report on the matter by Mr. Garwin, to 162 satellites. This sequence of numbers, which started out at 2,400 satellites, seems to be converging to a result in the neighborhood of 100 satellites, which is where the professionals pegged their results all the while.
Anyone can draw his own conclusions from these facts. My impression is that the UCS theorists first did a hasty piece of work and then, under criticism, did more extended calculations, until finally Mr. Garwin did a careful analysis. Throughout this long learning process, their numbers came down steadily, until leveling off in the neighborhood of the right answer.
Hans A. Bethe and his colleagues allege that there is no right answer because the answer depends on many factors, some of them unknown. But there is a “right” answer to the specific theoretical problem which they addressed. For that particular problem they presented a calculation to the public which turned out to be wrong by a factor of about 24, and in a direction that made the “Star Wars” plan seem very costly and impractical.
The Bethe letter also mentions the “square-root law,” which is critical to the assessment of Soviet prospects for overwhelming our defense, because it indicates that we can overcome a massive build-up of Soviet missile forces with a relatively modest increase in the size of our satellite fleet. Richard L. Garwin’s detailed report of December 30, 1984 concedes the validity of this relationship. Yet the letter from Mr. Bethe and his colleagues states that Mr. Garwin has proven the Los Alamos report to be incorrect under “all but highly artificial circumstances.” How do we explain this contradiction?
The answer is in Mr. Garwin’s paper. He has invented another problem involving satellites and missiles, which is quite different from the problem that was analyzed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its report, and then in its book, and by Ash ton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, and by G.H. Canavan and his colleagues at Los Alamos, and by C.T. Cunningham at the Livermore Laboratory. In this new problem, Mr. Garwin assumes that 3 seconds are needed, on the average, for a laser to swing around from one missile it has just destroyed, and lock its beam onto another missile. This is the so-called “retarget time,” which was assumed to be zero in all the calculations mentioned above. If the retarget time is indeed as long as 3 seconds, our laser-equipped satellites will be very inefficient at shooting down Soviet missiles, and many more satellites will be needed than the previous estimates assumed. We will lose not only the square-root law, but the entire effectiveness of this part of our defense.
But the design objectives in General Abrahamson’s program call for a retarget time of 0.1 seconds and not 3 seconds. If the retarget time is 0.1 seconds, the results for the number of satellites are not very different from those for zero retarget time. In particular, the important square-root law is valid.
But how can we hope, in a time as short as 0.1 seconds, to rotate the mirror that directs the laser beam, damp down its vibrations, and lock in on a new target? A retarget time of 0.1 seconds would indeed be difficult to achieve if the experts were planning to rotate the mirror mechanically to redirect the beam from one Soviet missile to another. But the “Star Wars” program is probably not going to do that. A part of its funding is going into research on an extraordinary new technology that uses “phase conjugate coatings,” which change the direction of the laser beam electronically in a fraction of a second, leaving the mirror fixed in place. The technique is essentially that used in phased-array radars, which do not rotate like the earlier radars, but sweep the sky electronically. This is a fascinating illustration of the black arts being practiced on the cutting edge of technology by the scientists and engineers working with General Abrahamson.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also take up the critically important question of cost ratios, saying it will cost us a trillion dollars in additional satellites to counter an increased Soviet missile force costing only $50 billion. With a cost ratio like that, we are lost before we start, for clearly the Soviets can overwhelm our defense by outbuilding us. But I have looked into the cost figures, and they turn out to be entirely different from those given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues.
First, on the matter of the cost to the Soviets of building more missiles, the letter states that $50 billion will buy 3,000 fast-burn, three-warhead, Midgetman-type missiles, including the cost of warheads and silos plus ten years of maintenance. This amounts to about $15 million per missile, or $5 million per warhead. Missile designers do not know yet what a fast-burn missile would cost, because none has been designed or built, but we can get an idea of the cost by using the current life-cycle cost for the MX missile. This is $40 billion for 100 missiles, each containing 10 warheads. That works out to $400 million per missile, or $40 million per warhead.
The cost per warhead for the proposed Midgetman will certainly be more than that, first, because fast-burn boosters are a new generation of missiles that must be built to withstand the stress of high acceleration, and second, because the cost per warhead is greater for small missiles than for big ones. According to Mr. Carter, a fair guess for the cost per warhead of a fast-burn booster is two to three times the corresponding cost per warhead of the MX missile. It is safe to say the cost of the proposed new Soviet missiles is at least $40 million but probably not more than $100 million per warhead. Thus, 3,000 fast-burn Midgetman missiles will cost the Soviets between $400 billion and $1 trillion.
Now for the cost to us of our defensive satellites. Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say we will require an additional 964 missiles to counter the new Soviet satellites. Using the accepted ballpark figure of $1 billion per satellite, this works out to $1 trillion in round numbers. Where does the figure of 964 satellites come from? It rests on the assumption by Messrs. Bethe et al. that the Soviets will cluster all 3,000 new missiles tightly together in one spot. But is it conceivable that the Soviets would do that?
For several reasons, they would not. For one thing, if all the missiles are located in one spot, and all are launched at one time, the times of arrival at their various targets in the United States will be widely different. That means the Soviets cannot effect a surprise attack that would take out all at once our command structure, airfields, submarine bases, and missile silos, since these are located at widely different flight times from any single place in the USSR. Suppose the Soviets try to overcome this handicap by launching their missiles over an extended period of time, so as to achieve a simultaneous arrival at the various targets. Then our boost-phase defense becomes enormously more effective, because we can pick off the Soviet missiles one by one as they rise from their silos.
The so-called “point” launch will create other problems for the Soviets. If they launch from one location at one time, all their warheads and decoys are bunched tightly as they course through space. This reduces the retarget time for our mid-course defense and, again, greatly increases its effectiveness. It also makes the warheads ideal targets for the X-ray laser. Finally, putting all the Soviet missiles in one place increases the effectiveness of our terminal defense as well, because it then becomes difficult for the Soviets to “ladder down.” That refers to a technique for foiling our terminal defense in which the Soviets explode a nuclear weapon far above the missile silo or other target to create a fireball that will blind the ground radars on which our terminal defense depends. The fireball clears the way for another nuclear weapon that explodes and creates a fireball farther down, which clears the way for still another warhead, and so on, until finally the last warhead, swimming through these fireballs, reaches the target. But laddering down is impossible if all the missiles are in one place, unless they are launched at different times, and that is, as noted, disadvantageous to the Soviets for other reasons.
All in all, the last thing the Soviets are likely to do in response to our defense is to place their entire fleet of new missiles at one location.
But if the assumption that they would do this is removed, and the hypothetical new Soviet missiles are assumed to be spread across the Soviet land mass, as Soviet missiles are today, the number of American satellites required to counter their hypothetical attack goes way down. The reason is that the swath containing Soviet missile fields extends nearly a third of the way around the world at these latitudes. This considerably increases the chance that one missile or another in that vast expanse will be within the range of our satellites. The effect is to reduce by about a factor of approximately 3 the number of satellites required for our defense.
But there is more. The estimate of 964 satellites given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also assumes that the Soviets will have available to them a fast-burn booster that completes its acceleration from a standing start to full velocity in 50 seconds. This assumption means that each satellite has a very short time in which to attack the Soviet missiles, and therefore can destroy only a relatively small number of them. That means, in turn, that we need a large number of satellites to do the whole job.
As a practical matter, however, the goal of a 50-second booster is so difficult that the United States probably could not attain it until the late 1990’s, and the Soviets are not expected to achieve it until the 21st century. When the assumption of a 50-second burn time is removed, and the more realistic assumption is made that the Soviets will have boosters similar to our MX, which has a 180-second burn time, the number of satellites required for our fleet goes down to 88, or, in round numbers, to 100.
At a billion dollars a satellite, that brings our investment down to about $100 billion, compared to between $400 billion and $1 trillion for the Soviet investment. In other words, the ratio of costs is very favorable to our defense over their offense.
Next, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues take up the matter of the 40,000-ton accelerator, and suggest that my description of their testimony is distorted because I have omitted the important phrase, “saving a great deal of weight.” But I have the stenographic transcript of the hearing in front of me and it does not contain that phrase. Even if that phrase had been in the transcript, it would not have conveyed the full flavor of the difference between 25 tons in orbit and 40,000 tons in orbit; but in any event, it is not there.
Turning to Ashton B. Carter’s letter, objections are raised therein to four points in my criticism of his analysis. First, Mr. Carter says that the “square-root law,” to which I attribute much importance, is wrong. He refers to calculations by the Livermore Laboratory for support. But the Livermore report confirms the square-root law. I have in hand the Livermore report on this subject by C.T. Cunningham, dated August 30, 1984. It was one of the sources for my article. The report shows that a fleet of 60 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 300 kilometers will shoot down 97 percent of the Soviet missiles in a mass attack from all 1,400 Soviet missile silos; whereas 90 satellites will shoot down the same percentage of the Soviet missiles in a mass launch from 2,800 silos simultaneously. According to the square-root rule, a defense against the increased Soviet missile force should require √2×60 = 85 satellites. But if Mr. Carter’s analysis were correct, and the number of American satellites rose in proportion to the number of Soviet missiles, 120 satellites would be needed to counter the doubled threat. It is clear that the Livermore result is much closer to a square-root rule than it is to Mr. Carter’s result.
Mr. Carter says his hypothetical deployment of satellites in bunches or clusters was a pedagogical device. But his device has an unfortunate effect, for when the satellites are bunched we lose the square-root rule; and when they are unbundled, we get it back again.
Mr. Carter also says I misunderstood his calculations on the number of intercepting missiles needed for our terminal defense. I think I understand them all too well. Mr. Carter estimates our need for thousands of intercepting missiles on the assumption that the Soviets might throw their entire force against one defended site. This leads to a requirement of 280,000 intercepting missiles. That is an implausible number based on an implausible assumption.
In the matter of the lead shield against a neutral particle beam, Mr. Carter suggests that he has been misquoted. Here are his statements. On page 30, his report states that such shielding could be an “attractive countermeasure” for the Soviets. On page 50, the report states: “But if the third stage, say of the MX, were covered with a few grams per square centimeter of lead [about a tenth of an inch], the shielding would weigh as much as several RV’s [i.e., warheads]. On the other hand, if the neutral particle beam is only designed to disrupt or damage sensitive electronics . . . only the sensitive components need be shielded. The weight penalty then becomes small.” It seems to me that my article gives a fair account of the meaning of these remarks.
Finally, Mr. Carter says a panel of experts found no substance to criticisms of his report which had been directed against it by Los Alamos and other groups. Most important among these is a 57-page technical memorandum issued by the Los Alamos Laboratory that contained many detailed criticisms of Mr. Carter’s work, some of them devastating. According to Mr. Carter, the panel refuted these criticisms. But the panel that endorsed Mr. Carter’s report offered no technical arguments whatsoever to counter the carefully reasoned criticisms offered by the Los Alamos scientists. The Los Alamos critique was a serious study, bearing on a matter vitally important to the security of the United States, and its criticisms had to be either rebutted or accepted. The distinguished panel of three experts cited by Mr. Carter did neither. As C. Paul Robinson, Principal Associate Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory pointed out, their benediction, unaccompanied by a technical backup, was without value. Mr. Robinson went on to note that “Los Alamos’s concerns have since been debated in other technical forums, where they have been sustained.”
In response to A.L. Drumwright, the decoy balloons are tapped rapidly, one after the other, with moderate-energy laser beams, and tracked repeatedly throughout this process to observe their recoil. Computers on our satellites keep track of the separate warheads and decoys and remember the information acquired about each one. As Mr. Drumwright suggests, a little more laser energy could destroy the lightweight decoys, instead of just identifying them. That would mean a different kind of midcourse defense, in which we hit all the warheads and decoys with moderately energetic laser beams, and observe what survives. The surviving objects must be the warheads, and we would go after these with our heavy guns.
