Viewpoint: Arms Control's Strange Bedfellows


There is no more deceptive subject than arms control. I am not alleging a conspiracy, but it does seem that those who support the "arms control process" do so for reasons that they either do not themselves understand or do not wish to publicize. Arms control is always promoted and touted as a way to reduce the quantity of nuclear weapons. The theory, rarely spelled out, is that a certain precarious "balance" of weapons exists. If either side upsets this balance by building too many weapons, "instability" results and we are all in peril.

Now this is nonsense. Does it really matter how many warheads we or the Soviets have? If they have 25,000 this year, why worry if they have 30,000 next? No one is seriously alleging that there is any danger of these weapons accidentally exploding. If, between the United States and the USSR, we have enough bombs to blow up the world ten times over—as the liberals love to tell us—why become alarmed if Soviet armament factories crank out still more? Such overkill is merely a waste of their money and manpower.

For the liberals who support arms control, quantitative reduction of weapons is not really the goal at all. For them, the "process" dresses up ideological conflict (between communism and democracy) as a procedural confusion (with mathematical overtones). Then let us hasten to the bargaining table to straighten things out! Arms-control bargaining sessions legitimize the Soviet Union as the coguarantor of world peace, and they force U.S. weapons procurement to run the gauntlet of Soviet approval. Today, for example, the Soviets are trying to use arms control to prevent the United States from defending itself against Soviet missiles—a goal shared by most American liberals.

So it is not hard to see why liberals like arms control.

Oddly enough, arms control also keeps the Pentagon happy. How does this work? There are two points to bear in mind. First of all, the whole idea of arms control is based on the theory that technological development can be frozen by law. It is an attempt to make the past permanent—to rule out the future by treaty. Secondly, and quite unexpectedly, a never-ending arms control "process" actually provides a rationale for building more weapons—more of what already exists. And it isn't hard to see that endless arms-control talks provide grounds for keeping weapons in commission.

"Let's keep these weapons well oiled," the Joint Chiefs of Staff will say. "At least they will come in handy as bargaining chips at Geneva." Having made a big deal out of arms control, Congress has not yet learned how to respond to this gambit. Nor to this one: "Why give it away unilaterally when we can use it to get them to give up something?" Anyone who knows how admirals hate to see their beloved old warships decommissioned will appreciate the appeal of such arguments.

Out west, says Arms Control Director Kenneth Adelman, there are airfields of old, with still-operational jets that would have been sold for scrap long ago if it hadn't been for arms control. So how do you think Air Force Chief of Staff Charles A. Gabriel feels about arms control? He loves it. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman told me last summer that there is no group in Washington more supportive of arms control than the Joint Chiefs. He stressed that he was talking about the Reagan, not the Carter, Administration.

Last fall, President Reagan said repeatedly that it was our arms buildup that had brought the Soviets to Reykjavik. Hardly anyone pointed out the confusion: Having built up arms, it was safe to negotiate them away again. Why go through such rigamarole? Well, notice what happened. The arms buildup was real. The negotiated reductions never happened. So whose budget benefited? The Pentagon's.

There's something else. Arms control protects old weapons systems, but it makes it difficult to build new ones—much the way rent control protects existing tenants but makes life difficult for future ones. The service chiefs, who are well positioned to use arms control to enlarge their pet weapons programs, are frequently hostile to new programs. These they see not so much as saving the country as threatening their turf.

When a new system, say "Star Wars," is poised to displace an old one, say ICBMs, the bureaucratic losers (generals in charge of ICBMs) are in a better position to block the change than the winners (junior officers, their identity still unknown) are to encourage it. The potential losers are identifiable and powerful; the potential winners unknown and weak.

Under these circumstances, it's easy to rationalize one's support of the status quo as opposition to the newfangled and untested. Thus 19th-century admirals could defend sail against steam on the grounds that those damned boilers were unreliable, so you'd have to have backup sail anyway. More recently, the U.S. Army and Air Force resisted the introduction of ICBMs. Today, the Joint Chiefs oppose the deployment of "Star Wars," and according to Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop, they have so advised President Reagan.

So it's not hard to see why we have an endless "arms control process." The liberals like it, and the Pentagon likes it. That's a powerful combination—likely to endure. Everything falls into place so long as one remembers that "arms control" has nothing to do with arms reduction.

Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.