Jeffrey LewisBolton and DeSutter on INF

John Bolton and Paula DeSutter have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “A Cold War Missile Treaty That’s Doing Us Harm” that calls for the US to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

I found it perplexing that an article subtitled “The U.S.-Soviet INF pact doesn’t address the Iranian threat” contained absolutely no discussion of how, you know, building intermediate range nuclear forces would address the Iranian threat.

Then it dawned on me: John Bolton is just like that girl in school who dressed like a witch.

Or maybe the punk kid with a safety pin through his nose.  Or perhaps even French author Jean Genet, whose picture once hung above my toilet.

I realized that my error was in trying to understand the op-ed as a form of persuasion or policy analysis.  It is, in fact, better understood as the expressive form or ritual of a distinct subculture. I will let Dick Hebdige, in the first few paragraphs of Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), explain:

In the opening pages of The Thief’s Journal, Jean Genet describes how a tube of vaseline, found in his posession, is confiscated by the Spanish police during a raid.  This “dirty, wretched object”, proclaiming his homosexuality to the world, becomes for Genet a kind of guarantee — “the sign of a secret grace which was soon to save me from contempt”. The discovery of the vaseline is greeted with laughter in the record-office of the station, and the police “smelling of garlic, sweat and oil, but … strong in their moral assurance” subject Genet to a tirade of hostile innendo.  The author joins in the laughter too (“though painfully”) but later, in his cell, “the image of the tube of vaseline never left me”.

“I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages.” (Genet, 1967).

I have chosen to begin with these extracts from Genet because he more than most has explored the subversive implications of style.  I shall be returning again and again to Genet’s major themes: the status and meaning of revolt, the idea of style as a form of Refusal, the elevation of crime into art (even though, in our case, the “crimes” are only broken codes).  Like Genet, we are interested in subculture – in the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate groups — the teddy boys and mods and rockers, the skinheads and the punks — who are alternately dismissed, denounced and canonized; treated at different times as threats to public order and as harmless buffoons.  Like Genet also, we are intrigued by the most mundane objects — a safety pin, a pointed shoe, a motor cycle — which, none the less, like the tube of vaseline, taken on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile.  Finally, like Genet, we must seek to recreate the dialectic between action and reaction which renders these objects meaningful.  For, just as the conflict between Genet’s “unnatural” sexuality and the policeman’s “legitimate” outrage can be encapsulated in a single object, so the tensions between the dominant and subordinate groups can be found in the surfaces of subculture — in the styles made up of mundane objects which have a double meaning.  On the one hand, they warn the “straight” world in advance of a sinister presence — the presence of difference — and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, “white and dumb rages”. On the other hand, for those who erect them into icons, who use them as words or as curses, these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value.  Recalling his humiliation at the hands of the police, Genet finds consolation in the tube of vaseline.  It becomes a symbol of his “triumph” — “I wold indeed rather have shed blood than repudiate that silly object” (Genet, 1967).

The meaning of the op-ed becomes clear only if we do not mistake the words for an exercise in persuasion, just as we would not confuse the safety-pin through a punk’s nose with a careful analysis of strategic stability. The op-ed as an object, like Genet’s tube of vaseline, is meaningful only in the sense that Hebdige describes — as an object that permits the tensions between the dominant and subordinate groups to be found in the surfaces of subculture.

Its meaning, as Hebdige might explain, is as a Refusal. It is difficult to tie all these strands together into a conclusion, but allow me to defer to Keith Morris who provides a reasonable summation.


  1. yousaf (History)

    It’s the WSJ editors’ propensity to run everything Bolton sends their way that’s really doing us harm. In fact, it may be a form of psychops to take bandwidth away from real arms control discussions: I heard the DoD is doing something similar by busting in and posting nonsense on jihadi websites.

    I digress.

    Bolton’s main contention is: “To reduce the threat from INF-range missiles, we must either expand the INF Treaty’s membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrent capabilities.”

    So by the same logic only 22 calibre bullets can deter other 22 calibre bullets.

    He goes on: ” We need ballistic-missile defenses, but President Obama is rapidly scaling down U.S. missile-defense programs—so our need for an INF-range second-strike capability is acute. ”

    1. We do not need the midcourse missile defense we are planning — in fact it is a waste of $ and decreases our security.

    2. How is the Obama admin. “rapidly scaling down” missile defense? I’d be pleased if that were true but I have not heard these excellent rumors.

    Lastly, what precisely is the “Iranian threat”? Is it their non-existent nuclear weapons program?:

    • Scott Monje (History)

      You could add that the Bush administration’s proposd BMD system wasn’t configured to counter Iranian INF in any event.

      By the way, just where are we going to deploy these intermediate systems within reach of Iran?

  2. blowback (History)

    Iran and North Korea as strategic threats? Is this Washington’s strategy of having every country in the World kiss its (and Israel’s) arse that is under threat?

  3. Kevin (History)

    Could you imagine what the requirements would be for European ballistic missile defense were Russia to abrogate its INF commitments?

  4. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Bolton never met any arms control treaty he liked.