Larry Clifford asks about my objections to the Soviets shining up their missiles. This proposal generates even more problems for them than I mentioned in my article. For one, as the booster accelerates it compresses and heats the air above it, and the plume of hot air sweeps downward around the side of the missile, oxidizing the surface and taking its shine away. Furthermore, the shine itself is obtained by applying a thin coat of reflective material to the missile, but under the high heat resulting from the the laser attack and from atmospheric friction, the coating tends to disintegrate. Finally, the coating has a different coefficient of expansion from the metal skin underneath, and tends to buckle when the missile is heated by the laser beam, leading to its catastrophic failure.
Thomas J. Rath makes the very interesting point that if the Soviets attempt to destroy the satellites in our space-based defense at the outset, before launching their missiles, they must necessarily give us warning of their attack. For this reason alone, our defenses will make it difficult for them to achieve the element of complete surprise that is essential to the success of a Soviet first strike.
Edward F. Hennessey asks about the possibility of a strippable outer coating that would keep the missile surface clean and shiny during launch. The trouble with this suggestion is that the strippable coating, which is to be wrapped around the entire missile, must be quite thin, or it will weigh too much and force the Soviets to eliminate several warheads from the payload. It must be sturdy, or air resistance will strip it away. And it must be heat-resistant, because the missile gets quite hot as it rises rapidly through the atmosphere. These requirements are partly contradictory, and reconciling them will not be easy. A substantial amount of development and testing would be necessary to make certain that such a device works well and does not interfere with reliable missile performance. And all this is for a very uncertain gain to the Soviets, because, as noted in my article, when the coating is stripped away and the shiny surface underneath is exposed to attack by our laser beam, the heat of the laser beam will degrade the shine rapidly.
Allen Finegold and David R. Perles suggest the “Star Wars” defense, even if effective against land-based missiles, will be vulnerable to submarine-launched missiles and cruise missiles. This is not the case. When our boost-phase defense system of approximately 100 satellites is in place, a dozen or so satellites will be over the missile fields of the Soviet Union at any one time, defending us against an ICBM attack. But most of the remaining satellites will be over the oceans and in a position to defend us against missiles launched from submarines. Moreover, for several reasons—slower speed, staggered launches, and dispersed launch sites—the interception of submarine-launched missiles is considerably easier than the interception of land-based missiles.
As for defense against cruise missiles, that is a different problem from defense against ballistic missiles, but not a harder one. In fact, it appears to be considerably easier, because we have many minutes or even hours in which to find, track, lock our beams onto, and destroy the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles. Lasers in space, contrary to some views that have been expressed, are effective against cruise missiles and bombers because their beams, being light rays, reach to the ground. Clouds offer a temporary screen, but a cover of clouds is not likely to exist all the way to the target. And bombers fly above the clouds, at stratospheric heights, on their way to their targets, and are vulnerable to space lasers for hours.
Marvin King correctly rebuts the charge by some critics of the “Star Wars” research program that it is a violation of the ABM treaty. The language of the treaty states that “Each party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components,” but research on missile defense is not prohibited.
Joseph Forbes’s comments on the usefulness of the X-ray laser are taken from a section of the UCS report which Lowell Wood has shown to be in error. For example, the UCS proposes to have the X-ray laser pop up from submarines located in the Arabian Sea. This relatively distant launch site, about 2,000 miles from the closest Soviet missile fields, would introduce a substantial delay of some minutes in the availability of the X-ray laser for combat—that interval being the time required for the X-ray laser device to climb to an altitude at which the Soviet missile fields are in its line of sight. But, as Mr. Wood pointed out, the eastern Mediterranean and the Sea of Japan are much closer to the Soviet missile fields, and just as accessible to our submarines politically. A launch from these waters largely eliminates the problem cited by the UCS.
Mr. Forbes also says that satellites are necessarily more vulnerable to attack than missiles. This is often stated, but is quite untrue. A satellite, being weightless in orbit, can be defended by heavy armor, guns, and maneuvering rockets. On the other hand, a missile, which must propel itself upward against the backward pull of gravity, cannot afford any substantial amount of armor or shielding, or it loses much of its payload. Today’s military satellites are quite vulnerable because no one has been shooting at them, and we have not bothered to go to the expense of protecting them, but tomorrow’s satellites will be another story. A substantial part of the Defense Department budget is going into research on the hardening of our military satellites.
As for the computations needed in the “Star Wars” defense, as many as several billion operations per second may be necessary, but parallel computer architectures should make this possible. Computing speed is not expected to be a major problem for our defense. The preparation of the complex programs needed is another matter. This is one of the pacing items in the “Star Wars” program, and is receiving a great deal of attention in early planning.
1 The Martin-Marietta Corporation studied fast-burn boosters for the Fletcher panel, and concluded that they would impose a payload-loss of at most 20 percent, a consensus confirmed in writing by the Deputy Chairman of the panel. Claims to the contrary stem from an abandoned Pentagon attempt to discredit Ashton Carter's Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report on SDI. This misinformation is still being spread (e.g., Wall Street Journal editorial, December 10, 1984).
2 National Journal, July 7, 1984, p. 1316.
3 The diversion of SDI to silo defense is the only rationale that makes technical (though not necessarily strategic) sense. Hard targets, especially expendable silos, could be defended. However, we agree with the administration's Scowcroft commission that such defenses are not needed at this time. In any case, space-based weapons are not suited to this purpose.
4 Indeed, the growth in the offense is bound to exceed any attrition that the defense is likely to attain. The U.S. nuclear threat against Moscow multiplied as soon as we learned that the city was being surrounded by ABM batteries.
5 The Soviets' BMD program seems to be quite similar in character to what ours was before the “Star Wars” speech. We know of no evidence that they are moving toward a comprehensive strategic defense of Soviet society. As the Fletcher panel emphasizes, the most daunting BMD problems are computer-intensive, an area in which the Soviets are exceptionally weak. Indeed, they lag in almost all technologies critical to space-based BMD, so they would be ill-advised to start a contest in this arena.
6 Mr. Jastrow claims that a neutral-particle-beam weapon would only weigh 25 tons. That agrees with our estimate of the weight of the accelerator alone, but ignores the far heavier beam expansion and targeting magnets (see The Fallacy of Star Wars, p. 97).
7 G.H. Canavan, Simple Estimates of Satellite Constellation Sizing, Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 6, 1984. A detailed solution of the satellite-coverage problem has now been found (Richard L. Garwin, to be published) which shows that the “square-root law” of the Los Alamos paper, to which Mr. Jastrow ascribes such importance, is incorrect under all but highly artificial circumstances.
8 S.D. Drell, P.J. Farley, and D. Holloway, The Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative: A Technical, Political, and Arms Control Assessment, Stanford University, July 1984.
9 This comes from the projected cost of the Midgetman missile, though not in its mobile form, and includes the cost of the extra warheads, the silo, and ten years of maintenance.
10 C.T. Cunningham, Report No. DDV-84-0007, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, August 30, 1984.
11 This is arrived at from Cunningham's number of 120 lasers for 1,400 co-located boosters with an engagement time of 150 seconds. Our 3,000 fast-burn boosters give an engagement time of 40 seconds, which then gives 120 (3000/1400) (150/40) = 964 laser satellites. (All agree that the number of lasers is proportional to the number of co-located boosters, not to their square-root.) Cunningham assumed a booster hardness that is 50 percent of the Fletcher panel's baseline figure. Were the latter used, the laser constellation would cost $1.9 trillion. This illustrates the sensitivity to assumed parameters.
12 Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for FY85, The Strategic Defense Initiative, Senate Committee on Armed Services, 98th Congress, Second Session, April 24, 1984.
13 He did, however, read the phrase at issue, “saving a great deal of weight.” Unfortunately the stenotypist missed precisely one line of written text, and the last word, as restored in the record, was misprinted as “height.”
14 See Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, Scientific American, March 1968.
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A monstrous regime's rational statecraft
ne of the more improbable geostrategic surprises of recent years has been the revival of the North Korean economy under the direction of Kim Jong Un. Just to be clear, that economy remains pitiably decrepit, horribly distorted, and desperately dependent on outside support. Recent estimates suggest that its annual merchandise exports do not reach even 1 percent of the level generated by its nemesis, South Korea. Even so, the economic comeback on Kim Jong Un’s watch has been sufficiently strong to permit a dramatic ramp-up in the tempo of his nation’s race to amass a credible nuclear arsenal and develop functional intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. That is, of course, the express and stated objective of the program. Pyongyang today appears to be perilously close to achieving its aim—much closer now, indeed, than complacent Western intelligence assessments had presumed would be possible by this juncture. But then, North Korea is full of surprises for foreign observers.
The difficulty with analyzing the country’s weaknesses and strengths comes from the fact that the North Korean system—which is made up of the Kim dynasty, the North Korean state, and the economy constructed to maintain them both—is unlike any other on earth. By now, its brand of totalitarianism (“our own style of Socialism,” as Pyongyang calls it) is sufficiently distinctive that children of the Soviet or Maoist tradition also commonly find themselves at a loss to apprehend its logic and rhythms.
North Korea is no longer even a Communist state, if that term is to have any meaning. The once-prominent statues of Marx and Lenin in Kim Il Sung Square were removed some years ago. Mention of Marxism-Leninism has reportedly been excised from the updated but still currently unpublished Charter of the Korean Workers’ Party. The 2016 version of its constitution excises all references to Communism, extolling instead only the goal of “socialism”—and its two “geniuses of ideology and theory,” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father of the current dictator). Small wonder that the world routinely misjudges—and very often, underestimates—the North Korean state and its capabilities.1
Despite its suffocating ideology, for example, North Korea is capable of highly pragmatic adaptation and economic innovation. Notwithstanding its proclaimed “self-reliance” and its seeming isolation, it is constantly finding new sources of foreign cash through ingenious and often remarkably entrepreneurial schemes overseas. And despite all the international sanctions, Kim Jong Un really has overseen a North Korean economic upswing of sorts since assuming power in 2011, the signal fact that best helps explain the acceleration in Pyongyang’s push for a credible nuclear and ballistic arsenal. Thanks to these and other apparent paradoxes, an economy seemingly always on the knife edge of disaster somehow manages to stay on course, methodically amassing the military might for what it promises will be an eventual nuclear face-off with the world’s sole superpower.
Though the hour is late, given all the progress that North Korea has been permitted over the past generation, it nevertheless looks as if there may still be time left to prevent Pyongyang from completing and perfecting its nuke and missile projects through “non-kinetic means”—that is to say, through international economic pressure as opposed to military action. For such an approach to work, however, we will need an informed and robust strategy—not the feckless, episodic, and intellectually shoddy interventions we have mainly witnessed up to now.
Indispensable to such a strategy must be an understanding of the North Korean economy—the instrument that makes the North Korean threat possible. In particular, we need to understand 1) how that economy functions, and to what ends; 2) how the “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un brought to it a limited but critical measure of economic revival; and 3) how America and others might use the considerable financial and commercial options at their disposal to impair the North Korean regime’s designs, before Pyongyang wins what is now a race against time.
Despite the information blackout that North Korean leadership has striven to enforce for generations, we already know much more about all these things today than the Kim family regime could possibly want—more than enough to begin purposely defanging the North Korean menace.
One: The Economy of Command
Given its longstanding reputation as a basket case, it may startle readers to learn that there was actually a time when North Korea was regarded as a dynamic and rapidly advancing economy. Back in 1965, the eminent British economist Joan Robinson wrote that North Korea’s achievements put “all the economic miracles of postwar development…in the shade.”2
In those days, if Western intellectuals happened to talk about the “Korean miracle,” they weren’t discussing anything going on in the South. And it wasn’t just dreamy academics and well-hosted foreign visitors who seemed to hold North Korea’s economic prospects in high esteem. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Japan witnessed an exodus of ethnic Korean residents—in all, roughly 80,000 people—who packed up and steamed off under their own free will to the North, voting with their feet to join the Korean state they deemed to offer the greater promise.
