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20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: the post below is a somewhat edited post-publication version of Part One my responses to questions posed by Daniel Falcone, published in CounterPunch, September 12, 2021, with the title of “9/11: Doctrines of Bush, Obama, Trump & Biden.” Although online the interview was schedule in response to the national attention understandably given to the 20th annual observance of the 9/11 attacks. The focus of my response follows a different line of reasoning. In this sense, my response, as suggested by the title give to Part One, can be read as suggesting that greater transformative effects resulted from 9/12 than the tragic events of 9/11 due to the vengeful recklessness of the U.S. response, partly pushed to excess by a belligerent neoconservative pre-9/11 agenda, which became politically viable only after the provocation of the attacks. It is a reflection of the deficiencies of political pedagogy and journalistic priorities in the United States that despite all that has happened at home and abroad in the course of the last twenty years, virtually no distinct attention is given to 9/12]

9/12: Reacting to Crime by War(s)

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on September 11, 2001 as a historical event and provide how this day continues to shape the way the United States sees itself in the world?

Richard Falk: The attack itself on 9/11 was a most momentous event from the perspective of international relations, with the salient initial effect of further undermining the dominating historic role of hard power under the control of national governments in explaining historical agency. That role was already eroded as a result of high-profile anti-colonial wars being won by the weaker side militarily, principally as a result of the mobilizing effect of the soft power stimulus of nationalist fervor and perseverance in achieving political self-determination by resisting foreign intervention and domination.

Dramatically, 9/11 revealed the vulnerability of the most powerful country, as measured by military capabilities and global security hegemony, in all of world history, to the violent tactics of non-state combatants with comparatively weak military capabilities in coercive interactions labeled by war planners as ‘asymmetric warfare.’

On the basis of minimal expenditures of lives and resources, al-Qaeda produced a traumatizing and disorienting shock on the United States and the American body politic from which it has yet to recover, generating responses in ways that are fundamentally dysfunctional with respect to achieving tolerable levels of global stability in a historical period when security threats were moving away from traditional geopolitical rivalries so as to respond to climate change, pandemics, and a series of systemic secondary effect. While not fulfilling its goals, the launching of a ‘war on terror’ produced great devastation and human suffering spread far and wide, distant from the American homeland, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

Such an efficient use of terrorist tactics by al-Qaeda, not only as an instrument of destruction, but as a mighty symbolic blow directed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, embodiments of American economic ascendancy and military hegemony. These material effects were further magnified by the spectacular nature of visual moment unforgettably inscribed on the political consciousness of worldwide TV audiences, above all conveying the universal vulnerability of the strong to the imaginative rage and dedicated sacrifice of the avenging weak who were induced to give the lives to make a point and serve a fanatical cause.

Of course, the ‘success’ of this attack was short-lived, producing an initial wave of global empathy for the innocent victims of such mayhem, heralding widespread support and sympathy to the United States, exhibiting an outburst of internationalist solidarity, including widespread support from governments around the world and at the UN for greatly augmented efforts at criminal enforcement of anti-terrorist policies and norms. Yet this early international reaction sympathetic to the U.S. has been erased in the American memory and international perceptions, as well as long overshadowed internationally by dual damaging effects of the American over-reaction that claimed during the next twenty years many times the number of innocent victims than were lost on 9/11, but also was on the losing end of prolonged, costly interventions and state-building undertakings that went along to show that the American imperial prowess was indeed a paper tiger. This over-reaction has also contributed to counterrevolutionary impacts worldwide that are still reverberating.

The seemingly highly impulsive and reactive responses to 9/11 by the American leadership was to herald the immediate launching of ‘the war on terror,’ which should be understood as a generalized forever war against a generic type of political behavior rather than declaring was on an adversary state. Before 9/11 terrorist tactics even if prolonged and threatening to the stability of the state, were regarded as a severe type of crime or anti-state criminal enterprise, with serious policing and paramilitary implications but not a matter of military engagement on conventional battlefields. Of course, on many prior historic occasions a political movement engaged in terrorist activity as a prelude to a sustained insurrectionary challenge to the prevailing government. This U.S. response by way of war, directed not only at the al-Qaeda perpetrators mainly situated in the mountains of Afghanistan, but potentially against all forms of non-state and foreign political extremism directed at the interests of Western states, made the historical effects of 9/12 far greater internally for America and externally for the world than the grim event of the prior day when the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, killing 2,997. The ‘forever wars,’by comparison killed as estimated 900,000 (at a cost of $8 trillion) [conservative estimates of ‘The Costs of War Project’ at Brown University].    

