Last night it broke that the President would be announcing what is clearly a major change to American nuclear strategy:
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Monday that he was revamping American nuclear strategy to substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons.
But the president said in an interview that he was carving out an exception for “outliers like Iran and North Korea” that have violated or renounced the main treaty to halt nuclear proliferation.
And, the specifics:
It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the Cold War. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons, or launched a crippling cyberattack…
White House officials said that the new strategy will leave open the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reaches a level that makes United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.
Mr. Obama’s new strategy is bound to be controversial, both among conservatives who have warned against diluting America’s most potent deterrent, and among liberals who were hoping for a blanket statement that America would never be the first to use nuclear weapons.
Before getting to the substance of the new policy, my most immediate problem with this is quite simple —- why would we announce to the world when we would and won’t use nuclear weapons if we’re threatened or attacked ? Wouldn’t it be better to keep them guessing, keep them thinking that if they attack the American homeland with chemical, biological, or radiological weapons, or a cyberattack, they they could face the risk of a massive American response, including the possible use of nukes ? That’s what deterrence is supposed to be about isn’t it ?
As for the substance, I see problems with the idea that we would allow a WMD attack (and biological weapons are WMDs) on U.S. soil without leaving open the possibility of a response in kind. That doesn’t mean we would have to use nuclear weapons in such a case. After all, there might be a smaller scale method of retaliation that would have the same impact. However, telegraphing in advance that we might not respond to, say, a small pox attack in Denver, with massive nuclear retaliation on the country that sent it our way strikes me as a mistake simply because of the message it sends to a potential attacker.
But, does this policy really matter when it comes to what would actually happen if we ever got into a situation where using nuclear weapons would be considered necessary ?
The idea here, of course, is deterrence — comply with the NPT and you have nothing to fear — but (a) no one, least of all Iran, thinks Barack Obama’s going to use nuclear weapons against targets inside a non-nuclear state whether it’s following the NPT or not, and (b) everyone, including Iran, understands that a devastating attack on the U.S. by whatever means will create such unbearable pressure on the president to retaliate that these rules will be revisited instantly. It’s the nuclear equivalent of his interrogation protocol, essentially. America does not and will not torture captured terrorists as a matter of national policy — but if the CIA really, truly believed that a bomb was about to go off somewhere, don’t be surprised to see that policy politely ignored, to great public acclaim for Obama afterwards for having done what he needed to do to try to get the information.
Does anyone doubt that the administration would use nukes in a heartbeat if it considered such measures necessary? I don’t. The problem is that when the time comes to actually use nuclear weapons, it is too late. The danger here is not that the Obama administration has really gone pacifist. On the contrary, the significance of today’s announcement appears to be entirely symbolic–just one more chance to preen. The problem is that our enemies understand symbolism and maybe take it too seriously. To them, today’s announcement is another sign that our government has gone soft, and one more inducement to undertake aggressive action against the United States.
In other words, if an attack happens a President will respond with nuclear weapons if they believe it’s necessary regardless of what’s in this policy paper.
It’s the “if an attack happens” part that is the problem.
My concern with this new policy is that it seems to scale back the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan of all people knew that the only way nukes “worked” is the extent to which they prevented war. If you ever get in a situation where using them is necessary, you’ve already lost, and if we ever get to the point where there has been a terrorist attack on the United States massive enough for the President to be considering nuclear retaliation, we’ve already lost. The point is to deter the attacks from happening in the first place. And the danger I see is that this policy dilutes the deterrent value of America’s nuclear arsenal.
But Obama’s policy isn’t aimed at that issue, it’s aimed at fighting the last war:
The problem is that the President is fighting the last war, not the current one. The nuclear arms race was a desperate problem of the 70s and 80s – but the nuclear problems we face today come from rogue states like Iran and North Korea and from terrorist organizations attaining a small nuclear device. The President is wasting time putting diplomatic pressure on Russia and China over a Cold War issue when he should be more worried about putting pressure on Tehran and Pyongyang.
Let’s face it, the Russians aren’t going to attack us and neither are the Chinese. The people we need to worry about are the Iranians, the North Koreans, and any other nation or terrorist group for whom the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction hasn’t quite sunk in just yet. By telegraphing in advance our plans, we’ve lost a strategic advantage, and we’ve sent a message that the world is going to interpret in ways that the President probably doesn’t want them to.
I will leave the last word, for now, to Roger L. Simon:
I detest nuclear weapons as much as the next person, but this approach seems — I hate to repeat myself, but I will — deranged. It also has very little to do with actually reducing nuclear weapons in the world. Again, it seems like the act of an extreme narcissist, someone who wants to parade himself as anti-nuke while ignoring the checks and balances that have, in fact, kept nuclear weapons in their silos for decades.
Deterrence has worked. And now Obama wants to abandon or diminish it at the very moment Russia is modernizing their arsenal. What a strange person. President Weirdo, indeed. As I said in my previous post, “good luck to us.”
Good luck indeed.