Despite the devastation North Korea suffered during the war it launched against the South in 1950, and despite the blazing economic takeoff in South Korea that commenced in the early 1960s under the Park Chung-Hee junta, North Korea may have been ahead of South Korea in per capita output for two full decades after the 1953 armistice. A CIA study in the late 1970s, for example, concluded that South Korea did not catch up with North Korea until 1975.3 Contemporaries at South Korea’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) concurred that the North was well ahead of the South on a per capita basis throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though they argued that the South caught up with the North a few years earlier than the CIA believed.
In retrospect, the wonder is that North Korea’s economy worked as well as it did for as long as it did. For from its 1948 founding onward, North Korea was not just another Cold War Soviet-type economy: It was a Stalin-style war economy on steroids.
As fate had it, the Japanese colonial overlords who controlled Korea from 1910 until 1945 constructed a heavy industrial base in its northern half—a forward supply zone to support their own greater Asian war efforts. Unlike the South, the North had major deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, along with plenty of natural hydropower. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung—the onetime guerrilla fighter and later Red Army officer who started North Korea’s Kim family dynasty—inherited this infrastructure when he took over the northern part of the divided peninsula in 1945 and used it as a base camp from which he directed an upward climb toward the summit to which he aspired: an economy set on permanent total-war footing.
Kim Il Sung came perilously close to consummating his vision. By the mid-1970s, the Great Leader would observe that “of all the Socialist countries, ours bears the heaviest military burden.”4 Even by comparison with places like the Soviet Union and East Germany, his North Korea was a garrison state. By the late 1980s, this country of barely 20 million was fielding an army of more than 1.2 million—a ratio comparable to America’s in the middle of World War II. Those military-manpower estimates, by the way, are derived not from U.S. or South Korean intelligence, but rather from unpublished population figures Pyongyang transmitted to the UN in 1989 (data that inadvertently revealed the size of the country’s non-civilian male population).5
Today, two Kims later, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that North Korea currently maintains the world’s fourth-largest standing army in terms of sheer manpower—ahead of Russia and behind only the globe’s demographic giants (China, India, the United States). For more than half a century—since 1962, the year Kim Il Sung decreed the “all-fortress-ization” of the nation—North Korea has been the most exceptionally and unwaveringly militarized country on the face of the planet.
But why? What possessed North Korean leadership to commit their country, decade after decade, to such an extraordinarily expensive and irrational economic posture? There was a method to this seeming madness. Kim Il Sung’s grand design for unending super-mobilization served many logical purposes, given the first premises of his North Korean state.
Enforcing permanent war-economy discipline comported nicely with perfecting the domestic totalitarian order the Great Leader desired. Further, given the unhappy realities of geography and 20th-century Korean history, having the might to stand up to any and all foreign powers—including his nominal Communist allies in Moscow and Beijing—may also have seemed an imperative. But above all else, North Korea’s immense military economy reflected Kim’s overarching obsession with unifying the divided Korea, and doing so unconditionally—that is to say, to finishing up that Korean War he had started in 1950, and finishing it up on his own terms this time.
In the eyes of North Korea’s rulers, the South Korean state was (and still is) a corrupt, illegitimate, and inherently unstable monstrosity, surviving only because of the American bayonets propping it up. The Great Leader wanted to be able (when the right opening presented itself) to strike a knockout punch against the regime in Seoul and wipe it off the face of the earth—“independent reunification,” in North Korean code language. This he could not do without overwhelming military force—and without an economic system straining constantly to provide that muscle.
As early as 1970, the Great Leader was warning that “the increase in our national defense capability has been obtained at a very great price.”6 And by the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s “economic miracle” was all but dead in the water. Decades of crushing military burden and systemic suppression of consumer demand had taken their predictable toll. And North Korean planners had compounded these difficulties with additional unforced errors of their own.
Their idiosyncratic application of the Great Leader’s Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology, for example, included a general injunction against importing new foreign machinery and equipment. This ensured that the country would have to maintain a high-cost, low-productivity industrial infrastructure. Juche also apparently meant never having to pay your foreign debts, whether to fraternal socialist states or to “imperialist” creditors in Western countries foolish enough to lend money to Pyongyang. By the 1980s, global financial markets had caught on to the game, and North Korea found itself almost completely cut off from international capital. And the longstanding “statistical blackout” North Korean leadership enforced to facilitate international strategic deception also inadvertently impaired economic performance by blinding domestic decisionmakers and requiring them to “plan without facts.”
But it was the ending of the Cold War that pushed the North Korean economy out of stagnation, and into disaster. Juche ideology notwithstanding, North Korea had never been self-reliant; sustaining its severely deformed economy required constant inflows of concessionary resources from abroad. Pyongyang was (and remains) consummately imaginative in devising schemes for extracting aid and tribute from overseas. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kim Il Sung procured the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars in support from Beijing, Moscow, and the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact satellites, expertly playing the Kremlin off against China, gaming aid out of each while aligning with neither.
In 1984, Kim Il Sung made a fateful error: He leaned decisively toward Moscow, a tilt signaled by his unprecedented six-week state visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe that same year. The gamble paid off initially: Between 1985 and 1989, the Kremlin transferred around $7 billion to Pyongyang, twice as much as the amount transferred over the entire previous 25 years, much of it in military matériel. In 1988, North Korea relied on the Soviet bloc not only for almost all its net concessionary foreign-resources transfers, but also for roughly two-thirds of its international trade, most of it arranged on political, highly subsidized, terms.
Then the came the Soviet bloc’s collapse. By 1992—the year after the collapse of the USSR—both trade and aid from the erstwhile Soviet bloc had plummeted by nearly 90 percent. North Korea’s worldwide overall supplies of merchandise from all foreign sources consequently plunged by more than half over those same years.
These sudden devastating shocks sent North Korea’s economy into a catastrophic free fall from which it would not manage to recover for decades. The socialist planning system essentially collapsed. Famine was just around the corner.
Two: A Man-Made Horror and Its Surprising Aftermath
The North Korean famine of the 1990s was a catastrophe of historic proportions. No one outside North Korea’s leadership knows just how many people died in that completely avoidable man-made tragedy, but the toll was certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could possibly have exceeded a million.7 It arguably qualifies as the single worst economic failure of the 20th century. It was the only time in history that people have starved en masse in an urbanized, literate society during peacetime.
It is noteworthy that the famine—usually dated from 1995 to 1998—did not commence until after the death of the Great Leader and the ascension of his son and heir, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. This was no coincidence. Economic failure was the Dear Leader’s stock-in-trade. His political rise almost perfectly corresponds to the decline and fall of the North Korean economy. It happens that the Dear Leader did succeed in what was arguably his primary political objective: to die of natural causes, still safely and securely in power. But economic progress worthy of the name would not be possible in North Korea so long as he was its supreme ruler.
Though both father and son were totalitarian tyrants enthused with their hereditary total-war machine, the differences in their economic inclinations and impulses were nonetheless striking. Dogmatic as he was, the Great Leader still possessed a peasant’s sense of practicality. Proof of his pragmatism is the singular fact that North Korea, alone among all Asian Communist states (and including Russia in this roster), avoided famine during its 1955–57 collectivization of agriculture.
On the other hand, the Dear Leader, from his sheltered Red Palace upbringing onward, was every bit the paranoid, secluded ideologue. He not only disapproved of any concessions to economic pragmatism but feared these as positively counterrevolutionary and potentially lethal to his rule. He likewise regarded ordinary commercial interactions with the world economy as “honey-coated poison” for the North Korean system. At home, he wanted total mobilization but without any material incentives; from abroad, he sought a steady inflow of funds unconstrained by any reciprocal obligations. Kim Jong Il’s preferred economic model, in short, was to enforce Stakhanovite fervor at home through propaganda and terror while financing his war-economy state through military extortion abroad. He called this approach “military-first politics.”
Unwilling as he was to address the country’s newly dire economic circumstances with reforms—in his view, there was nothing to reform—Kim Jong Il’s North Korea was trapped in deepening depression for most of the 1990s. We will know how close the place came to total economic collapse—to the sort of breakdown of the national division of labor that Germany and Japan suffered at the very end of World War II—only when the archives in Pyongyang are finally opened. Throughout the 1990s, in any case, heavy industry was largely shut down, with inescapable consequences for conventional military forces. The death spiral for the war-making sector redoubled the importance to the regime of the nuke and missile programs, both as an insurance policy for regime survival and as the last viable military instruments for forcing the South into capitulation in some future unconditional unification.
In retrospect, it is clear that Pyongyang had no intention of desisting from its quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, even as it played Washington and her allies for aid for years by pretending its nuclear program might be negotiable. Yet also in retrospect, the slow tempo of nuke and missile development under Kim Jong Il’s rule has to be considered a surprise. Any serious weapons program requires testing to advance—yet Pyongyang managed just one long-range missile launch in the 1990s and only three during his 17-year reign. The Dear Leader also oversaw two nuclear tests before his death in 2011—but only toward the end of his tenure, in the years 2006 and 2009.
Why this hesitant tempo if nukes and missiles were a central priority for the North Korean war economy? Although other possible explanations come to mind, the obvious one has to do with financial and economic constraints. Ironically, despite his vaunted “military-first politics,” North Korea’s nuke and missile programs may also have been inadvertent casualties of Kim Jong Il’s gift for stupendous economic mismanagement. (True, North Korea could undertake expensive nuclear projects internationally, such as the undeclared plutonium reactor in Syria that was nearing completion when the Israelis leveled it in 2007—but that was apparently a cash-and-carry operation, bankrolled by the Dear Leader’s friendly customers in Iran.)
There is considerable evidence that the North Korean economy hit bottom around 1997 or 1998. That bottom was very low indeed: Rough estimates suggest that, by 1998, North Korea’s real per capita commercial merchandise exports were barely a third their level of just a decade earlier, while real per capita imports, including supplies indispensable to the performance of key sectors of the domestic economy, were down by about 75 percent.
North Korea appears to have turned the economic corner not on the strength of new or better domestic economic policies, but rather on breakthroughs in international aid procurement. Pyongyang figured out how to work the West’s international food-aid system: Between 1997 and 2005, the year before its first nuclear test, it was bringing in an average of over a million tons of free foreign cereal each year, ending the food crisis. It is tempting to regard this as “military-first politics” in action, for military menace played an important role in the international community’s solicitude. It is impossible to imagine a helpless and stricken sub-Saharan population obtaining “temporary emergency humanitarian aid” on such a scale, for such an extended duration and with so very few conditions attached.
Central to this upswing in food aid and other freebies from abroad was the fact that North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers. To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts—thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).
In the event, the “sunshine”-aid influx that may have rescued North Korea at its darkest moment would wane after its clandestine uranium-processing project surfaced in 2002—but the nuclear crisis that revelation triggered also made possible the next big round of North Korean international aid-harvesting.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing—alarmed by the possibility that the U.S. might also engage in a similar military confrontation with neighboring North Korea—organized and convened a “six-party talks” diplomatic process, ostensibly for deliberations over North Korean denuclearization, to cool things down. While the subsequent years of talking quite predictably led nowhere, North Korea’s price of attendance was apparently a steep increase in economic support from China. Between 2002 and 2008, China’s annual net balance of shipments of goods to North Korea—its exports to Pyongyang minus corresponding imports—more than quintupled, rocketing upward from less than $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. By then, North Korea had become just as economically dependent on Chinese largesse as Pyongyang had been on Soviet-bloc blandishments two decades earlier—but these inflows, and the politically subsidized trade they came with, were evidently sufficient to help at least partially revive the Dear Leader’s broken economy. From Chinese trade statistics, for example, we can infer that Chinese investments were instrumental in a resuscitation of North Korea’s mining and metallurgy sectors in the last years of Kim Jong Il’s life. (We must rely on inference here since Beijing to this day remains almost totally opaque about its economic relation with Pyongyang.)