It is crucial to remember that 9/11 from the moment of the first explosion was politically much more than a mega-terrorist attack, however spectacular. It quickly provided a pretext for projecting American military power and political influence that the dominant wing of the political class then in control of the White House was awaiting with growing signs of impatience. It was no secret that the chief foreign policy advisors of George W. Bush wanted and needed a political mandate that would allow the U.S. to carry out a preexisting neoconservative agenda of U.S. intervention and aggression, focused on the Middle East that prior to 9/11 lacked sufficient political backing among the citizenry to become operative foreign policy. This earlier neocon foreign policy agenda was set forth in the reports of the Project for a New American Century (1997-2006), prepared and endorsed by leading foreign policy hawks with global hegemony, Israel, and oil uppermost in their thoughts. For those seeking even earlier antecedents “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for the Security of the Realm,” an Israeli policy report of 1996  prepared by influential American neocon foreign policy experts at the behest of Netanyahu is worthy of notice. The haunting reality that the 9/11 attack was masterminded and orchestrated from remote sites in Afghanistan reinforced the globalist ambitions of militarists to the effect that U.S. was significantly threatened by non-state enemies situated in geographically remote places on the planet, that deterrence and retaliation were irrelevant against such foes, and that preemptive styles of warfare were now necessary and fully justified against government that willingly gave safe havens to such violently disposed political extremism. New tactics seem needed and justified if the security of a country, however militarily capable, was in the future to be upheld against remotely situated non-state enemies. This post-9/11 strategic discourse produced a sequence of forever wars, most tellingly in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria and Libya, which were quite unrelated to al-Qaeda rationale for expanding prior notion of the right of self-defense, whether understood with reference to international law or geopolitics.

Another legacy of 9/11, although also evident in the outcome of the Vietnam War, is that the side that has the military superiority no longer has reason to believe that it will attain a political victory at an acceptable cost. “You have the watches, we have the time” vividly imparts the largely unreported news that perseverance, commitment, and patience, more than military hardware however sophisticated, shape political outcomes in characteristic conflicts for the control of sovereign political space in the 21st Century. Whether this trend will continue is, of course, uncertain as war planners in governments of geopolitical actors are devoting resources and energies to devising tactics and weapons that will restore hard power potency.

The message of a changed balance of power at least temporarily, despite the startling consistency of the evidence, is one that the political class in the West, especially in the U.S. refuses to heed. The militarization of the foreign policy establishment of Western states over the course of the Cold War, is also reflective of the ‘political realist’ ideological consensus led to a costly and futile process in which security challenges were predominantly seen through a reductionist lens that impoverished the political imagination by ignoring the shifting power balances that have favored the politics of post-colonial nationalism. The previously hidden weaknesses of external intervenors were exposed. These weaknesses included the onset of geopolitical fatigue in these combat zones distant from the homeland coupled with a lack of political success at all commensurate with the effort. The military prowess of the foreign intervenors being more than offset over time by nationalist perseverance, although at great costs for the resisters. The intervenors strain to justify these foreign missions to a domestic public that gradually comes to understand that the security claims used to ‘sell’ the war were all along a phony façade partly erected to hide the benefits to special interests within and outside the governmental bureaucracy, including the defense industry and private contracting firms that complemented the explicit military presence, and were economic winners even if the government was a political loser. Although brainwashed over the years, with the help of a corporatized media, there remained a remnant of accountability to the citizenry if American lives were sacrificed in a lost war that also revealed itself to be quite irrelevant from a security perspective. The victory of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam or of the Taliban this year is not likely to alter the regional status quo to any great extent further demonstrating that the war strategy was not only a failure but superfluous from a traditional security perspective, although consequential geopolitically.

