Rocket Men: The “Missile Defense” Con Game

According to Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund — addressing the subject of missile defense on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show Thursday — “President Bush was promoting a technology that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.”

The policy in question was a plan to place ten “interceptors” in Poland, and a radar installation to control them in the Czech Republic. These interceptors would theoretically (because to date the technology doesn’t work very well) have protected Europe from Iran, had that country launched equally theoretical (because it doesn’t have them) long-range missiles.

So far, so good — except that the Obama administration’s proposed alternative, at least nominally supported by Mr. Cirinicione (who advised presidential candidate Barack Obama on “nuclear issues”) may be even worse.

That alternative starts with the use of a proven system (the SM-3) to be deployed aboard Aegis destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, extending over time to land-based SM-3 installations and the deployment of subsequent systems to counter new Iranian weapons as those come online.

How could that be worse? Simple: “[A] technology that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist” is clearly unreasonable on all fronts. Promoting a technology that does work, on the other hand, obscures key facts. Facts like these:

– That the threat in question, if it exists at all, is not a threat relevant to the defense of the United States. The US is simply not within range of the short- and medium-range missiles that this proposed “shield” is intended to counter.

– That putting the US taxpayer on the hook for the defense of Europe against Iran will embolden the governments in that region and allow them to rattle sabers and indulge in belligerent behavior without having to bear the economic costs of that behavior. This makes the prospect of conflict with Iran more, not less, likely, and increases the likelihood that the US will become entangled in such conflict.

The whole “missile defense” scam, in both its Bush and Obama variants, is a classic example of the logic and behavior of governments. I’ve quoted Mencken on this before, but it bears repeating:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

In Bush’s variant of “missile defense,” the threat was completely imaginary. In Obama’s variant, the imaginary element is the notion that the threat is one which involves the United States or requires its involvement at all.

Why manufacture imaginary threats, or impose imaginary geographic offsets on real ones? Two reasons come to mind; both equally venal and dishonest, one linked to workaday politics and the other to the more over-arching theme of the legitimacy of government itself.

The workaday reason is that in the defense “marketplace,” competition between firms is predicated not upon quality of product or the utility of that product, but upon political connections. To put it as simply as possible, the essential difference between the Bush plan and the Obama plan is “which “defense” contractors get the sweetheart deals?”

As always, big lobbying money is in play and big campaign contributions are at stake. How that has played out to get us to this particular situation is anyone’s guess, but when it’s all said and done there’s little doubt that it played a bigger part in this scenario than any “legitimate defense” criteria.

The over-arching logic is just as simple: Hobgoblins we must have, and if we can’t find any off our shores, we’ll outsource their creation to eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia … not to wherever they’re cheapest, but to wherever they’ll provide an excuse for the largest expenditure, providing for the biggest bureaucratic rakeoffs and corporate welfare handouts.

“Missile defense” isn’t about defending Poland, the Czech Republic, or even the United States. It’s about empowering politicians by moving money from your pockets to the pockets of Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital Systems, Raytheon, etc. And that’s all it’s ever been about.

Government is a racket, in this as in all things. It is, to steal a phrase from Cirincione, a technology that doesn’t work against threats that don’t exist.

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