Peace in Space: Why Obama Is Right (and the Far Right Is Wrong)

There's been a lot of light-saber rattling recently, but our aspirations in the galaxy have always been and will remain peaceful

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From left: John Bolton, former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and Darth Vader, commander of the dark side

What is it about space that makes the hard right go goofy? First it was Newt Gingrich and his promise of a lunar colony before the end of his second term (which looks especially bad now that the moon base is actually a better statistical bet than the Gingrich campaign). Now it’s John Bolton and John Yoo taking to the pages of the New York Times to argue against the Obama Administration’s plans to limit the militarization of space.

Bolton, you’ll remember, is America’s oddly Lorax-like former ambassador to the U.N. who was perfectly suited to his job except for the fact that he didn’t actually like the U.N. Yoo is the waterboarding apologist who helped author the Bush Administration’s so-called “torture memos” in 2003, arguing that what American war planners called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what much of the rest of the world called “against the law” was really, truly O.K. But that was then.

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What’s got Bolton and Yoo unsheathing their light sabers this week is President Obama’s decision to follow the European Union’s code of conduct for space, an accord that calls for “prevent[ing] outer space from becoming an area of conflict.” It would achieve this through such probably not-crazy measures as preventing interference with another nation’s space assets, enhancing the “safety, security and predictability of outer-space activities,” and encouraging “transparency and confidence-building measures.” It would also try to limit the increase in space debris — which is the cosmic equivalent of laws against littering. So you wouldn’t think there’s much to object to here. But you’re not Yoo — or Bolton.

The arguments the Sith lords make in the Times don’t differ much from the ones a lot of people made in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and half the U.S. went all tinfoil hat about the country suddenly having to go to sleep under a Russian moon. For the record, Sputnik was a 23-in., 183-lb. ball that is best remembered for its uncanny ability to say “beep-beep-beep” over and over again. It burned up after three months without ever bombing Peoria.

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Bolton and Yoo see two main security threats in the new Obama initiative: the possibility that the U.S. will lose its edge in antimissile space technology and the risk that we’ll cede our lead in antisatellite warfare to, yes, China. So let’s take antimissile technology first.

Americans can be almost completely certain that we will never fall behind in this area because we’re not meaningfully ahead to begin with — and neither is anyone else. To the extent that such a technological advantage does exist, it’s roughly akin to being the global leader in practical nuclear-fusion technology — which basically means that your entirely unworkable fusion reactors are bigger and more expensive than everyone else’s. That’s not exactly the Lombardi trophy.

It was in March 1983 that President Reagan first announced the antimissile Strategic Defense Initiative — quickly dubbed Star Wars by anyone who wasn’t actually part of the Reagan Administration — and since then, the U.S. has spent a minimum of $120 billion on the project, according to a 2009 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, without ever showing that it could actually block a hostile missile. The most successful tests of the impractical system have involved firing our own defensive missile at one of our own incoming missiles, carefully calibrating them so they arrive at the same point in the sky at the same moment — and helping things along by equipping the target vehicle with a sort of homing beacon. This is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the way an actual nuclear exchange would play out.

The danger of the Chinese skeet-shooting American satellites out of the sky is similarly overstated. It’s true that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own, defunct weather satellites with a kinetic kill vehicle. That landmark achievement, however, took place a cool 22 years after the U.S. first demonstrated the same ability. And just to show the world we still have our chops, we destroyed one of our own satellites much the same way just a year after China’s achievement. The difference between this kind of planned hunt and a hostile attack on America’s satellite fleet is a considerable one — but not to Yoo and Bolton.

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“We shouldn’t expect China to voluntarily accept limits on its space strategy anytime soon,” they warn. “In a war, China could potentially destroy our satellites and still retain its own GPS capabilities.” Indeed it could. But there’s a great deal that can happen in the land of potentially that will never happen in the land of really.

What truly seems to have Yoo and Bolton so cheesed off is not the threat to America’s security, but the fact that President Obama acted unilaterally, agreeing on his own to comply with the terms of the E.U. accord without submitting a formal treaty to the Senate. They acknowledge that Bill Clinton did something similar with the International Criminal Court treaty and that “even Ronald Reagan” did precisely the same with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty. Reagan, they note, reversed course in 1986 when he received evidence of Soviet cheating. Why couldn’t Obama be similarly nimble? A secret agenda, of course.

“When they were academics,” Yoo and Bolton write, “several of [Obama’s] current advisers loudly proclaimed that simply signing treaties without the Senate’s consent helped form binding ‘customary international law.’” Put aside for the moment that the words loudly and binding are merely confections of the writers, the fact is that both international and American common law are built partly of just such broadly embraced practices and indeed always have been.

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The militarization of space is not to be laughed off — and the dozens of black-box payloads carried into orbit for the Department of Defense by the space shuttles during their 30-year career attest to how deeply the U.S. is invested in protecting our skies. But making space policy also requires understanding space history — and star warriors like Bolton and Yoo seem to have little grasp of it. For more than 50 years, Presidents of both parties have, in ways big and small, committed themselves to showing the world that our aspirations in space are and will remain peaceful.

It was Dwight Eisenhower who willingly slowed America’s efforts to orbit its own first satellite when he insisted that a civilian missile be tried as a launch vehicle before a military missile got the chance. (The civilian missile blew up humiliatingly on live TV, but the larger point was made.) It was Lyndon Johnson who signed the first treaty committing the U.S. to the peaceful use of space — and to rescuing Soviet astronauts who might accidentally come down in our waters or on our land. It was Richard Nixon who was in the White House when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, carrying a plaque that bore the presidential signature and the words: “We came in peace for all mankind.”

The plaque was not the only symbol of the Apollo 11 mission that made that point. Take a look at the patch the astronauts wore — the iconic image of an American eagle landing on the moon. Eagles don’t land when their talons are full, but empty claws on the mission patch made it look as if America was preparing to tear an angry gouge out of the lunar surface. So the Apollo eagle was given a reassuring olive branch to hold. That was ornithologically wrong, but it was geopolitically right. So too is Obama’s decision to abide by the new treaty.

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