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A letter to Les.

Dear Representative Aspin:

Congratulations on your recent election as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, a tribute to your knowledge of military affairs and your legislative skill. You have advanced to a very senior rank in government. In every respect, your committee has not exercised independent control over Pentagon policies or over the foreign policies they are designed to serve. It has, instead, given them a qualified endorsement--the qualification muted, the endorsement loud. Its statemanship has been confined to parceling out contractual largesse. That isn't the independent role envisioned for Congress by the Founding Fathers. To be sure, working sometimes with, sometimes against recent Administrations, you have used your considerable talents to bargain with the national security apparatus. You have, alas, manifested an increasing discretion abou the fact that it is an apparatus.

In recent statements, you have deplored the "symbolic" nature of the debate on the MX missile. You seem to extend that critique to discussions of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative. Clearly, however, you approve of some kinds of symbolic politics. You have not taken issue with those who hailed your election to the committee chair, displacing 80-year-old Melvin Price, as an expression of generational change in the House Democratic leadership. You certainly haven't refuted the statements that you have become a national leader. Your negative view of symbolic discussions comes, I gather, from your conviction that the complexity of nuclear weaponry renders proposals like the freeze "simplistic." No doubt, arms control is complex. That is why scientists like Solly Zuckerman and Jerome Wiesner instruct us in these matters; they employ their gifts to reduce matters to essentials. Your own insistence on the complexity of military issues echoes the familiar complaint of our imperial managers and their apologists in the academy and in the press: If only the public would leave those matters to the elite qualified to deal with them, how much easier the conduct of foreign and military policy would be! Henry Kissinger's plaintive lament that he was not allowed to run the world (with a bit of help from another professional, Andrei Gromyko) unimpeded by awkward questions is the supreme expression of that attitude.

In arguing with those who criticized your earlier support of the MX, you distributed copies of an article by The New Republic's Morton Kondracke, praising your professionalism. You might have chosen a more impressive witness. Kondracke is one of those journalists who regularly pronounce yesterday's cliches as if they had invented them today. You also distributed an article by a more serious figure, Leslie Gelb of The New York Times. Gelb said of you and your Congressional allies: "On more than a few occasions, they have gotten the tacit support of the Administration, which feared, according to officials, that its choice was either support the Aspin group or lose everything." Some of us find that rather dubious praise. Why not ask what the historians will say of you ten or twenty years hence" Why not ask, indeed, if there will be historians around then to comment? Our memory of Vietnam honors persons like Senator William Fulbright, who opposed the war, persons like Senator Williams Fulbrights, who opposed the war, rather than the hordes of legislative lemmings who followed Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara into the sea.

Consider the time you supported funding the MX so that it could be used as a bargaining chip. The bargaining-chip argument has been a favorite of those who see no alternative to the iron logic of the arms race. If first heard it used by the late Aneurin Bevan of the British Labor Party ("Do not send a British Foreign Secretary naked to the conference table"). A Soviet colleague told me the other day that he has heard it often in debates in the Soviet Union. Your acceptance of the argument was widely regarded as evidence of your eligibility to join polite Washington society. Suppose, however, that social acceptance was a device for concealing historical servitude. Those who adopt the logic of the bargaining-chip argument are like prisoners who desperately seek to advance to the rank of trusty.

Your impressive speech to Congress last April may be read as a kind of letter from prison. You took the view that a large reduction in nuclear weapons was unwise because it would increase pressure on the government to employ them in a crisis. The danger of large reductions in our stocks of nuclear arms does not appear to be imminent, however. Your hypothetical exercise in rationality had the pratical effect of suggesting that things being the way they are, they cannot be much different. Yet in other parts of your speech, you showed us how dangerous the present situation is. You declared that antisatellite weapons would be destabilizing, and you argued for severe limits on the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Now, one gathers, you are prepared to reconsider your earlier opposition to the development of an antiballistic missile system. That could serve as a preliminary to reaching a compromise with the Administration on the Strategic Defense Initiative.

In that April speech, you made two other noteworthy points. You asked the Administration to define and report on its first-strike capability. Surely, you know that an administration can always find experts to testify that America's preparations to attack are defensive in nature and that the Soviet Union's preparations for defense are evidence of its readiness to attack. In the pseudoscientific world of nuclear war theory, anything goes. You also argued for removing tactical nuclear weapons and mines from Europe because the would endanger our troops. May I point out that hundreds of millions of Europeans living in both NATO and Warsaw Pact nations feel endangered by those weapons? They have, perhaps unwisely, not yet begun to evacuate Europe. Is it possible that your enthusiasm for official discouuse is so great that the ordinary language spoken by the rest of us strikes you as the blathering of the uninitiated?

Let us turn to two other statements of your views. In The New Republic of October 29, 1983, you published a penetrating account of the Pentagon's fatuity and of the Administration's fraudulent claim that U.S. forces are in a high state of readiness. Readiness for what? In an earlier study, you said that the U.S. arms program threatens the nation's long-term economic growth. You observed, "Defense expenditures are justified by the perception of a military threat to this nation." Suppose the perception is in some measure fabricated? Our military apparatus, the giant corporations that are parasitic on it, and the ideology it generates have taken on a life of their own. Questioning the apparatus seems to be an exercise in sectarian futility or utopian fantasy.

As a younger Congressman, you convincingly deflated the specious claims of an increasing Soviet threat to America. Your new post enables you to make a major contribution to public education. Indeed, that is perhaps the highest part of a legislator's task--not the reconciliation of selfish interests. As a member of the Budget Committee you asked your colleagues to examine the Pentagon budget. Had they done so, the symbiosis between many of your present associates on the Armed Services Committee and the military would have been uncovered. If the idea was a good one before you became chair, it is even better now.

Finally, for all the talk of "threat" and "perception" (a deadening kind of discourse which your friends would like to see you criticize, not engage ine, isn't it true that a majority of the American people adamantly opposes conscription--and fears war? Our leaders have made a tacit bargain with the public: a lot of tough talk but no one--aside from a few professional junior officers and poor black, Hispanic and white volunteers--need pay the price. A policy that rests on sustained deceit fools no one abroad and does not serve our national honor. It is the largest (and most flawed) bargaining chip of them all. Perhaps we should negotiate among ourselves for a more dignified and effective policy. We await your initiatives.
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Title Annotation:Les Aspin
Author:Birnbaum, Norman
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 9, 1985
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