All in all, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea took in more than $1 billion from its enemies in Washington, and nearly $4 billion from the “puppet regime” in Seoul (not including the South’s additional expenditures on “off-the-books” transfers and special economic or tourist zones in the North). And from China, North Korea scored more than $12 billion of net merchandise inflows under the Dear Leader—a sum that would look even greater if valued in today’s dollars. All the while, North Korea was also earning invisible revenues from a whole network of highly enterprising if generally illicit overseas endeavors: its “nuke-and-missile homework club” with Iran; à la carte weapons sales and military services provided to a host of dictatorships and terror groups; counterfeiting of U.S. currency; drug racketeering; insurance frauds perpetrated against firms in London’s City; and more. The Dear Leader was extensively involved in the world economy, after all—just in a Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Villains sort of way.
Thanks to highly skilled aid-wheedling, international shakedowns, and financial gangsterism, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea clawed its way back from famine to a low but acceptable new economic normal—all the while forswearing domestic economic reforms or genuinely commercial contacts with the outside world. North Korea did not completely avoid potentially fraught economic changes under Kim Jong Il, of course—that was beyond the powers even of the Dear Leader. Domestic cellphone use began during the Dear Leader’s reign, for example, as did a tentative marketization of private consumption (about which more in a moment). But these and other analogous economic changes during the Kim Jong Il era are best understood as “transition without reform,” to borrow an apt term from North Korea watcher Justin Hastings.8
The economy’s “new normal” in the Dear Leader’s final days was still at a miserable level. Although North Korean scientists could launch long-range missiles and test atomic weapons, and although North Korea’s population had reportedly achieved a fairly high level of educational attainment (higher than China’s, if North Korean figures are believed), the country’s international economic profile was Fourth World. According to the World Trade Organization, North Korea’s per capita merchandise trade levels in 2010 approximated Mali’s. Its share of world merchandise trade that same year was roughly the same as that of Zimbabwe, a country with half of North Korea’s population—and despite its measure of recovery after 1998, North Korea’s global trade share fell by more than two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, even more than Zimbabwe’s under Mugabe’s misrule in that same period.
The world is a moving target and, generally, an improving one—so national stagnation also means continuing relative decline. Although the Dear Leader bequeathed his son Kim Jong Un a system that had avoided total collapse, there was little else that could be said to commend his economic legacy.
Three: The Economic Upturn
Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un faced formidable odds when he took over in late 2011. The twentysomething was a novice manager at the time of his father’s demise. Unlike the Great Leader, who had groomed his son to rule from an early age, Kim Jong Il himself put off the whole business of naming a successor for as long as he possibly could, designating the child of one of his mistresses as the next Supreme Leader only after an incapacitating stroke made the naming of an heir an unavoidable matter of state.
As Kim Jong Un took office, the planned economy was no longer functioning, and to make matters worse, North Korea’s limited market sector was beset by galloping and seemingly unstoppable inflation. His father had experimented with a limited monetization of North Korea’s tiny consumer sector in 2002 but botched it—and only made matters worse with a surprise 2009 “currency reform” that effectively confiscated private holdings above $100, drastically degrading the already low credibility of the won.
From this unpromising beginning, Kim Jong Un has proved a relative success in delivering economic results in North Korea. There is evidence that the North Korean economy has enjoyed some measure of growth, macroeconomic stabilization, and even development under his aegis.
Pyongyang, “the shrine of Juche,” may be a Potemkin showpiece—but is showpiece-ier today than in the past. Construction cranes are whirring, and whole new sections of the city have risen up. Traffic jams now sometimes clog “Pyonghattan’s” vast, previously empty boulevards. Expensive restaurants and shops purveying luxury goods increasingly dot the capital, and their customers are mainly locals, not foreigners. The upsurge in prosperity and living standards evident in Pyongyang is reportedly reflected, albeit to a more modest degree, in other urban centers as well.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to previous North Korean trends, or other earlier Soviet-type economies, the country today not only displays considerable marketization but also market stability. This much is demonstrated by cereal prices and foreign-exchange rates in informal markets across North Korea. Over the decade between mid-2002 and mid-2012, North Korea’s won depreciated against the U.S. dollar in such markets by a factor of more than 5,000 (no, that is not a typo). But that depreciation abruptly stopped a little over five years ago, and since then the won has traded around 8,000 to the dollar (fluctuating within a band around that average). In other words, North Korea now has a stable currency that is convertible into hard currencies. Likewise, the domestic price of rice in North Korean markets suddenly stopped soaring five years ago and has been in the vicinity of 5,000 won per kilogram ever since. Whatever else one may say of these new domestic price signals from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, they are not what one would expect to see from an economy in mounting crisis and disarray.
Finally and by no means least important: In the military realm, nuke and missile testing has accelerated. In the 13 years between Kim Jong Il’s first Taepo Dong test and his death, North Korea launched three long-range rockets and detonated two atomic devices. Kim Jong Un has been in power just over six years; his regime has already set off four nuclear tests and shot off more than a dozen long-range missiles. Some of the speed-up could reflect long-term strategic choices and might in part be affected by improvements in efficiency (cost reduction) within the WMD industrial sector. All other things being equal, though, this sharp acceleration would seem to betoken a major new infusion of resources into programs already long accorded a top priority by the North Korean state. Without a bigger economic pie and substantially greater funding sources, it is hard to see how Pyongyang could have pulled this off.
All this said, North Korea is still shockingly unproductive, still punching far below its weight, still nowhere near self-sustaining growth. Kim Jong Un’s boundless self-indulgence is manifest in costly vanity projects like a spanking-new “ski lift to nowhere” resort, Masikryong, a venture otherwise inexplicable save perhaps for the memories of childhood days in Switzerland that it might elicit.
But by distancing himself from his father’s most economically destructive policies and practices, and navigating into previously uncharted waters of economic pragmatism, Kim Jong Un has opened up heretofore ungraspable opportunities for raising living standards and building military power at one and the same time. Thus the name of his signature policy: byungjin, or “simultaneous pursuit.”
In short order after his ascension, Kim Jong Un demoted—or killed—most of the Dear Leader’s closest cadres and confidants. And less than five months after assuming power—at a ceremony commemorating his grandfather’s 100th birthday in April 2012—he made an astounding declaration, coming as it did from North Korea’s supreme ruler: “It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people…not tighten their belts again.” Translation: This is no longer your father’s dictatorship; aspiration for personal betterment is no longer a counterrevolutionary act of treason.
Dear Respected has deliberately and steadily reshaped the economy under his command. The fundamental strategic difference between Kim 2 and Kim 3 was this: Whereas the Dear Leader saw “reform” and “opening” as deadly “ideological and cultural poison” pure and simple, Dear Respected believes that North Korea could withstand a bit of that poison—actually, quite a bit—and even end up stronger for taking it.
Pyongyang’s new policy directives have been informed by this insight. In agriculture, Kim Jong Un promulgated the “June 28 Instructions” (2012), which permitted family-level work units and allowed farmers to keep 30 percent of their surplus—a bonanza compared with all previous official rules. For enterprises and industry, there were the “May 30 Measures” (2014), which allowed managers to hire and fire workers, pay them according to their productivity, and keep a portion of any profits they earned. People were, increasingly, paid with money for their work—and it was real money, as in, money that could buy things people wanted. The gradual marketization and monetization of North Korea’s civilian economy over the past two decades is a major transformation, and one critical to understanding the country today.9
By the late 1980s, North Korean leadership had fashioned a consumer sector that would have turned Stalin green with envy. No country on the planet had so tiny a share of total national output flowing to personal consumption as late Cold War North Korea—and no country had so low a fraction of its personal consumption accruing to citizens on the basis of their own market choices. By the late 1980s, North Korean planners had come closer to completely demonetizing their economy than any modern polity this side of the Khmer Rouge. Most goods, services, and supplies that North Korean families consumed were provisioned to them directly by the state, with no “interference” by actual consumer preferences. North Korean planners wished to cede as little control over their command economy as humanly possible.
Pyongyang’s near-total control of the consumption basket, however, presupposed that the state would be supplying its subjects with their daily necessities in the first place. That collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Public Distribution System simply stopped providing the full promised daily food rations to most of the population—and stopped supplying any food at all to some of the population. A terrible number of those who trusted the government to take care of them ended up perishing. To survive the famine, North Koreans had to learn to buy and sell in informal markets that began to spring up—even though such activity was against the law, and some “economic crimes” were punishable by death. The Kim Jong Il government loathed these new private markets, but it needed them to forestall wholesale calamity. Thus commenced the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dialectic of marketization that lasted the rest of the Dear Leader’s life—and after his death, marketization and monetization of the civilian economy gained further steam.
Today it is all but impossible to get by in North Korea on state-supplied provisions alone—and a wide array of goods and services, both foreign and domestic, are available for money in North Korean markets. Although formally prohibited, even real estate is for sale throughout the country, with a vibrant market for private flats in Pyongyang. And a wealthy marketeering caste has arisen: donju, or “money masters,” stereotypically a well-connected official and his enterprising wife, who use political influence as well as entrepreneurial savvy to enter this nouveau riche North Korean elite.
In case you were wondering: Yes, corruption is rife in North Korean markets. It is the necessary lubricant for all North Korean private commerce. In addition, the government expects a big cut, and such funds have been integral to the recovery of the North Korean state.
The marketization and monetization of its consumer economy, in conjunction with new agricultural and commercial incentives and a more tolerant official attitude toward informal activity, laid the groundwork for a domestic-production upswing in North Korea (and a veritable boom in private consumption, although from a very low starting point).
Unlike Asia’s “reform socialism” states, China and Vietnam, North Korea has never made a serious effort to attract private investment from abroad from real live capitalists. Pyongyang prefers large-scale foreign projects that are political in nature. Such projects are bankrolled by governments indifferent to profit, which is to say by the foreign taxpayers who can ultimately be left holding the bag. Examples include the ill-fated Kaesong Industrial Complex paid for by South Korea, as well as its doomed Kumgang Tourist Resort. For international trade and finance, the overwhelming bulk of North Korean activity still falls into two categories: 1) politically predetermined, highly subsidized economic relationships, or 2) what we might call “guerilla warfare” or “outlaw” finance.
Four: North Korea’s Friends
Preferential trade ties with China are pretty much the only game in town for Pyongyang these days. With the virtual shutdown of South Korea’s politically subsidized inter-Korean trade in 2016 following accusations that money from the Kaesong project was being used to fund the North’s missile program, China may now account for close to 90 percent of North Korea’s international commercial-merchandise trade turnover. And North Korea always receives much more than it gives in its arrangement with China, year after year.
There is, to be sure, an element of harsh capitalist bargaining within this overall relationship—but most of that is in the “people to people” bartering and petty trading at the border, largely for consumer goods. At the national level, judging by Chinese customs statistics, North Korea raked in well over a billion dollars a year in net merchandise shipments from China from 2008 through 2014—with no transparency on Beijing’s part about the mechanisms by which this ongoing transfer is financed, much less about the Chinese government’s objectives and intentions in extending this lavish lifeline.
Since 2015, official Chinese numbers suggest that Beijing’s de facto aid is down—but these look like figures deliberately fudged in the face of mounting international demands for sanctions against North Korea. It is at the very least possible that important aspects of Chinese support for the North Korean economy or its defense industries have not yet come to light. Given what is already known, though, it is indisputable that deals with China under the two latest Kims have been key to reviving North Korea’s heavy industrial sector. (For the year 2016, China reported shipping over three-quarters of a billion dollars of machinery and transport equipment to North Korea, 10 times the volume in 2003, when the six-party talks commenced.)
Vital as Chinese support may be to North Korea’s survival and economic revival, North Korea evidences no gratitude for Beijing’s largesse. Pyongyang does not “do” gratitude. Moreover, leadership in Pyongyang knows very well a bitter truth about Chinese aid that they can never utter: namely, that capricious cutbacks in free food from China in the year 1994 were the trigger for the Great North Korean Famine, which became impossible to conceal by 1995.
Apart from its Chinese lifeline, North Korea’s other main sources of international support come from “outlaw” forays into the world economy—including activities tantamount to state-sponsored organized-crime operations. These shady dealings typically attempt to generate revenues for the state that avoid international detection, often relying on the special protections and prerogatives of a sovereign state for cover.
