Magazine article The Spectator

Mad about the Bomb

Magazine article The Spectator

Mad about the Bomb

Article excerpt

New Hampshire

LIKE most expert commentators, I haven't a clue what I'm talking about 90 per cent of the time. Fortunately, it's usually pretty easy to fake it. For example, you'll recall that when John F. Kennedy's plane plunged into Long Island Sound, we columnists moved smoothly into the improvised Aviation Correspondent routine, pointing out that when you're flying at night across water it's easy to lose sight of whether the big coloured thingumajig on the instrument panel is correctly aligned with the funny-shaped wossname tracking the whatever.

Unfortunately, for anything faster than a twin-prop, it all gets a bit technical. Much easier to take refuge in metaphor. Here's Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, explaining his objections to the Bush administration's plans for missile defence: `It's good to have layers of defence, just as it's good to have belts and suspenders. But if you already have suspenders, it would be crazy to pay $100 billion for a belt of uncertain reliability - especially if that belt makes it more likely your pants will fall down.'

If I follow correctly, the suspenders (or braces, as you chaps say; no transvestism in this metaphor) are conventional nuclear deterrence; the unreliable belt is missile defence; and the pants are America's cherished freedoms, the role of the great Republic itself presumably being played by the pimply, hairy legs left so perilously exposed by the concertinaed trousers. What I don't understand is why an unreliable belt would lead to the collapse of your pants if you're still wearing the suspenders, unless, of course, the suspenders themselves are also unreliable, perhaps even obsolescent, a relic of the Cold War era liable to snap unexpectedly when you're bending down to pick up your derby.

But, of course, it is not necessary for Friedman's metaphor to make sense, as all the smart people who read the New York Times already agree with him. Missile defence has been a joke ever since it was cooked up a generation ago by President Reagan, the noted B-movie cowboy moron, and instantly dismissed as Star Wars, a comic-book fantasy. Then, as now, the smart set lined up to pour scorn on the presidential clod: according to JFK/LBJ national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, renowned Kremlinologist George F. Kennan, veteran arms control negotiator Gerald Smith, former defence secretary Robert S. McNamara, and a zillion others of one mind, Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative was an `act of folly', a 'dream' that `cannot be achieved'. Worse, the whole scam was a `telling commentary on his presidential style', according to Philip Geyelin in the Washington Post in 1984: `Reagan had no proposal worked out when he first floated the idea almost casually in a speech devoted to other, known quantities in his military program. He had only a fatuous, personal vision of a nuclear-free world.' Just as President Kennedy had no proposal worked out - only a fatuous personal vision of putting a man on the moon within the decade.

When Reagan first floated his fatuous proposal, the guy representing the other side was Andrei Gromyko. Less than two decades on, Gromyko and the state he served are dead, and all manner of things are technically feasible. It never occurred to me back in the 1980s that one day I'd be able to write a piece for The Spectator while simultaneously watching split-screen live streaming video of grandmothers having sex with goats. And not just any goats, but Nubians. If President Reagan had proposed the Internet, or cloning, or any of the other novelties of the age, they, too, would have been fatuous delusions. Much has changed in the world since the 1980s, but happily the quality of Star Wars jokes remains delightfully unspoilt by progress. The other day, after listening to a detailed presentation by deputy defence secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate armed services committee, fired off a zinger he'd taken the precaution of preparing in advance. …

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