Uncle Sam Knows Best

Leaders in Washington are always saying that other countries don’t need new weapons. If that’s the case, why does the United States have the most fearsome military ever assembled?

Being a superpower means never having to admit you're wrong. Or that you're being hypocritical. Perhaps the most important right of a superpower is to expand one's military while demanding that the rest of the world disarm-without recognizing the slightest contradiction. Ah, the life of a Washington policy maker.

Consider Iran's recent missile launches. They demonstrate that "there is a real threat," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Sen. Barack Obama warned that Iran "poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States in the region in a generation." The White House claimed that the tests were "completely inconsistent with Iran's obligations to the world." Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Tehran should "refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world." Indeed, "the Iranians should stop the development of ballistic missiles, which could be used as a delivery vehicle for a potential nuclear weapon, immediately." Of course, a given, which didn't need to be repeated, was Washington's view that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons.

Tehran is a worrisome actor and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a nasty character. But the country criticizing Iran for its modest military achievements possesses the most fearsome nuclear capability and intercontinental missile force on earth-along with the most sophisticated air force and most powerful navy. The United States isn't just developing ballistic missiles which could be used to deliver potential nuclear weapons. The United States has hundreds of existing ballistic missiles which could deliver thousands of existing nuclear warheads. Exactly who threatens whom?

In fact, Washington policy makers have been regularly talking of unleashing America's enormous military forces against Iran. Even though Tehran has no nuclear weapons capability, and U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran does not even have a nuclear- weapons program currently underway, administration officials and office-seeking politicians continue to mutter darkly about loosing the dogs of war against Iran. Some analysts propose targeting the Islamic political leadership, conventional military and security forces as well as nuclear facilities for destruction. These same people portray Iran as the threatening actor.

This time, at least, the Iranian government appeared to tell the truth.  Hossein Salami, a commander in the Revolutionary Guard, explained: "The aim of this maneuver is to show the determination of armed forces in protecting Iran." Ironically, Ambassador John Bolton, the quintessential American hawk, agreed: the missile tests were "part of Iran's effort to dissuade the United States or Israel from using military force against [its] nuclear program." That is, the Iranian effort is defensive, an attempt to create a deterrent force. Iran is responding to threats against it, not acting to threaten other countries.

Washington has good reason to work to forestall an Iranian nuclear bomb, but initiating preventive war is something else entirely. Even if stopping Iran from creating a nuclear arsenal ultimately could justify a preventive strike, there's no imminent danger under any standard. Undersecretary of State William Burns testified that Iran's "real [nuclear] progress has been more modest." In any case, Washington cannot seriously claim that Iranian responses to American threats are themselves threatening, an unprovoked provocation and unwarranted destabilization of the security environment. The United States (and Israel) are behaving far more aggressively.

Iran is not the only nation seeking to configure its military to deter American action-and in which Washington nevertheless acts like the injured party. For instance, Washington takes an equally dim view of the decision by the People's Republic of China to enhance its military. Speaking of Chinese improvements in its missile arsenal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently opined, "I don't know what you use them for if it's not for offensive capability. It's hard to see an intercontinental ballistic missile as a defensive weapon." Three years ago Gates' predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, complained: "China appears to be expanding its missile forces, allowing it to reach targets in many areas of the world while also expanding its missile capabilities within this region." But Washington's concern is not just ICBMs. Secretary Rumsfeld went further: "China also is improving its ability to project power, and is developing advanced systems of military technology. One might be concerned that this build-up is putting the delicate military balance in the region at risk."

Indeed, he bluntly declared: "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?" A year later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opined: "There are concerns about China's military buildup. It's sometimes seemed outsized for China's regional role." The Pentagon publishes an annual report painting a dire picture of Chinese military modernization. In March it warned: "China's expanding and improving military capabilities are changing East Asian military balances. Improvements in China's strategic capabilities have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region."

Some American policy makers fear what Beijing might do with its improved military. In 2005 CIA Director Porter Goss worried: "Improved Chinese capabilities threaten U.S. forces in the region." While campaigning for president, former-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for a big military buildup to "send a very strong signal to China . . . that it doesn't make sense to challenge us." Rep. John Murtha said "We've got to be able to have a military than can deploy to stop China." Were such comments coming from Taiwanese officials they would make sense. But from Washington?

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