One cannot help but be struck by the industry, ingenuity, and sophistication that have generally kept such schemes one step ahead of international authorities. Koreans in the North can be world-class innovators, too—it’s just that their chosen fields of excellence happen to be in smuggling, drug-running, money-laundering, and the like.
Some of these inventive schemes have been in the news. In recent years, for example, Pyongyang has made unknown millions abroad from what we might call its own style of human trafficking: profiting off the tens of thousands of workers in labor gangs it has sent to China, Russia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. No less inventive has been Pyongyang’s apparent monetization of its growing capacity for cyberwarfare through international bank robbery. In 2016, “unknown” hackers relieved the Central Bank of Bangladesh of $81 million in a spectacular heist; in late 2017, similar cyber-fingerprints were detected in a theft of $60 million from a bank in Taiwan. These are just two of many “hit and runs” orchestrated under the Kim Jong Un crime family. And as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year demonstrated by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers the world over, vastly greater dividends from cybercrime may lie just over the horizon.
Then there is North Korea’s signature global service industry: WMD proliferation. For obvious reasons, most of this work never makes the news. No one outside Kim Jong Un’s court probably knows just how much this nefarious business is bringing in these days. These unobservable flows, however, may be consequential. Consider this: Barely weeks after Tehran inked its September 2012 Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Pyongyang, the won suddenly ended its decade-long freefall and finally achieved exchange-rate stability. North Korea may have had additional, still concealed, operations that were also paying off at the same time as that Iranian deal, of course. But either way, the deal clearly marked a turning point in North Korea’s macroeconomic fortunes, and the stabilization of exchange rates and domestic cereal prices probably could not have occurred without an open spigot of foreign cash.
In sum, the hallmarks of Jong-Un-omics economics would appear to be new revenues from foreign sources, along with the new flows of funds derived from privatization and growth at home. These monies have apparently sufficed not only to stabilize North Korea’s previously toxic currency, and to bring an end to runaway inflation in North Korean key private markets, but also to abet Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. This, at least, would seem to be the most plausible reconstruction of the limited but meaningful evidence from the jigsaw puzzle that is the North Korean economy today.
To repeat: While we should recognize the existence of this economic upswing we should also keep its scale in perspective. All one need do is consider the sad, stunning space photos of North Korea at night—the satellite shots revealing a territory almost pitch-black, while the rest of Northeast Asia is glowing with light. They attest better than any available statistics to the limits of economic recovery under Kim Jong Un.
Among the other implications of that space imagery, the North simply does not have the pocketbook for a wholesale modernization of its conventional army and a nuke-missile program. For now at least, most of the military’s equipment, apart from critical nuclear-related pockets like submarine production, remains outdated and ill-suited for the tasks originally assigned. Today, Kim Jong Un cannot credibly threaten to roll in and occupy South Korea. But Kim Jong Un is on track to manufacture enough nuclear matches to burn the place down, with Tokyo and Washington thrown in for good measure, in the foreseeable future.
Five: How to Put Pressure on Pyongyang
Given what we know about the North Korean economy, can America and the world community keep Pyongyang from reaching its ultimate nuclear objectives through a real economic-pressure campaign?
We do not know just how close North Korea is to perfecting its weaponization of ballistic missiles, or how many nuclear weapons the North currently possesses. We also do not know as much as we need to about North Korea’s strategic inventories and reserves. If Pyongyang were stopped in its tracks today, its nuclear and missile work would require unwavering vigilance and far-reaching containment for the remaining life of the regime. That said, a serious international campaign of trade and financial sanctions—led by America, ruthlessly executed, and starting immediately—could very significantly slow the pace of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear-ballistic march. And if we are in it for the long haul, a serious sanctions campaign could eventually promise the effective suffocation of the entire North Korean military economy.
An international economic campaign of this sort won’t be easy (though America has many more cards in her hand than many now appreciate). It probably won’t be pretty, either. But in any case, it is the world’s last chance to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by nonmilitary means.
Let’s start with the unpleasant truths. We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime—ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured—or bribed—at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID—comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
So much for the bad news. The rest of the news about the outlook for sanctions against North Korea, fortunately, is better than we usually hear.
Many authoritative voices seem to think sanctions have little chance of influencing North Korea’s nuclear trajectory. Economic historians note that the record for coercive economic diplomacy is poor and has been for centuries. Policy wonks and foreign-affairs experts add that successive rounds of UN and international economic sanctions seem to have had no real bite so far against North Korea. These pessimistic assessments, however, misread the prospects for international economic pressure against North Korea on two important counts.
As poor as the general record of coercive economic diplomacy may be, North Korea is not exactly a typical economy. It is an outlier—it’s world-class dysfunctional, recent changes under Dear Respected notwithstanding. The economy is incapable of growth (or for that matter, even stagnation) without steady inflows of financial support from abroad to keep it on its feet. Remember: When net aid from abroad sharply dropped (but did not end) in the 1990s, that was enough to send North Korea spiraling downward into paralysis and mass famine. The North Korean regime in short, is a poster child for a successful international campaign of economic strangulation. Despite Pyongyang’s nonsense about “self-reliance,” it is uniquely vulnerable to the cutoff of foreign money and subvention.
Kim Jong Un has not yet faced anything even remotely resembling an international campaign of “maximum economic pressure.” The continuing stability of North Korea’s foreign exchange rate and domestic food prices pointedly suggest international sanctions have not yet greatly impacted North Korea. But few foreign-policy experts, and even fewer general readers, seem aware of how flimsy were the array of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and U.S. during the George W. Bush and Obama years.
Consider first the successive rounds of UN Security Council sanctions lodged against the regime since its first atomic test in 2006. China and Russia flagrantly and routinely violate the very sanctions their own Security Council representatives voted to impose. Most countries around the world still ignore them, too. In early 2017, the UN’s Panel of Experts on the sanctions reported that 116 of the UN’s 193 members had not yet bothered even to file implementation reports on the then-latest round (UNSC 2270, levied in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear blast). The previous year, the Panel noted that 90 countries had never reported on any of the sanction resolutions against North Korea (eight at that time, the first of them ratified a decade before that report). And filing a report on these sanctions resolutions is not the same thing as enforcing them. Several countries with whom Washington enjoys ostensibly friendly relations have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean activities on their soil for many years (Malaysia, Singapore, and some of the Gulf States being among the more egregious examples).
When it comes to Washington’s own economic measures, furthermore, North Korea is still far from being “sanctioned out,” no matter the received wisdom. In the final year of the Obama administration, according to Anthony Ruggiero of the Defense of Freedom Foundation, fewer entities and individuals from North Korea were under U.S. Treasury Department sanction than those from seven other countries, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. While the Trump administration has been much more serious about sanctioning North Korea, Ruggiero testified that as of late summer 2017, North Korea nonetheless remained less sanctioned than either Syria or Iran. For some mystifying reason, moreover, North Korea was not put back on the State Department’s list of strictured “state sponsors of terrorism” until the end of 2017, after enjoying a nearly decade-long holiday off that roster.
As 2018 commences, three big changes augur well for the prospect of devastating “shock and awe” sanctions against the North Korean system. First: At the end of 2017, the Security Council endorsed a broad new writ and scope for sanctions against North Korea, dispensing with the earlier “marksman” approach of picking off particular military-related firms or individuals and embracing instead the “blockbuster” approach of crippling North Korea’s entire military-industrial complex. The new sanctions, among other things, ban all industrial imports by North Korea, severely cut permitted energy imports, and require UN member governments to “seize, inspect, and freeze” vessels violating some of the new restrictions.
Second: In late 2017, the U.S. Treasury announced new and much more sweeping authority for North Korea sanctions, granting U.S. officials wide discretion to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions.” Henceforth any business or person engaging in any kind of commercial or financial transactions with North Korea could be severely penalized, with punishments including fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, prohibition against any commerce in or with the U.S., and being cut off from the worldwide clearing system for dollar-based financial settlements.
Finally, and by no means unrelated to these other changes, is the third change: the advent of the Trump administration. Under President Trump and his team, there appears to be a qualitative change in America’s North Korea policy—one that accords the North Korean threat a higher priority, and more unblinking attention, than it has been granted by any of Trump’s predecessors. The White House calls this new approach to North Korea a policy of “maximum pressure.”
Six: The American Role
Trump’s address before South Korea’s National Assembly last November on the North Korea problem was the most incisive, and moving, statement on the topic ever delivered by an American president. Whatever else may be said of him, Trump is keenly aware that the North Korean threat he inherited was allowed to fester and worsen under each of the four men in the Oval Office immediately before him. He appears to have no intention of continuing that tradition.
The Achilles’ heel of the North Korean economy—and thus, of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs—is its existential dependence on foreign aid and outside money. The fortress-prison country is an operation that cannot be sustained on its own. To date, North Korea has skillfully extracted wherewithal and extorted financial concessions out of a largely unfriendly world. To jam the gears of the North Korean war machine, the international community must recognize, and finally begin systematically exploiting, Pyongyang’s unique economic weakness. This will require a campaign of economic pressure worthy of the name—and the pieces for such a campaign are already falling into place.
In broad strokes, what would this “maximum economic pressure” campaign look like? It must be Washington-led, since it will not coalesce spontaneously. To carry it out most effectively, diplomacy will be crucial: Alliance coordination and the building and maintenance of motivated coalitions are obvious force multipliers for this exercise. But the U.S. has unique international strengths that allow us to act unilaterally and with great consequence when necessary.
For starters, now that we ourselves have relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, we have a stronger case for pressing governments around the world to shut down the regime’s embassies, trade missions, and other facilities located on their soil. Not necessarily to sever diplomatic ties, much less end all communication, with Pyongyang: just to deprive North Korea of safe havens for their illegal rackets on foreign shores. Given North Korea’s standard operating procedure overseas, affording Pyongyang an embassy in one’s country is like offering diplomatic immunity to the Mafia. The Trump administration has begun some of this advocacy already and has some initial results to show for its troubles. In conjunction with a consortium of like-minded states (including Japan), a full-court press could gain true international momentum. At the very least, this would disrupt some of North Korea’s illegal rackets and reduce the take from them.
Washington can also take the lead in lobbying governments to shut down the North Korean work crews operating within their own countries—these are too close to slave labor for comfort. This need not be quiet diplomacy. The complicit governments in question, including Beijing and Putin’s Kremlin, deserve to be called out publicly if they are intransigent. (The wording of the latest round of Security Council sanctions calls for shutting down such arrangements within 24 months, an amendment Moscow negotiated for—but there is no reason that the U.S. or independent human-rights groups should not try to speed up that timetable.) The U.S. also has options for penalizing trading partners who violate internationally recognized labor standards, which is to say we can affect the cost-benefit calculus for governments that tolerate North Korea’s odious practices in their own backyards.
This brings us to a rather larger diplomatic task: confronting China and Russia about their continuing financial malfeasance on North Korea. The scope and scale of China’s furtive support for North Korea dwarfs Russia’s, of course—but that is no reason to give the Kremlin a pass. These two states have long been playing a double game—one that must come to an end starting now.
Seven: The Russians and the Chinese
Contrary to some hand-wringing in Washington and elsewhere, the U.S. is by no means devoid of options in facing down China and Russia for their economic enablement of the Kim family regime. As already noted, Washington possesses an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing their compliance: the U.S. dollar—the most important reserve currency in the world economic order. America gets to decide who can, and who cannot, engage in the dollar-denominated financial transactions with the myriad of correspondent banks serving the globe, for which the Federal Reserve Bank is the clearing house. Existing legislation and executive orders already provide the U.S. government with a panoply of instruments for inflicting nuanced and escalating economic penalties and losses on financial institutions, corporations, and private individuals who rely upon U.S. correspondent banks but engage in illegal or forbidden commerce with North Korea.
So far, the United States government has used only minor pinpoint-pinprick secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian parties that violate restrictions on dealings with North Korea. Both nations face potentially major economic costs if they do not address and control such violations, should we choose to impose them.