    He is an ideologue. Ideology is nothing but political religion. Facts do not matter, nor does consequences. All that matters is the ideology which requires that ALL arms control treaties be destroyed because they are evil restraints upon weapons.

    What would Mr. Bolton’s say about the Rush-Bagot Treaty? It not only secured a lasting peace with Canada but saved both nations a fortune by demilitarizing the border.

    Mr. Bolton made one of the most laughable arguments which was often used for propaganda during the Cold War. Once Upon a Time, during the Dreadnought arms race, when fleets fought in line of battle, it was possible to compare the number of battleships on two sides with some degree of reason. During the cold war we were subjected to endless charts showing the number of bombers, missiles, soldiers, tanks, troops, everything but donut stands, each side had. The idiocy was that one needed to compare nuclear capabilities to the potential targets the other side had.

    The Soviet Union might have had more territory than the USA, but it’s population and industry were more concentrated; as were it’s nuclear forces. The USA had more industry and it, as well as the population were more dispersed. The US nuclear attack capability was spread world wide. Comparing weapons to weapons was feckless aside from use as propaganda intended to justify creating more of what was being compared (did you ever see a chart comparing CVNs of both sides?).

    Mr. Bolton is endlessly histrionic about Iran. He has repeatedly urged attacking Iran. He now argues that the USA needs Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles is mandatory ‘counter’ the Iranian ‘threat’.

    Any excuse to argue for the ideological belief that all weapons are good and necessary and all arms control is evil.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “The idiocy was that one needed to compare nuclear capabilities to the potential targets the other side had”.

      For much of the Cold War, particularly including the period when the major arms-control treaties were being signed, the principle target of an ICBM was arguably an enemy ICBM silo. This is somewhat comparable to Dreadnaughts in line of battle, and so somewhat less than idiotic.

      When Iran develops a viable counterforce capability against US strategic nuclear forces, we can talk about the need for new IRBMs. But I think at that point we will be more concerned with the flying-pig gap.

    • Cameron (History)

      I’d add that any excuse to demonize Iran in the Western media in order to shift public perception towards them as a strategic threat that justifies spending on weapon systems that John’s backers make and sell.

      And if we’re not careful that will shortly include flying pigs. Thanks Mr. Schilling.

      And I’d argue that it’s not Dreadnaughts, but specifically Battlecruisers in line of battle. Offense but no defense against similiar weapons systems.

  5. anon (History)

    I’m still trying to figure out why we need INF missiles to counter a threat from Iran. Last I checked, U.S. strategic forces could reach Iran, if we chose to nuke them. We needed (or thought we needed) INF in the 1980s, because the SU could shoot strategic missiles back at U.S. territory if we used strategic missiles to protect Europe. Last I checked, this just doesn’t apply to Iran. They can’t reach the U.S., and, if they could, they’d do so whether we used INF or Strategic forces against them. Bolton and DeSutter just don’t make any sense.

  6. A Complete Stranger (History)

    “the principle target of an ICBM was arguably an enemy ICBM silo”–Does anyone actually believe that? With MIRVed missiles and 20,000 warheads it would have been a mathematical impossibility for the principle targets to be ICBM silos. Targeteers were targeting military related industries, important road crossings, and, tacitly, population centers.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I suppose “A Complete Stranger” might in fact be a former targeteer revealing firsthand knowledge in such matters – it would justify the anonymity – but I suspect a fair degree of speculation is at work. As for the numbers, the United States never deployed more than 2,500 ICBM warheads, vs. approximately 1,400 Soviet ICBM silos at the height of the Cold War. And an ICBM silo is the sort of target you really do want to at least double up on if you are going to target it at all.

      There is also the small matter that the United States in particular invested a great deal in developing ICBMs far more accurate than would be needed against industrial sites, transportation nodes, or population centers. So yes, some of us do believe that the principle target of an ICBM was at the height of the Cold War an enemy ICBM silo.

  7. Barry Blechman (History)

    Your best posting, EVER, Jeffrey.

  8. Melissa (History)
  9. A Complete Stranger (History)

    I never claimed to be anything other than a stranger but I haven’t forgotten about SLBMs or bombers or the unlikelihood that the US would launch a first strike and the US targeteers wouldn’t have either.

  10. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Militant ideologues never let a good fact get in the way of their argument. Bolton represents the more extreme manifestation not of a sub-culture, but of a popular culture that valorises strategic weaponry per se, and primacy in particular, in all its guises as a vital part of, if not the, solution to political challenges.

  11. MK (History)

    Mac Destler, Les Gelb and Tony Lake defined an ideologue (in Our Own Worst Enemy) as someone “who knows the answers before he knows the facts.”

    The ideological animus John Bolton & Paula DeSutter hold against arms control is so great that they are now joining Russian revanchists to oppose Ronald Reagan’s INF Treaty. Go figure.

  12. Theresa Hitchens (History)

    Really, one of the funniest and most out of the box arms control-related analyses I’ve seen since Janne Nolan’s famous 2000 “Godzilla” essay. Congrats Jeffrey!