It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal from ongoing forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere leads to a belated recognition of what I have in the past called ‘the unlearned lesson of the Vietnam War.’ So far, this is far from clear as the inflated level of the U.S. military budget, with its huge negative domestic opportunity costs, continues to enjoy overwhelming bipartisan support. Also telling is the tendency to meet the rise of China by bellicose posturing that may have already generated a second cold war that neither the country nor the world can afford or risk turning hot. Perhaps, the American political class has temporarily learned the lesson that state-building interventions do not work under current world conditions, but still harbor reckless beliefs that geopolitical ‘wars’ remain viable options, thereby providing continued validation of inflated military spending and consequent policy orientations toward conflict and rivalry rather than conciliation and compromise. China, admittedly bears some responsibility for escalating tensions due to its provocative militarist moves in the South China Seas and economistic provocations. The Biden foreign policy has clearly designated China as a credible geopolitical rival that threatens U.S. geopolitical primacy, and hence must be confronted as well as contained, even resisted by force of arms if necessary.   

We should not overlook the lingering skepticism surrounding the official version of the 9/11 events. The official inquiry resulting in the report of the 9/11 Commission convinced few of the serious doubters as it put to convincing rest none of the reasons for doubt. As long as this, doubt remains embedded in a portion of the citizenry, no matter how castigated they may be as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and routinely maligned by mainstream media, a shadow of illegitimacy will be cast over the U.S. body politic. A truly independent second 9/11 investigation backed by the government is long overdue, but seems highly unlikely to happen. If given unrestricted access to FBI and CIA records and subpoena powers such an authentic processs could clear the air, and a crucial regenerative future for American democracy that might finally overcome the legacies of both 9/11 and 9/12.

Why Arms Control is the Enemy of Nuclear Disarmament

9 Jul

Why Arms Control is the Enemy of Nuclear Disarmament


No First Use: Arms Control versus Disarmament Perspectives


I have long believed that it is important to disentangle the advocacy of nuclear disarmament from the prevailing arms control approach. The core difference in perspective can be summarized as follows: arms controllers seek to stabilize nuclearism, reserving nuclear weapons for use as deterrent weapons of last resort; nuclear disarmers seek to get rid of nuclear weapons as reliably as possible, and forever; disarmers regard their possession, development, and potential use as deeply immoral as well as dangerous from the perspective of long-term human security.


President Barack Obama ever since his 2009 speech at Prague projecting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons has confused public understanding by straddling the fence between these two incompatible perspectives. He often talks like a potential disarmer, as during his recent visit to Hiroshima, but acts like an arms controller, as in the appropriation of $1 trillion for the modernization of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years or in NATO contexts of deployment.


There is a quite prevalent confusion among those constituencies that purport to favor nuclear disarmament of supposing that the adoption of arms control measures is not only consistent with, but actually advances toward the realization of their objectives. Such reasoning is deeply confused in my view. It is not just that most formulations of arms control regard nuclear disarmament, if at all, as an ‘ultimate’ goal, that is, as no goal at all falling outside the domain of policy feasibility.

Obama signaled his own confusion in two features of his Prague speech: first, indicating without giving any rationale (there is none) that achieving nuclear disarmament might not be achieved in his lifetime; secondly, avoiding any mention of the legal imperative of a good faith commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament that was unanimously endorsed by an otherwise divided court in the International Court of Justice historic Advisory Opinion of 1996.


Incidentally, the label ‘advisory’ is deeply misleading as this legal pronouncement by the highest judicial body in the UN System is the most authoritative interpretation attainable of relevant international law by distinguished jurists drawn from the main legal and cultural traditions active in the world. For such a diverse group to agree on the legal imperative of disarmament is notable, and for it to be ignored by a supposed advocate who is in a position to act is both revealing and irresponsible.