It is no secret, for example, that the Chinese banking system is highly leveraged and that some of China’s largest banks are in what we might call a financially delicate situation. Does Beijing really want to find out whether one of these major concerns can survive a Treasury Department-Justice Department inquiry for North Korea infringements, much less the weight of actual secondary sanctions—or to find out what happens at home and in international financial markets if it looks as if a major Chinese bank might fail on that account?
If the Kremlin and Beijing believe we mean business, they will have reason to suppress illicit deals with North Korea—but convincing them we mean business is our responsibility. Washington has been curiously hesitant here, possibly for fear that Beijing or the Kremlin, or both, would respond by sabotaging any further UN sanctions. But we now have pretty much what we need from UN resolutions for a campaign of “maximum economic pressure” on North Korea—so the time for horse-trading and slow-walking is over. And while we are at it, these governments’ official economic support for North Korea shouldn’t be off the table. Isn’t it time to spotlight and track those flows, too?
As we work to rein in China and Russia, we should not lose sight of the money that North Korea receives through arrangements with other governments—including states in Africa and the Middle East that receive U.S. foreign aid. Yet much of what Washington needs to do in this economic campaign, alas, is currently unknown. This is a failure of our intelligence community that must be immediately addressed if “maximum economic pressure” is to stand a chance of ending up as more than just a slogan.
By the very nature of intelligence activity, spy agencies cannot take credit for many of their successes. But the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t deserve a slap on the back for its performance in this particular area. It should be something of an embarrassment, for example, that some of the best work mapping out the connections between Chinese front companies and the North Korean military these days should apparently come from a small think tank, C4ADS, that relies entirely on open sources. And that is just one small example of intelligence insufficiency. Our government also appears to know much less than it should about the financial relations between Pyongyang and its backers in Tehran, North Korea’s money ties with terrorist groups, and its adventures in crypto-currencies and other harder-to-trace instruments of finance.
Much of what is currently unknown—by our government—about North Korea’s covert international financial networks and overseas holdings is in fact knowable, given better legwork and intelligence. The story of the U.S. government’s interagency Illicit Activities Initiative (2001–6), which methodically mapped out North Korea’s money trails before being derailed by bureaucratic infighting under the George W. Bush administration, provides an “existence proof” that such research can be done. North Korea’s overseas financial networks have had more than a decade since the demise of IAI to evolve and hide their tracks—so a new IAI-style effort would have to play catch-up.
With the information we could gather from a well-funded and coordinated intelligence initiative, we can help shut down North Korea’s worldwide criminal enterprises, arrest their international accomplices, freeze and seize violators’ overseas assets (not just Kim Jong Un’s assets: think Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the rest), and levy potentially devastating fines against commercial and financial concerns that willfully aid North Korea in violating the law. We can also improve the efficacy of existing proliferation-security efforts.
With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy. An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy—and the North Korean military economy—into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.
Eight: Success and Its Failures
If comprehensive sanctions and counter-proliferation against North Korea fail, we enter into a new world with darker and much less pleasant options. But what if, by some measure of success, they turn out to succeed? What then?
In addition to their intended consequences, successful policies always have unintended ones. Three potential consequences of an effective economic-pressure campaign against the North Korean regime deserve special consideration in advance.
The first concerns the role of North Korea’s donju elite in a future where North Korea is increasingly squeezed economically. These “money masters,” who until now have enjoyed waxing wealth and have lived with rising expectations under Kim Jong Un, would stand to suffer very sharp financial loss. What would a serious reversal in the fortunes of this privileged element in North Korean society mean for elite cohesion and for regime dynamics? Even North Korea has domestic politics. Poorly as we may be able to apprise North Korean politics, it would behoove us to try to understand in advance how such a change would alter the realm of the possible within the country—and what new opportunities such internal developments might present.
Second is the all-too-likely possibility that North Korea would careen back into famine under an effective sanctions campaign—and not because Pyongyang would be incapable of purchasing or procuring sufficient food to feed its populace. The reason North Koreans starved last time was the government’s dreadful songbun system, still very much in force today. Songbun is a unique North Korean instrument of social control that carefully subdivides the North Korean populace into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes, lavishing benefits and meting out penalties according to one’s station. Life chances in North Korea—and no less important, death chances—turn on one’s assigned class. Just as it is a safe bet that virtually no one outside the “core classes” has amassed great donju riches, so too death from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the “hostile classes.” Only “intrusive aid” (provided on site by impartial outsiders) and public diplomacy, including calling out Dear Respected on this vile practice, stand to mitigate the toll of the impending humanitarian-cum-hostage crisis should “maximum economic pressure” work.
Finally, there are the countermeasures Pyongyang will surely adopt if the economic-pressure campaign is attaining a measure of success. These will be intended to terrify and to break the will of the sanctioners. North Korean leaders are practiced masters of white-knuckle, bared-fang diplomacy—and they would naturally regard the stakes in this contest as particularly high. No national directorate is so expert in brinkmanship or so consummate at carefully gaming through seeming “outbursts” well in advance.
North Korea will test the stomach and the will of the pressure alliance, threatening what sees as the campaign’s weakest and the most exposed elements and ranks. These probes and tests may be military in nature, with a range of options that could well include threats of nuclear war. Pyongyang will try to make Washington and the international community fear that they are facing a “Japan 1941 moment,” with a cornered Kim family regime: a déjà vu of the drumroll that led to World War II in the Pacific, only this time against a nuclear-armed adversary.
This would be a point of incalculable danger. There are good reasons to think North Korea would not resort to first use of nuclear weapons, most compelling among them, its own state-enshrined doctrine known as “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology.” (The essence of this doctrine: The Hive must keep the Queen safe, and at all cost.) But there is no sugarcoating the terrible risks, including risks of miscalculation, inherent in North Korea’s most likely countertactics.
Any way you look at it, North Korea’s adversaries are in for a long and bumpy ride. The alternative to thwarting North Korea’s war drive now is permitting Pyongyang to prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war in the future, at a time and place of its own choosing, when the situation for America and her allies may be even more perilous.
Like it or not, Pyongyang plays for keeps, and we are in this with them for the long game. The next move is ours.
1 Full disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea’s resilience in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day. Needless to say, subsequent events have proved otherwise, and studying my own mistakes has led to the analysis under way here.
2 Joan Robinson, “Korean Miracle” Monthly Review, January 1965, Vol. 16, No. 8, pp. 541–549.
3 Korea, the economic race between the north and the south: a research paper, ER 78-10008, January 1978, CIA.
4 Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. 31 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987), p.76.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister, The Population of North Korea. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1992).
6 Kim Il Sung, Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), p. 431.
7 On this man-made, and completely unnecessary, tragedy, see Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
8 Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy. (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
9Perhaps the best analysis of this transformation is Kim Byung-Yeon, The North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition. (New York: Cambridge Univer sity Press, 2017)
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s I write, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has become a mere husk of a book, emptied of everything consumable and tasty. And it’s only been out a week! In the hinterlands, the book is selling briskly, but here in Washington, we already find ourselves in the final phase of a mass hysteria, a hangover that we would call the Woodward Detumescence.
Woodward is Bob Woodward, of course. Every few years, for more than 30 years, Woodward has sent Washington reeling with a book-length, insider account of one administration after another, presenting government as high drama, with a glittering cast of villains and heroes.
The sequence of the symptoms seldom varies. First comes the Buildup. We hear premonitory rumblings: Freshly minted Woodward revelations are on the way! His publisher declares an embargo on the book, mostly as a tease. Another reporter writes an unauthorized report guessing at what the revelations might be. Washington can scarcely breathe. At last the first excerpts appear in a three-part serial in Woodward’s home paper, the Washington Post.
We enter the Swoon.
The excerpts tell of betrayals and estrangements, shouting matches and tearful reconciliations, tough decisions and disappointing failures of nerve, all at the highest levels of government. Woodward goes on TV shows to explain his findings. Sources attack him; he stands by his book. The frenzy intensifies, the breathing is labored, until, at last, comes the Spasm, as all the characters from the book refuse to comment on a “work of tabloid fiction.”
Then the newspaper excerpts end, there is a collapsing sigh, a dying fall, and the physical book, the thing itself, appears. The text seems an afterthought, limp as a wind-sock and, by now, even less interesting. If there were more revelations to be found in its pages, after all, we would have read them already. We skulk back to the routines of what passes for normal life in Washington, slightly abashed at our momentary loss of self-control. This is the Woodward Detumescence. Shakespeare foresaw it in a sonnet: “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
The Fire and Fury frenzy omitted some of these steps, prolonged others. It was touched off by an excerpt in New York, appearing a week before the book’s original publication date. Running to roughly 7,000 words, the excerpt was densely packed and so juicy it should have come with napkins. The article’s revelations about White House backbiting and self-loathing are by now universally known, and have been from the moment the excerpt hit the Web. One thing they make plain is that Michael Wolff bears little resemblance to Bob Woodward. Over a long career, our Bob has shown himself to be a tireless and meticulous reporter. He is a creature of Washington, besotted by government; Woodward never found a briefing paper he wouldn’t happily read, as long as it was none of his business.
Wolff, on the other hand, is an incarnation of Manhattan media. He’s a 21st-century J.J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist in the great New York movie Sweet Smell of Success, although, unlike J.J., he has a pleasing prose style and a sense of irony. His curiosity about the workings of government and the shadings of public policy is nonexistent. “Trump,” Wolff writes with typical condescension, “had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare.” Neither does Wolff. Woodward would have given us blow-by-blow accounts of committee markups. Wolff mentions Obamacare only glancingly, even though it was by far the most consequential failure of Trump’s first year.
If you want to learn how Trump constructs that Dreamsicle swirl that rests on the top of his head, or the skinny on Steve Bannon’s sartorial habits, then Wolff is your man. He tries to tell his story chronologically, but he occasionally runs out of things to say and has to vamp until the timeline lets him pop in a new bit of shocking gossip. Early in the book, for example, after he has established that Trump is reviled and mocked by nearly everyone who works for him, Wolff leads us into a tutorial on The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s doorstop on the 1960s White House wise men and whiz kids who thought it would be a great idea to get in a land war in Southeast Asia. He calls Halberstam’s book a “cautionary tale about the 1960s establishment.” Wolff’s chin-pulling goes on for several hundred words. Apparently, Steve Bannon had had the book on his desk.
This is interesting, I guess, and so are the excessive digressions about New York real estate, Manhattan’s media culture, the evolution of grande dames into postfeminist socialites, and many other subjects that are orthogonal to the book’s purpose. If you’ve bought Fire and Fury, chances are, you wanted to learn things you didn’t know about the first year of the Trump administration. The New York excerpt was chockablock with such stuff, told in sharply drawn scenes and vivid, verbatim quotes. But the book dwells much more on general impressions, flecked here and there with scandalous asides. In these longeurs—most of the book—Wolff writes at an odd remove, from the middle distance. The prose loses its immediacy and becomes diffuse.
He’s not so much padding his book as filibustering his readers, perhaps hoping to deflect a reader’s attention from another revelation: He really hasn’t delivered the goods. All of Wolff’s most scandalous material was filleted and packed into the New York excerpt. Listening to discussions among friends and colleagues, I keep hearing the same items, all from the magazine: Staffers think Trump might be (literally) illiterate, Steve Bannon thinks the Mueller investigation puts Trump’s family in legal jeopardy, the president uses vulgar language when talking about women. He is a child, Wolff wants us to know, and the disorder of his government is directly traceable to that alarming fact.
And it is indeed alarming, but nobody who has followed Trump’s Twitter feed or watched his news conferences will think it’s news. Wolff wrote a scintillating 7,000-word magazine article; the problem is that he spread it over a 328-page book. The rumor has gone around (hey, if he can do it, so can I) that before submitting his manuscript, Wolff warned his publisher that it didn’t contain much that was new.
This explains a lot. Wolff clearly was unprepared for the explosion set off by the magazine article. You could see it in his halting explanations of his journalism techniques. When his quotes were questioned, he let it be known that he had “dozens of hours” of tapes. (Other news reports inflated the number to hundreds.) When quotes continued to be questioned, he was asked, by colleagues and interviewers, to release the tapes. He refused. Wolff said his book threatens to bring down the president—on evidence that he alone has and won’t produce.
