A weapons-grade bad idea

Published 10:18 pm Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Perhaps the most dangerous problem posed by Republican control of Congress is more Texans are put in charge of things that we’d be better off having responsible adults do. The latest example is Rep. Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who has hit upon a particularly dangerous idea: He thinks we need a new kind of nuclear weapon that we are more likely to use. This is an idea only a raving madman or a Texas congressman could love.

First, a little perspective: We’re already budgeting around $1 trillion to update our nuclear arsenal. Apparently nukes have expiration dates, so keeping the old weapons around risks nuking ourselves. And even though the Cold War is over and only a few nuclear weapons would provide an adequate deterrence, we’ve apparently decided that we need to replace all the 4,800 or so weapons. If this makes no sense to you, welcome to Washington.

To Thornberry, though, this is not enough. He notes that Russia is building 40 new nuclear missiles—keep in mind, we have 4,800 nuclear weapons—and thinks that Russia’s action demands an equal and opposite American satisfaction. This is the kind of reflexive overreaction that makes one want to play poker with Congressman Thornberry.

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Worse yet, Thornberry fancies himself a thinker, but he’s the kind of half-smart guy who makes everything more dangerous. He’s worried that our bombs are too big—imagine 100 Hiroshimas—and that if Putin launched one of his sleek new missiles that we would “self-deter,” not wanting to annihilate Russians. If you are prone to migraines, I would not recommend reading further.

What Thornberry thinks we need are smaller nuclear weapons—imagine one the size that we dropped on Hiroshima—that we would be more likely to use. By making nuclear war more likely to happen, he reasons, we would intimidate Vladimir Putin from invading any more countries, thus making nuclear war less likely to happen. This probably sounded smarter in his head.

Forget for a second that our nuclear deterrence did nothing to deter Russia from invading Ukraine and launching a cyber attack on Georgia. We’re talking about a regime that very likely blew up Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999 and blamed it on Muslim terrorists to justify the war in Chechnya. Russians don’t think like we do, but then neither does Thornberry.

It would probably be rude to point out that the Pantex plant, our country’s only nuclear weapons factory, is located in Thornberry’s congressional district in the Texas panhandle. Maybe he’s cynically putting the parochial interests of his district ahead of our national security, risking nuclear Armageddon to win a few more jobs for his constituents. More likely, Pantex is his hammer, and as a pro-hammer kinda guy, Thornberry sees Russia as a nail.

If Thornberry didn’t have nuclear tunnel vision, he might be able to see that our strategy in Russia seems to be working. Thanks to both falling oil prices and economic sanctions imposed by the United States and our European allies, the Russian economy has been shrinking for five straight months.

And lest Vladimir Putin not get the message that he is cornered, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is sending military equipment to Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Poland and Germany. We’re even sending Bulgaria 155 Marines plus four Abrams main battle tanks, six light armored vehicles and three howitzers. Our Navy is a regular presence in the Baltic Sea now. We have military installations in most former Soviet countries.

In other words, we’ve got him surrounded. The prospect of a land war in Eastern Europe during a prolonged recession is a heck of a deterrent for Putin. And lest we forget, we also have almost 5,000 nuclear weapons pointed at Russia.

Thornberry has said, “We face more complex national security challenges today,” but our challenge with Russia isn’t that complicated. The U.S. and our allies have Russia surrounded, economically and militarily. Ignore the growling. The bear is in a cage. We shouldn’t borrow money we don’t have to build weapons we don’t need for a Cold War that ended a generation ago.

This is a weapons-grade bad idea, even for a Texas Republican.

Jason Stanford is Democratic political consultant living in Texas. He’s the co-author of “Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush”