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Missile Envy
North Korea, Bush Ally

There is of course no danger of a Kim Jong Il-starred missile ever grazing so much as a Pentagon radar’s anxieties: North Korea is a nation where even ants starve and technology runs on the digestive clockwork of oxen. Its ability to fire off an ICBM that could do more than kill a few hapless fish in the Sea of Japan is somewhere between one-in-a-million and the Hubble Deep Field (though its ability to turn patches of South Korea into a deep field of its own is less in doubt). But if Bush could turn al-Qaeda’s posse of spectacular fanatics and conventional imbeciles into a threat on par with Nazi Germany, and if his administration could turn Saddam into the greatest evil since Stalin, then surely his Cheney-trained handmaids can spin a tale of North Korean missiles threatening everything from the Golden Gate to Aunt Bethel’s collection of souvenir spoons in Miami Beach. And if they can do that, as they have, then North Korea can be a running advocacy campaign for Bush’s version of Star Wars—his “missile defense” initiative currently devouring $10 billion a year to go with the $150 billion spent on the blanched elephant since Ronald Reagan concocted it in March 1983. Sure enough, on Friday Bush was all engorged for his missiles: “It’s been three days since North Korea fired those missiles,” a reporter asked him in Chicago. “Yesterday you said you did not know the trajectory of the long-range missile. Can you now tell us where was it was headed? And if it were headed? And if it were headed—if it had been headed at the United States, how would our national ballistic missile system have taken it down?”

Bush’s response was at first jocular, because he’s a great kidder, because ICBMs are a hoot, and because, gosh darn it, people like him that way: “I still can’t give you any better answer than yesterday. I can embellish yesterday’s answer. It may sound better. No, really, I haven’t talked to the Secretary of Defense about that.” Then he got somewhat serious, and as always when he does, his answer took on the meandering surface-to-crash trajectory of a North Korean missile (with a golf metaphor for subtitles): “Our missile systems are modest, our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest. They’re new. It’s new research. We’ve gotten—testing them. And so I can’t—it’s hard for me to give you a probability of success. But, nevertheless, the fact that a nontransparent society would be willing to tee up a rocket and fire it without identifying where it’s going or what was on it means we need a ballistic missile system. So that’s about all I can tell you on that. Obviously, it wasn’t a satisfactory answer.”

Obviously. But he was asked about an intercept. Bush, knowing a headline when he sees one, teed off with his own Kim Jong Il moment: “Yes, I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that’s what the military commanders told me.”

Bush and his commanders are using the same logic of “reasonable chances” that they do when they turn miserable missile-test failures into successes. This from a New York times account on December 18, 2002: ”A week ago over the Pacific, in the latest $100 million test of the nation’s prototype antimissile system, an interceptor warhead failed to separate from its booster rocket. It missed its intended target by hundreds of miles and burned up in the atmosphere, while the mock enemy warhead it was meant to destroy zoomed along unscathed. A resounding failure? Not according to the Pentagon. In its new assessment process, the tests that really count are those in which the warhead makes it past the booster-rocket stage to what Pentagon experts call “the endgame”: trying to find, home in on, and hit a mock warhead. The new logic ignores tests that fail in the earlier, less challenging stages—like the one on Dec. 11, the third in eight tests of the long-range system since 1999, according to the Pentagon. Private experts say the new logic helped clear the way for President Bush’s announcement yesterday that the missile interceptors would be deployed in Alaska and California. But critics say that not taking account of early-stage test failures is like wiping the slate clean of laggards in footraces or political contests. By the new logic, the races acknowledge only winners and runners-up.”

But they’ve had a few more years to work on the elephant, you say? This from a Washington Post story in December 2004: “The Bush administration’s effort to build a system for defending the country against ballistic missile attack suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday when an interceptor missile failed to launch during the first flight test of the system in two years.” Here’s one from the Post last year: “For the second time in as many months, the Bush administration’s new missile defense system failed to complete a key test yesterday, automatically shutting down a few seconds before an interceptor missile was to launch toward a mock enemy warhead.” And in March 2005: “The general in charge of the Pentagon’s faltering effort to develop a system for defending the United States against ballistic missile attack said yesterday that he has ordered a thorough review of all ground equipment used in testing and appointed a senior Navy officer to oversee future test preparations.” Here, incidentally, is what these missile-interceptors do shoot down (this from the Post, December 2004): “A military investigation has concluded that a ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a Navy pilot was shot down and killed by U.S. forces during the spring 2003 invasion of Iraq occurred because operators at two Patriot missile batteries and a command center all mistakenly took his F/A-18 Hornet for an incoming Iraqi missile, the U.S. Central Command said last night.”

Of course Bush is rejecting talks with North Korea. Why bother? To the delight of military contractors, he’s playing Kim Jung Il perfectly. Another source of endless fear to stoke, another conveniently unprovable stash of supposedly deadly evidence, another vindication for seeing the world as an evil ax to grind, mostly to the benefit of the GOP's electoral strategies (but not without a few Strangelove stragglers from the Clinton years). Without fear as a trump card, Republicans have nothing to go on. But we had it coming. The war in Iraq is lost. Afghanistan is being lost. We needed a new front. Tee-up North Korea. And ring up those contractors. They have one hell of a Christmas bonus coming their way.

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