John Barrasso vs. Chuck Hagel

The Military-Industrial Complex Strikes Back

by Marsha B. Cohen

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

Barely a week after the 53rd anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address he prepared to leave office, warning the nation of the perils to peace emanating not just from America’s enemies, but from the increasingly rapacious appetite for power and profit of its defense industries. This week, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) offered what should have been a sobering reminder of Eisenhower’s worst fears.

On the surface, Barrasso’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on January 23, headlined Chuck Hagel’s Unsettling History, seems to be just another regurgitation of (Bill) Kristol-lite complaints and (Jennifer) Rubinesque rants about Chuck Hagel — stale smears about “the Jewish lobby,” his voting record in the Senate, and a straw-man claim that Hagel believes that “Iran would act responsibly.” Indeed, Barrasso’s arguments appear to be part of the organized attempt to deride Hagel’s character and capabilities through the casually meretricious “let’s just throw stuff at him and see what sticks” mode employed against President Obama that has become the norm in neoconservative bluster.

But Barrasso’s career also deserves scrutiny and one of his paragraphs revealed — intentionally or unintentionally — the next line of attack against the Secretary of Defense nominee: Hagel’s stance on U.S. nuclear policy.

On the issue of nuclear weapons, the candidate for U.S. secretary of defense actually seems more focused on eliminating American nuclear arms than eliminating the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Mr. Hagel was the co-author of a 2012 report for the group Global Zero, “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture,” that included a recommendation to eliminate the “Minuteman land-based ICBM.” That could leave America dangerously vulnerable. Even Mr. Obama has promised to modernize our ICBMs, not scrap them.

Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who had run as a moderate for the Senate in 1996 and lost, replaced the late Craig Thomas in the Senate in 2007 and won a special election in 2008 that gave him a hold on the seat for another two years. He spent $2.5 million on his campaign, ten times the amount of his Democratic opponent, and easily won re-election to his first six-year term in the Senate this past November, raising over $7 million dollars and spending $4.5 million.

The vehemence of Barrasso’s opposition to the Senate’s ratification of the START nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia in 2010 surprised even his Wyoming constituents. Only 11 Republican senators voted with Democrats in favor of START; Mike Enzi, Wyoming’s senior senator, wasn’t among them either. Wyoming was once one of the largest suppliers of uranium to the the nuclear weapons industry, but production has been on the decline since the 1980s. It hopes to revitalize the yellowcake industry, capitalizing on rising prices. Barrasso and Enzi both have been forthright about their state’s vested interest in perpetuating US reliance on nuclear weaponry and upgrading the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

Bill McCarthy of WyoFile points out that Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base contributes $364 million to the Cheyenne area economy, including $221 million in payroll from the base, about $81 million in construction projects and the rest from jobs created in and around the base. The cutback or loss of any of these revenue sources and the commerce generated by them would also damage the rest of the state’s economy. But cutbacks at Warren appear inevitable. Former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright and General Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, stated in 2011 that they don’t believe funding will match past spending. Warren is at a disadvantage relative to other nuclear weapons delivery systems and facilities:

Along with the potential that silo-based missiles in Wyoming might be considered a Cold War relic compared to submarine- and aircraft-based weapons, for example, Warren is an Air Force base without a “flight line.” There are no facilities on base to land and maintain military aircraft.

So, although Barrasso opposed New START on strategic grounds, he had plenty of parochial reasons to try to stop the treaty or protect the weapons overseen from Cheyenne.

While hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent over the next decade on nuclear weapons, there will be fierce competition for fewer dollars.

Barrasso also requested an appropriation of $4.5 million in 2010 for the Wyoming Army National Guard Joint Training and Experimentation Center:

The project will focus on four areas to support war fighter experimentation: operational experiment instrumentation, expansion of ground robotics experimentation facilities including reconfigurable MOUT facilities, expansion of surrogate robotics pool, and conducting user defined robotics experiments focusing of the Joint Capability Areas (JCAs) of Joint Protection, Joint Homeland Defense, and Military Support of Civil Authorities user defined robotics experiments.

A Casper Star Tribune editorial at the time considered the speed and severity of Barrasso’s lurch to the hard right, and his uncompromising stances immediately after his election to the Senate, puzzling:

The fact that Barrasso has joined the extreme right-wing faction of his party and is leading opposition to the treaty confounds us. He is in one of the safest Senate seats in the country, and in no way needs to pander to ultraconservatives whose main goal is to see (President Barack) Obama lose.”

The op-ed noted that Wyoming’s senior senator Mike Enzi also opposed the New START, “but Barrasso has been out front in the right-wing Republican charge against what President Barack Obama has called his top foreign policy objective.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) led the floor fight for the START treaty in 2010. About to become Secretary of State in what is expected to be a swift and relatively bloodless confirmation process, Kerry hailed the ratification of START 3 years ago as moving the world away from the risk of nuclear disaster. “The winners are not defined by party or ideology,” he said. “The winners are the American people, who are safer with fewer Russian missiles aimed at them.”

Nuclear policy should be a matter of serious concern in confirming the next Secretary of Defense, whoever s/he may be. The 2013 nuclear agenda is going to be full, as Kevin Baron of Foreign Policy’s E-Ring points out.

The Pentagon has yet to release its plan to implement the Nuclear Posture Review, and amid continuing resolutions funding the fiscal year and the sequester-delayed budget request for 2014, the new defense secretary must decide the pace of building new nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. Additionally, the Obama administration is poised to start pushing below the caps established by the New START treaty, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 warheads each. With that agenda already penciled in, Hagel’s nomination has both thrilled nuclear disarmament advocates and concerned nuclear hawks in Congress.

It’s incumbent upon the media to point out that it is not just national security concerns, or conservative ideology, but behind-the-scenes economic considerations that will be playing a role in the political grandstanding surrounding Chuck Hagel’s confirmation. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Case in point: John Barrasso.

Photo: Senator John Barrasso speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, DC. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.