Spoken like a true journalist! Much has been made of this modern Hunsecker’s techniques. One explanation for the candor of his sources is that Wolff gained their confidence by misleading them about his intentions; they had concluded he was writing a book that would show the administration in a kinder light. “I said what I had to to get the story,” he proudly told one interviewer. Many of his colleagues in the press have shrugged at his willful misdirection—his deception, in fact—as a standard trick of the trade.
They’re probably right. But they demonstrated again the utter detachment of journalists from normal life. Whole professions are generally and rightly maligned—trial lawyers, car salesmen, lobbyists—because ordinary people see that prevarication is built into their work. When it comes to the people who write the books they read, they have a right to ask how far the deception goes. If a writer will mislead his sources, how can we be sure he won’t he do the same to his readers?
“My evidence is the book,” Wolff responds. I’m not sure what he means. In any case, as the Detumescence recedes, it becomes clearer that his evidence is thin. The book isn’t particularly good journalism, but it’s a triumph of marketing. Our Trump hatred has been targeted with such precision that we’ll lower any standard to embrace Fire and Fury, even if the tale as told signifies nothing, or nothing much.
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An uncontroversial museum still manages to offend the ignorant
t one point during his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush gave his listeners a folksy admonition: “Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you got a log in your own.” This amused Frank Bruni of the New York Times, who called it “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.” Bruni’s words in turn amused the substantial portion of Americans who knew that Bush was actually quoting Matthew 7:3. To them it was simply unimaginable that someone could graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English and subsequently study at the Columbia School of Journalism, as Bruni did, without having once encountered the Sermon on the Mount. The anecdote revealed the extent to which, in the space of a few generations, America went from habitual Bible reading to biblical illiteracy, and of the most abject and utter kind. This is the justification for the Museum of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., in November, is an enterprise of appropriately pharaonic ambition. At a capacious 430,000 square feet, it cost half a billion dollars to build, all of it contributed privately. It is the brainchild of Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, the chain of arts-and-crafts supply stores that successfully challenged the contraception mandate of Obamacare. Indeed, to those who felt the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision was a catastrophic setback to the separation of church and state, the coming of the Museum of the Bible seemed nothing less than the physical manifestation of that threat—an unwelcome expression of evangelical political power standing in plain sight of the Capitol. Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has loomed large in the coverage of the museum, as has the Green family—as well as the $3 million fine levied on Hobby Lobby for illegally importing cuneiform tablets from Iraq.
But those who looked forward to exposing the museum as a bigoted and ignorant enterprise, with a laughably literal view of biblical truth, have been bitterly disappointed. Its exhibitions are conspicuously even-handed and scholarly, and not at all sectarian. The Museum of the Bible is no vehicle of theological indoctrination. If anything, it errs in the other direction. When it was first incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010, it pledged itself “to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” It has quietly lowered its sights since, and now seeks only “to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” This makes the museum less objectionable (who can object to an invitation?), but a less incendiary Bible is also a less interesting one. The danger of the Museum of the Bible is that by sidestepping the question of biblical truth it might downgrade the Good Book, as it were, into one of the Great Books.W
ith all their resources, the Green family might easily have commissioned a celebrity architect to build a prodigy of a museum. But they did not want a building that would compete with its contents. Instead, they bought a 90-year-old cold-storage warehouse two blocks south of the Mall, and into its windowless brick shell they inserted six stories of exhibition and administrative space. The interior is intelligently planned but hardly remarkable, and nothing about its materials, finishes, or details speaks of the Bible or antiquity. If anything, it has the glossy impersonal cheeriness of contemporary hotel architecture.1
The heart of the museum is in the exhibitions of the third floor (The Stories of the Bible) and the fourth (The History of the Bible). These are utterly different in texture and tone, but they work in tandem—one delivering sensation and the other information. This is hardly a new distinction; it is the difference between the stained-glass window and the sermon.
The Stories of the Bible are told through crowd-pleasing “immersive” galleries—the fashionable term for displays in which a coordinated battery of sound effects, musical cues, dramatic lighting, and moving forms are combined to induce an overwhelming sensory experience in the viewer. These were devised by BRC Imagination Arts, a design firm that specializes in corporate branding—as they put it, in “creating emotionally engaging experiences that generate lasting brand love.” When it comes to emotionally engaging material, the exhibits Genesis and Exodus offer at least as much as the Heineken Experience (another recent BRC creation) and here the designers have outdone themselves. Noah’s Ark presents “a unique, stylized representation of the great flood, they tell us.”
“Stacks of boxes tower over them. Inside each box are artistic representations of animals—two by two—lit by flickering candlelight. Guests hear the raging of the storm outside and the creaking of the wooden ship.”
Somewhat later, although not until they have seen “a hyssop bush bursting into flames from the story of Moses,” visitors themselves can part the Red Sea, or an abstraction thereof, created by a web of taut metal cables shimmering under blue light. (It is curious how the highly cinematic events of the Hebrew Bible lend themselves to abstract expression.)
By contrast, the World of Jesus is rendered in literal terms, by means of a realistic re-creation of a first-century village complete with actors in period costume. In the Galilee Theater, visitors can watch a short film and see John the Baptist confronting King Herod (as played by John Rhys-Davies). Even those of us who are allergic to historic reenactments will see that it is carried through with extreme competence and attention to detail. What is there is done well; it is what is not there that has caused a good detail of quiet grumbling. To the bafflement of many, the central events of the Christian Bible—the Crucifixion and Resurrection—are not represented. Were there fears that a scene of unspeakable horror would disturb the museum’s upbeat, family-friendly ambiance? Or is it that its academic advisors come from the mainstream of contemporary Biblical studies, for whom the Resurrection is not a truth but a trope? Perhaps both factors are at play.
Another curious aspect of the display, though unhappy, is understandable: The Hebrew and Christian Bibles are rendered as two segregated and self-contained experiences, and like oil and vinegar, the exhibition paths are not allowed to mix. Unfortunately, the visitor who has waited for the one is unlikely to stand in line again for the other. One can appreciate that the organizers wanted to avoid a linear sequence in which the Hebrew Bible serves as mere prelude to the New, but in the process, the relationship between the two is lost. Surely a compromise might have been found, perhaps with the occasional physical passage between the two, so that the viewer might move back and forth and make his own connections—alas, a proposition that is heretical in today’s world of manipulative museology.
If the third floor gives us the stories in the Bible, the fourth gives us the book itself—not only the text itself but its translations, copies, orthography, printing, binding, illustrations and all else that is associated with a literary artifact. The oldest objects here (although of disputed authenticity) are tiny fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from them to the most recent translations, one is struck by the fastidious probity with which the text was transmitted. Here we learn the high stakes of tampering with the Bible in the story of how the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe was posthumously excommunicated for daring to make the first English translation. We also learn how the Bible acted to codify and order regional dialects into a national language; Martin Luther’s translation did this for the German language just as the King James translation did a century later for English. A remarkable display shows the innumerable phrases from the Bible that have entered vernacular speech in the world’s languages, some of which I did not know (e.g., “den of thieves,” “suffer fools gladly,” “at their wit’s end,” etc.
Here one senses a certain reservation—a curatorial suspicion, perhaps, that vellum manuscripts and printed books are intrinsically boring. There is nothing an exhibition designer fears more than a bored visitor. This would account for the rather plaintive effort to provide visual relief in the form of arresting objects: a facsimile of the Liberty Bell with its inscription from Leviticus, a tableau of books burned by the Nazis, and statues of Galileo and Isaac Newton. These diversions suggest that the designers did not trust the words themselves and their hotly disputed variants and interpretations to generate interest on their own.
This is a lost opportunity. For instance, the history of the English translations would have been far more effective with a comparison of representative examples. One might illustrate various renderings of the 23rd Psalm, juxtaposing the lapidary King James version (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) with the explanatory translation of the International Standard Version (“The Lord is the one who is shepherding me; I lack nothing”) or the willful flatness of the Good News Bible (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need”). A few examples from the recent push to purge the Bible of any and all sexist language would also have been eye-opening. To refer to this trend blithely in passing, as the wall labels do, without confronting the viewers with the sobering reality of a gender-neutral Bible is a sign of either haste or indifference.
And for those who are not fascinated by the fact that the neuter possessive its appears just once in the entire King James translation, they still have the chance to take a peek at Elvis Presley’s personal copy of the Bible.T
he truth is, the Museum of the Bible is as innocuous, gregarious, multifaceted, and congenial an institution as one might have hoped. It certainly does not preach biblical inerrancy; the attentive reader will see that Noah’s flood is anticipated by the much older flood story in the epic of Gilgamesh, complete with divine instructions on building the ark.
Nonetheless, the museum has been greeted with extraordinary hostility, although of a strangely unfocused sort. It has hardly been “dogged by scandal,” as Business Insider charged, apart from the importation of antique materials with a false provenance (something of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have both been guilty). The real objection is not its business practices or its theology (which it wears so lightly as to be invisible), but rather that it comes from the wrong side of the cultural tracks. One has the sense that the museum is a social faux pas, that the wrong guests have crashed the party, blundering uninvited into Washington and violating rules of which they are ignorant. CityLab, the digital magazine of the Atlantic, expressed this attitude most pithily when it called the museum “pure, 100 percent, uncut megaplex evangelical white Protestantism…megachurch concentrate.”
The charge that the museum presents a narrow and exclusively white version of Protestantism is undercut by a single visit; the audience is comprehensively ecumenical and international. But it has been repeated endlessly nonetheless, in part because of the recent publication of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden—a furiously ambitious attempt to discredit the museum, its theology, its founders, and Hobby Lobby itself. (This may be the first time a book has been published condemning a museum before it was built.) Moss first came to public attention in 2013 with The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, which charges early Christians with forging accounts of their suppression. Bible Nation is written in a similarly debunking spirit. For her, the “thousands of fragments of contradictory material” in the Bible make it pointless to try to make of it a coherent or meaningful document. The insights of contemporary biblical scholarship, she says with conspicuous exasperation, ought to be “a faith killer.”
Clearly they have been for her. But if anything, the museum’s fourth floor testifies to the opposite: This is a building built by believers for whom the analysis of the materials contained within is a noble task. The curators have taken painstaking efforts to get it right, as did those scribes who through the millennia worked to reconcile the discrepancies, to choose among the contradictory variants the ones that are most rigorously supported. And where the conflicting documents are irreconcilable—as between the two opening chapters of Genesis, or between the four Gospels—the procedure has always been to preserve multiple sources rather than impose an arbitrary uniformity. In the end, the Museum of the Bible pitches it about right.
Its greatest surprise is that it makes no truth claim. The central propositions of the Hebrew Bible (God’s covenant with his chosen people) and the Christian Bible (Christ’s Resurrection) are subordinated to the existence of the Books that carry those propositions. One might imagine that a museum devoted to other monumental culture-shaping books, say The Iliad and The Odyssey, would look similar in approach.
And of course they are right to have done so. The place to make claims to the truth in these cases is a church or synagogue, not a museum. But even the lesser claim that the Museum of the Bible makes, that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization, is to many an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it. And for those who know it only as a “Bronze Age document” (one of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite epithets) and from some of the livelier passages in Leviticus, it is an offensive absurdity.
Writing in the Washington Post, the novelist and art historian Noah Charney asserted that “in Washington, separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well.” It’s unclear who established such a rule, and in any case, the “principle” of the “separation of church and state” does not originate in the Constitution. Rather, its source is to be found in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” We all carry a stock of mental habits and moral values, and a language with which to express them, that ultimately derives from the Bible, whether we have read it or not. The Museum of the Bible merely proposes that we read it. And for all its shortcomings and missed opportunities, and all its fits of cuteness (there’s a Manna Café), it does so with refreshing sincerity and surprising effectiveness.
