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Nuclear Weapons and Diplomacy

August 27, 2006

Having invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration has its sights set on Iran. That has prompted a protest by former U.S. military commanders, who called instead for a diplomatic offensive.

"As former military leaders and foreign policy officials, we call on the Bush Administration to engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran without preconditions to help resolve the current crisis in the Middle East and settle differences over the Iranian nuclear program,” said 22 retired generals, admirals and diplomats in a recent statement amid renewed fighting by Israelis and Muslims in Lebanon that Bush officials blamed on meddling by Iran.

"We strongly caution against any consideration of the use of military force against Iran. The current crisis must be resolved through diplomacy, not military action. An attack on Iran would have disastrous consequences for security in the region and the U.S. forces in Iraq, and it would inflame hatred and violence in the Middle East and among Muslims everywhere,” the former officials continued.

The latest saber rattling at the White House is aimed at forcing Iran’s government to stop backing militant Islamic groups and manufacturing nuclear power plant fuel that could also power nuclear weapons. Nothing, however, was said about addressing the potentially catastrophic dangers of nuclear-armed arsenals in India, Pakistan, China, Israel, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States.

For those who remember ducking and covering under classroom desks or in school hallways in the event of nuclear war, threatening to go to war over nuclear weapons may be a jolting return to the past.

For most of my life, including air raid drills in school, military service during the Cuban Missile Crisis and with an Army unit in Vietnam, the greatest national security threat to the United States was the doomsday possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That threat ultimately was dissolved through a combination of military containment and dead serious diplomacy.

We are alive today because previous presidents chose diplomatic action to keep military actions from triggering nuclear war. It is what ultimately ended the nuclear stand off with what is now the former Soviet Union. Decades of military threats did not budge the Soviets. Resolving the threat of nuclear war, however, allowed a transformation that had been unimaginable—the virtually peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union into a number of smaller, less hostile nations.

As a veteran of military actions and peace actions, I was as astounded as anyone when the Cold War abruptly began to dissolve. I got a glimpse during a trip to the Soviet Union with a group of New Jersey residents on a citizen exchange mission in 1986, at a time when the U.S. and USSR were expelling each other’s diplomats and yet again rattling nuclear weapons. Everywhere we traveled in Russia, Estonia and Soviet Georgia we ran into other Americans from communities across our nation working to make peace with Soviet citizens at the grassroots level. Back in our hometowns, our neighbors helped host an influx of Soviet visitors invited to see how Americans live.

This process was called citizen diplomacy. At the State Department, it was called “track two” diplomacy, meaning it was in addition to government approaches. Embraced by the Reagan Administration as part of a wide scale diplomatic approach to the Soviet Union, this change in policy prompted historic agreements with the Soviets that swiftly ended the Cold War.

The Cold War has been succeeded by a furious clash between militant Muslims and a military-mobilized America. One general at the Pentagon predicted that the U.S. “war on terrorism” could go on for 30 years. A number of retired generals and admirals contend that this is the wrong approach. They maintain that this deadly dispute could be addressed much more effectively, utilizing lessons from the Cold War.

Retired Marine General Joseph Hoar, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, recently told news reporters “we have used a slogan, ‘the war on terror,’ to describe the dynamic of what is existent now in the Middle East, and if we're not careful, is going to spread throughout the world. This whole idea of taking terror, which is a technique, and turning it into a slogan, has caused us not to think about root problems here.” Hoar, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, called for diplomatic actions, rather than counter-productive military missions.

Americans could help make historic change, these experienced military commanders contend, by reaching out to Islamic societies and undertaking the diplomatic actions that ended Cold War hostilities. To do that would mean changing U.S. military actions into real peacemaking missions and mobilizing American civic groups.

People-to-people outreach was an idea fostered by President Eisenhower—another general who sought workable international solutions rather than wage war in the Middle East. Numerous American communities have organized sister-city ties with cities around the world, hosted exchanges of students and adults of all sorts, assisted overseas communities ravaged by war or natural disasters, and demonstrated the benefits of civic action. That is what impressed the Soviets and helped make the Cold War diplomatic campaign work.

As the Reagan Administration discovered, an America mobilized for diplomacy can be a powerful force for peaceful change.

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