D. Dowd Muska


Recognizing Reality, Not Surrendering Space Sovereignty

January 19, 2012

In Georgetown and Manhattan, C-SPAN combatants, laptop legionnaires, and talk-radio tough guys are aghast.

Barack Obama is messing with their plan for galactic greatness.

Mouthpieces for the military-industrial complex, as well as neoconservative chest-thumpers, get scads of media attention -- and make lucrative livings -- hyping chimerical “sellouts” and “appeasements.” The White House’s recent declaration that it will work with the European Union “to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” delivered a new talking point to the threat-inflation racket.

Thoughtful people don’t see Obama’s announcement as particularly dangerous -- codes of conduct, formal and informal, exist for all types of international activities. (Globalization wouldn’t be possible without them.) Dispassionate observers’ “whatever” quotient grows after learning that the president isn’t willing to fully embrace the document that the EU has already drafted. In a statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specified that Washington “will not enter into a code of conduct that in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space.”

It’s a caveat that can be counted on to be rampantly overlooked. Predictably, before the administration announced its aim, The Washington Times, a habitual conduit for warmongers, trotted out John Bolton to denounce participation in a code of conduct as “mindless.”

“U.S. military activities in space are a key strategic advantage for the United States,” added Thomas McInerney, a Fox News Channel interviewee, birther, and retired Air Force general. “Any agreements that limit or constrain military space activities must be approached with extreme caution.”

The “don’t tie us down” argument is the core objection to a rules-of-the-road compact for space. Yet such demagoguery would be absurd even if Obama hadn’t inserted an exemption for self-defense as a prerequisite for treaty talks with the EU. U.S. warfighters should never be held back in any way? As the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon notes, then “the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, President Ronald Reagan’s Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s Strategic Arms Reduction treaties were all dreadful errors in judgment, since every one of these agreements limited the U.S. military’s freedom of action in some key respects. Indeed, using this reasoning, the Geneva Conventions were also unwise, as were codes of conduct long in place for the United States Army, Navy, and gravity-bound Air Force.”

Militarists maintain their slippery-slope challenge to a code of conduct because they’ve always had ludicrously ambitious schemes for space. The terms casually tossed around -- e.g., “ultimate high ground,” “space control,” “space dominance” -- go back decades. Theorist Everett C. Dolman, in a proposal adored by neoconservatives, favors “hegemonic control” of the heavens. The professor recommends that the Pentagon impose “a police blockade of all current spaceports, monitoring and controlling all traffic both in and out.”

That kind of thuggish grandiosity scares the hell out of foreigners, so it’s hardly surprising that many nations want to establish a few reasonable standards for the space commons. While China and Russia pursue a ban on all weapons in orbit -- nukes were barred back in the ‘60s -- the EU’s draft code of conduct is more modest. (And refreshingly brief.) It does include a prohibition on “any action which intends to bring about, directly or indirectly, damage, or destruction, of outer space objects,” but is primarily focused on transparency and situational awareness. A central goal is “establishing and implementing … policies and procedures to minimise the possibility of accidents in space, collisions between space objects or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.” Signatories would meet regularly to revise the code, and a database would be established to “collect and disseminate notifications” and “serve as a mechanism to channel requests for consultations.”

America’s stake in space is vast. As of last summer, U.S.-based entities owned/operated 429 of the planet’s 974 operating satellites. That’s 44 percent, a share far in excess of our portion of global population (4 percent) and economic output (23 percent). GPS-enabled devices, Google Earth, and TV beamed from space are part of everyday life. In 2010, the domestic satellite industry had 243,000 employees. And most of the exciting things being done in the “NewSpace” revolution are occurring in The Land of the Free.

Obama Derangement Syndrome sufferers are sure to seize on the administration’s openness to a code of conduct as evidence that the 44th president aspires to be the Neville Chamberlain of the Rocket Age. Ignore the accusation. U.S. participation in a prudent space entente is overdue.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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