My view of the tension between the two perspectives can be briefly articulated: arms control measures unless tied to a disarmament scenario make the retention of nuclear weapons less prone to accident, inadvertent use, and unnecessary missions while reinforcing the logic of deterrence and indirectly expressing the view that a reliable nonproliferation regime is the best that can be hoped for ever since the nuclear genie escaped confinement. Such an approach makes the advocacy of nuclear disarmament

appear to be superfluous idealism, at best, and an imprudent

challenge to deterrence and realism, at worst. There is a coherent argument for such a posture, but it is not one that credible supporters of a nuclear zero or nuclear disarmament should feel comfortable with as it undercuts their supposed priority to eliminate the weaponry once and for all, although moving to zero by verified stages. This contrasts with the central undertaking of the arms control community to live with nuclear weapons as prudently as possible, which translates into nonproliferation, safety, prudent foreign

policy, non-provocative weapons development and deployment, and trustworthy crisis management.


Printed below is a recent editorial of the Arms Control Association proposing the American adoption of a no first use policy as a crucial declaratory step in advancing their agenda of nuclear prudence. Its line of argument well illustrates the overall nuclearist logic of the arms control establishment, which also tries to justify its proposal by showing that nuclear weapons are not needed to fulfill America’s worldwide geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions can be satisfied in all circumstances, it is alleged, except a nuclear attack by a nuclear weapons state, by relying on U.S. dominance in conventional weaponry.


Here is a further issue raised: for states that possess or contemplate the possession of nuclear weapons, yet are vulnerable to conventional weaponry of potential adversaries, the implicit rationale of the Arms Control Association editorial is that such states have strong

justifications for retaining, and even for developing such weaponry. In effect, countries such as Iran and North Korea can read this editorial as suggesting that they need nuclear weapons to deter surrounding countries with superior conventional weaponry from exerting undue influence via intervention or coercive diplomacy. In effect, the Arms Control Association no first use position, by treating that the U.S. Government and think tank policy community as its target audience, is undercutting the ethical and political rationale for nonproliferation as a rule of world order. As security is the acknowledged prime value in state-centric world order, an argument justifying nuclear weapons for the leading military power in the world is in effect providing non-nuclear states that feel threatened with a powerful

argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.


A final clarification: I have long favored the adoption of a no first use policy on its own merits, including at the height of the Cold War. It not only underscored the immorality and criminal unlawfulness of any initiating use, but if properly explained could be taken as a vital step in a disarming process. As long as no such posture was adopted even by the United States, with its formidable conventional military options, it meant that the potential use of nuclear weapons was never taken off the geopolitical table. This meant, as well, that the nuclear weapons labs were encouraged to envision potential roles for these weapons of mass destruction and design weaponry configured to carry out such missions.


In effect, a nuclear disarmament position also entails a repudiation of geopolitical ambitions to project worldwide military power as the United States has done ever since the end of World War II. This grandiose undertaking has weakened the UN, undermined respect for international law, and subverted democratic institutions within the United States and elsewhere, all while making the country more insecure than at any time in its history and its enemies more bold and aggressive. The common flaw of dominant political actors is to underestimate the will and capability of its militarily weaker adversaries to develop effective modes of resistance. Both the Vietnam experience and 9/11 should have imparted this basic message that the United States was endangering its future (and that of the world) by its posture of geopolitical hubris built on the false belief that the effective agent of change in the twenty-first century is military

dominance. The nuclear dimension of this hubris is particularly dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.


It is long overdue to distinguish arms control from disarmament. Arms controllers have made such a choice, purging genuine advocates of disarmament from their ranks as dreamers. The arms control voice is welcome in government even when their proposals are rejected because they collide with geopolitical goals. In contrast, the voice of disarmers is popular among the peoples of the world. Obama’s Prague speech made such a worldwide social impact, and continues to resonate, because it was widely heard (incorrectly) as putting the United States firmly on a disarmament path.


Unfortunately, after eight years of an Obama presidency it is as clear as ever that it is civil society alone that carried the disarmament torch during this period, somewhat backed by a series of non-nuclear governments that are not complicit beneficiaries of America’s nuclear umbrella (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). In this spirit, although not always sufficiently clear about the policy implications of their nuclear disarmament agenda, the best vehicle for those favoring nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and such initiatives as Chain Reaction 2016 and the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.




Editorial Published on Arms Control Association (; posted June 30, 2016


Take Nuclear First-Use Off the Table

The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.

Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.

President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)

Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.

Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.

Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.

Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.

As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.

Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.

A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.

In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.

A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.

By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.