1 The building has one passage of real brilliance. The entrance portal on Fourth Street is flanked by a pair of immense bronze panels, nearly 40 feet high, that call to mind Boaz and Jachin, the mighty bronze pillars that guarded Solomon’s Temple. In fact, they are panels of text inscribed with the opening lines of Genesis, as printed in the Gutenberg Bible of 1454, the first mass-produced book to use moveable metal type. The letters are reversed, confusingly, until one realizes that this aids in making souvenir rubbings that themselves embody the printing process. The genesis evoked here is that of universal literacy and the cultural transformation wrought by the printed book.
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Review of '(((Semitism)))' By Jonathan Weisman
Now, two years later, Weisman has published a book about anti-Semitism—and, more specifically, about the supposedly grave threat to Jews springing from the alt-right and the Trump administration. (((Semitism))), for such is the book’s title, suffers from two grave ills. First, Weisman believes that political leftism and Judaism are identical. Second, he knows little or nothing about the political right, in whose camp he places the alt-right movement. Combine these two shortcomings with a heavy dose of self-regard, and you get (((Semitism))): a toxic brew of anti-Israel sentiment, bagels-and-lox cultural Jewishness, and unbridled hostility toward mainstream conservatism, which he lumps together with despicable alt-right anti-Semitism.
According to Weisman, Judaism derives its present-day importance from the way it provides a religious echo to secular leftism. This is his actual opening sentence: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Thus does he describe a people whose binding glue over the millennia is a faith tradition literally designed to separate its adherents from those who are not their co-religionists.
This ethnic-Jew-centric perspective leads Weisman to reject not merely Jewish observance, which he finds parochial and divisive, but the tie between Judaism and Israel, which he subtly titles “The Israel Deception.” He laments: “The American Jewish obsession with Israel has taken our eyes off not only the politics of our own country, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the rising tide of nationalism but also our own grounding in faith.” He sneers at Jews who promote the “tried and true theme of the little Israeli David squaring off against the giant Arab Goliath.” Weisman believes, like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that members of both parties are guilty of “kissing the ring” at AIPAC, of “turn[ing] to mush when the subject was Israel.” In fact, Weisman says, the anti-Semitic BDS movement on college campuses “is worrisome as much for what it says about the American Jew’s inextricable links to Israel as for what it says about anti-Semitism.” In his view, “Barack Obama was the apotheosis of liberal internationalism.…The Jew thrived.”
Thus Weisman has this to say about his infamous Iran-deal chart: “I had my own brush with fratricidal Jew-on-Jew violence during that heated debate.” Was Weisman attacked? Assaulted? No, he received some nasty notes in response to running a chart. Weisman says he found the uproar “absurd” and laments that he is “still hearing about it.” Poor lamb.W eisman gets it right when he writes about the mainstreaming of the alt-right—the winking and nodding from Breitbart News and Donald Trump himself, the willingness of many in the mainstream to reward alt-right popularizers like Milo Yiannopoulos. (I left Breitbart in March 2016 due to differences regarding our coverage of the presidential campaign). Weisman is at his best when describing the origins of the alt-right and their infiltration of more well-read outlets.
But he can’t stop there. Instead, he seeks to impute the alt-right to the entire conservative movement and builds, Hillary Clinton–style, a fictitious basket of deplorables amounting to half the conservative movement. He cites “Christian fundamentalist” Israel supporters, to whom he wrongly attributes universally apocalyptic End of Times motivation. He condemns anti-immigration advocates, whose opposition to importation of un-vetted Muslim refugees he likens to anti-Semitic anti-immigrant movements of years past. He reviles “anti-feminists,” those who oppose political correctness in video games, Republican Jewish Coalition members who laughed at Trump making a Jewish joke, and free-speech advocates supposedly engaged in “forcible seizure of the free-speech movement” (a weird charge to level, considering that it cost Berkeley $600,000 to prevent Antifa from burning down the campus when I visited). In other words, pretty much anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton gets smeared with the alt-right brush, outside of those specifically targeted by the alt-right.
The problem of alt-right anti-Semitism, Weisman thinks, is just a problem of anti-leftism. If we could all just give money to the notoriously left-wing propaganda-pushing Southern Poverty Law Center, watch Trump-referential productions of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Edinburgh National Festival (yes, this is in the book, and no, it is not parody), ignore anti-Semitic attacks at the Chicago Dyke March (I am not making this up), slap some vinyl signs on synagogues (no, I am still not making this up), and “not get too self-congratulatory” (seriously, guys, this is all real), all will be well. In the end, Weisman’s goal is to build a coalition of ethnic and political groups, cobbled together in common cause against conservatives—conservatives, he says, who represent the alt-right support base.
As the alt-right’s chief journalistic target in 2016, I’m always happy to see them clubbed like a baby seal. And there is a good book to be written about the alt-right. At times, Weisman borders on it, particularly when he seeks to investigate the bizarre relationship between Trump and the trolls who worship him.
But Weisman’s ardent allegiance to leftism leads him to misdiagnose the problem, to ignore the rising anti-Semitism of his own side (the DNC nearly elected anti-Semite Keith Ellison its leader last year), to prescribe the wrong solutions, and, most of all, to react in knee-jerk fashion to the alt-right by flattering himself as the epitome of everything the alt-right hates. Thin as the paper it was printed on, (((Semitism))) is a failure of imagination.
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Review of 'The People vs. Democracy' By Yascha Mounk
The save-democracy writers have generally taken two tacks in answering it. Some see a simple replay of the previous century: The West’s authoritarian spirit has resurfaced, they say, and seduced the multitudes once more. It is up to heroic liberals to fight back, as their forebears in the 1940s did. But others have tried to trace today’s crack-up to liberal missteps or even to flaws in the liberal-democratic idea. This is a more useful avenue for those of us concerned with the preservation of self-government.
Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy wants to be the latter kind of (subtle, thoughtful) book but too often ends up making the cruder arguments of the former. The author, a lecturer on government at Harvard, argues that while liberals took liberalism’s permanence for granted, voters became “fed up with liberal democracy itself.” Elections across the developed world, in which fringe characters and populists routed mainstream establishments, provide the main evidence. Mounk has also collected mountains of public-opinion data, mainly from the World Values Survey, which shows a deeper transformation: People in the U.S. and Europe increasingly reject democratic principles and even hanker for strongman authority.
Fewer than a third of U.S. millennials “consider it essential to live in a democracy.” One out of 4 believes that democracy is a bad form of government. One-third of Americans of all ages now favor some sort of strongman rule, without checks and balances, and 1 of 6 would prefer the strongman to don a military uniform. Similarly, a third of German respondents and an astonishing half of those from Britain and France support strongman rule. Parties of the far right and far left are rapidly expanding their appeal, particularly among young people. There are many more depressing statistics of the kind, presented in numerous charts and graphs throughout.
Mounk thinks there are two factors at play in these attitudes. The first is the emergence of illiberal democracy, or “democracy without rights,” as a serious rival to the current order. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narenda Modi in India, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, exemplify this model. Once elected, these leaders chip away at individual rights and independent institutions until democracy is all but hollowed out and it becomes nigh impossible to remove the ruling party from office. Mounk strongly suspects that the Trump administration plans to pull something like this on the American public, though thus far the president’s illiberal bluster has proved to be just that.
The second factor is undemocratic liberalism, or “rights without democracy.” Here Mounk has in mind technocratic liberalism’s drive to remove an ever-growing share of policy decisions from the purview of voters and their elected representatives. This has been necessitated by the complexity of contemporary problems such as climate change and international trade, Mounk contends. Yet rights without democracy has generated mistrust and cynicism. Liberals, he says, should aim to “strike a better balance between expertise and responsiveness to the popular will.”
Mounk’s sections on the damage wrought by undemocratic liberalism should be instructive to his fellow liberals. But conservatives have for years stamped their feet and pulled their hair over the same phenomenon, only to be ignored by elite liberals on both sides of the Atlantic. Right-of-center readers might be forgiven for sarcastically muttering “no kidding” as Mounk takes them on a guided tour of liberal folly.
Conservatives have been warning about administrative bloat, for example, since at least the first half of the 20th century. It turns out that they had a point. Writes Mounk: “The job of legislating has been supplanted by so-called ‘independent agencies’ that can formulate policy on their own and are remarkably free from oversight.” Ditto activist judges: “The best studies of the Supreme Court do suggest that its role is far larger than it was when the Constitution was written.” And ditto the European Union’s democratic deficit: “To create a truly ‘single market,’ the EU has introduced far-reaching limitations” on state sovereignty.
He also strikes upon the idea that nations really are different from one another, and in politically significant ways. “After a few months living in England,” the German-born author confesses, “I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I imagined.” No kidding. What about the anti-Western monoculture that lords over most college campuses? Here, too, the right was on to something. “Far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system,” Mounk writes, liberal academe’s “overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies.”
Mounk’s discovery of these core conservative insights, however, doesn’t spur a rethink of his reflexive disdain for conservatives. This is most apparent in his coverage of American politics. The book is supposed to be a battle cry for democracy to rally left and right alike. Yet, with few exceptions, conservatives and Republicans are cast as cynical operators who rely on underhanded tactics and coded racism to undermine democracy and ultimately abet the populists. (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama receive adulatory treatment.)
He describes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, and GOP filibustering of Democratic legislation as “abuse[s] of constitutional norms” (they weren’t). But he pooh-poohs popular outrage at Clinton’s unlawful use of a private email server and elides the Obama Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of conservative nonprofits ahead of the 2012 election.
He also underestimates a third development of recent years—liberal illiberalism (my term, not his)—a liberalism that not only lacks democratic legitimacy but seeks to destroy, in the name of tolerance, the fundamental rights of those who stand in the way of full-spectrum progressivism. This is the kind of liberalism that compels nuns to pay for contraceptives and evangelical bakers to bake gay-wedding cakes, silences conservative speakers on campus, and denounces sushi restaurants as “cultural appropriation.”
Mounk isn’t ignorant of these tendencies, and he wants liberals to ease up (a bit). Yet, because he maintains that the censorious left’s heart is in the right place, he can’t seem to reach the necessary conclusion: that much illiberalism today comes, not from the right, but from ostensibly liberal quarters, and that this says something about the nature of contemporary liberal ideology. The true illiberal villains, for Mounk, are only ever the Modis, Trumps, and Orbáns—plus the troglodytes down South. Well-intentioned liberals who back censorship, he writes at one point, “ignore what would happen if the dean of Southern Baptist University…were to gain the right to censor utterances” he dislikes.
In fact, there is no such institution as “Southern Baptist University.” According to the most recent rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, however, four of the 10 worst U.S. colleges for free speech last year were public schools located in blue states, while five were blue-state private or religious schools with longstanding reputations for progressivism (Mounk’s own Harvard among them).
His quickness to frame Southern Baptists as illiberal bogeys is telling and suggests that, for all its exhortations against liberal highhandedness, Mounk’s book comes from the same high-handed place. It colors the author’s approach to questions of nationalism and immigration that are at the heart of the current ferment. He concedes that liberal democracy is compatible with voter demand for limits on mass migration. But he can’t help but attribute those demands to irrational “resentment,” eschewing completely the—perfectly rational—fear of Islamist terrorism.
He sees the nation-state as an “imagined community” to which too many of our fellow citizens remain attached. Ideally for Mounk, the empire of rights and procedural norms would thrive independently of nationhood, civilizational barriers, and sacred communities. For now, he allows, liberals unfortunately have to contend with these anachronisms. His view is an improvement over the liberal transnationalism that is still committed to doing away borders altogether, even after the popular counterpunch of 2016. Still, why should Poles or Hungarians or Britons remain politically attached to Polish, Hungarian, or British democracy? What is it about Polishness as such that matters to Poland’s democratic character? Mounk has no answers.
No wonder, finally, that the author never satisfactorily links liberalism’s turn against democracy and the rise of illiberal democrats. He can never bring himself to say outright that the one (rights without democracy) is begetting the other (democracy without rights). Liberals, of the classical and the contemporary varieties, badly need a book that offers such uncomfortable reckonings. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy is not it.