Against the Good Nukes / Bad Nukes Fallacy, or: David Frum’s Prophecy Problem

David Frum likes to think he knows what he’s talking about, but here’s the main reason he so often does not: he tends to link ideological assumptions with cynical bad-faith arguments about geo-politics. He mixes willing naïveté with the radical pretense of cynical omniscience. Frum would have us commit to the dangerous gamble that is selective non-proliferation, because he can’t think a better way.

When David Frum writes about why the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is not only “impossible” but also “dangerous”, he does so with two major obstacles to credibility: 1. he is arguing for the policies of an administration in which he served; 2. he is arguing that he can prove a negative (claiming to know what will never come to pass, what can never be expected from comprehensive global negotiations, the development of surveillance and inspections technologies, the enticements of a truly global regime of denuclearization).

It is astounding that Frum is so convinced of his own clarity of vision so far into the future. That is, of course, unless we understand that for the ideology Frum has long preached and defended, it is gospel that a cynical outlook can be trusted, whereas a hopeful outlook is reckless gibberish. The problem is, and many of Frum’s colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute would be well-served to look inward on this point: cynicism is not an oracle, and it does not tell the future; it is just another formula for thought, which provides no actual evidence of anything.

Cynicism often lends itself to the construction of intellectually convenient, overly facile descriptions of future events, which —bolstered by the impassioned worries and self-promotion of the cynic, the anti-prophet— quickly assume an air of prophetic certainty. Buoyed by the psychological satisfaction of carrying prophetic certainty within, the cynic then commits more and more fully to the proclamation of unshakeable doctrines about the future, based on bad-faith arguments and a passion for the despairing global outlook.

(He is known, of course, for delivering the “axis of evil” idea to George W. Bush as “axis of hatred”, again a phrase rooted in the presumption of cynical omniscience. Look at how gleefully that rhetoric was put to the task of describing, threatening and invading a country, about whom the most important claims were utterly false. This kind of zealous cynicism can get us into trouble; that much we know.)

We can thank Mr. Frum for informing us of how ideal the most recent theoretical developments in nuclear weapons technology are. Quoting:

These new weapons, on a new generation of missiles, could overwhelmingly deter any potential nuclear aggressor, while all but eliminating the risk of nuclear accident. Unlike current weapons, they do not need frequent refreshment of their nuclear core. They present near-zero risk of a radioactive leak. And they cannot be detonated by accident: According to one expert, these next-generation weapons could be loaded into a cannon and fired at a wall at four times the speed of sound without risk of unintended explosion.

“Sounds good” he writes. It does. It sounds beautiful, enticing, irresistible. The ingenuity of advanced human sciences have achieved perfection in technology. But this is where we have to be careful to remember that the cynic does not trust rosy predictions. Or does he? When he represents the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-conservative movement or the planning of war in Iraq, he often does: he uses the cynic’s claim to omniscience to rule out all dissent, then uses the powers of his assumption about the absolute fallibility of the outside world to adopt the most seductive rose-tinted expectations imaginable.

What Frum does not explain is the following:

1. Fissile material, being radioactive, must deteriorate (all radioactive materials have a “half-life”, due to complex entropy inherent in the physics of radioactivity; that half-life, the time after which the level of radioactivity is half what it was initially, is measurable and does not vary), but David Frum professes to know that nuclear scientists have successfully thwarted the universal phenomenon of entropy (the release of energy from a closed system to the surrounding environment).

2. While testing these special new nuclear devices sounds simple enough, they need to be tested somewhere, releasing a massive amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and such tests tend to provoke a militant response; they are the signal that an arms race is underway, and other nations will respond accordingly. Again, in his ignoring this problem completely, we find the willing naïveté with which Frum fuses his cynical outlook to get rosy prophetic visions.

3. He also gives us no reason whatsoever to believe that he is using sources linked to real science, just makes claims about what “one expert” has told him. It is attractive to think that by securing nuclear weapons against accidental explosion we prevent the threat of their being detonated, but once we have them, we have to deal with the appetites of human beings who have control over them. The human failsafe mechanism would still be required.

4. He does note that “President Obama did not exactly say that he would never test one of the new warheads”, adding”But he sure raised some fierce political difficulties for himself if he ever did want to test.” But he ignores completely the fact that Obama said he knows the lofty goal of global denuclearization may likely not be achieved in his lifetime (that’s 30 to 40 more years), so while he’s pressing to achieve a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, he may not be rushing to disarm.

Frum also conveniently ignores the fact that those “fierce political difficulties” related to testing a nuclear weapon aren’t necessarily the result of Obama’s favoring a ban. The reason no new devices have been tested by the US since 1992 is that the public wants to move beyond the threat of nuclear holocaust. With the Cold War ended, the US public took a strong position against the continued advancement of nuclear weapons, period.

So, we are left to consider whether or not —despite Frum’s clumsy way of using a blindly cynical approach to geo-politics in order to fashion a utopian vision of America’s nuclear future—

it is true that aspiring to the elimination of nuclear weapons is a dangerous proposition. Again, the only justifiable basis for this claim is to assume that the US intends to discard its weapons willy-nilly, without any collaboration from the world’s other nuclear powers to ensure that all weapons are phased out and no one can acquire the technology to build new ones.

Aside from its value as a genuine example of the absurd, how could Frum actually believe that? It will not be for Pres. Obama to see his goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world through; it will be for him to build the necessary diplomatic and strategic relationships capable of starting the world down that road. And those relationships can only be of benefit for the long-term security interests of a world that would rather not see itself obliterated by senseless allegiance to weapons that serve no moral purpose and whose use does not fit within any of our laws.

We must also take very seriously the logical and moral problems inherent in any position that promotes the advancement or the permanent commitment to these weapons, the very same weapons that Frum’s old boss considered the ultimate manifestation of evil in the world (at least the illusory Iraqi version of them). That administration championed its right to invade a nation to prevent its using WMD, but actively used depleted uranium shells and pronounced its intention to create new “mini-nukes” to be used on conventional targets in non-nuclear-armed states that posed only a “potential future threat”.

It is the clumsy intellectual acrobatics of the people David Frum has chosen to surround himself with that seems most irresponsible and “dangerous” in all of this. To wage war on someone for the very thing one is claiming the right to do is to exhibit total moral and intellectual bankruptcy. To claim that one must use the world’s worst weapons as a deterrent against the horrors of the human world, because the human world in its infinite perfection has conquered nature and created failsafe nukes, is just another example of that reckless use of intellect.

Mr. Frum is likely proud of himself for finding a way to put into words the insane accusation that Obama wants Iran to develop the bomb (he has been very adamant in his opposition to this and is already coordinating world leaders to prevent it). He is proud of this, because his intention is to serve a partisan argument and defend the pro-nuclear policies of the administration he served.

And he is likely also very proud of himself for finding a way to argue that some nukes are good nukes and we can have them and also be safe. Very cozy. But his argument ignores the most serious issues involved in nuclear proliferation; it is dangerous politics he is playing with these words, and he offers them, because he can’t come up with anything better.

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