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Our Nuclear Posture

Under the Obama administration? Supine.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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During the course of the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq fired 88 Scud missiles at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. All of them were armed with conventional warheads. This despite the fact that Iraq then possessed large stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, after the war, U.N. chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus found that Iraq had armed 25 missile warheads and 166 bombs with biological weapons. None of them were used, even as the Iraqi military faced the overwhelming might of a U.S.-led international coalition in a war Iraq was sure to lose.

Our Nuclear Posture

So what stayed Saddam Hussein’s hand? As the Iraqis tell it, they feared an American nuclear response. They had reason to.

In the run up to the war, senior officials—from President George H.W. Bush on down​—made a series of barely ambiguous and sufficiently ominous threats to Iraqi leaders. The president sent a letter to Saddam which informed the Iraqi tyrant that “the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons. .  .  . The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort.” Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was equally blunt: “Were Saddam foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. response would be absolutely overwhelming and it would be devastating.”

The Iraqis took those threats seriously. Four years later, Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz told Ekeus that Iraq had been deterred from using its WMD because it interpreted these (and other) American threats as promises of nuclear retaliation. 

This episode is arguably the most successful example of deterrence in action in recent history. Could the United States repeat that performance if we had to? Not if we were to follow the letter of the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, released (after many delays and much hype) last Tuesday.

Among the changes to American nuclear strategy announced in the review, the United States has now promised not to threaten or use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack by a nonnuclear state. It is the worst element of a document that could in fact have been much worse.

The arms controlling left had high hopes for this report. Indeed, many of them—studded throughout the National Security Council staff, the State Department, and in civilian positions at the Pentagon—helped to draft it. But despite the numerous items on their extensive wish list, what they got were mostly stocking stuffers. They sought a pledge that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons; a declaration that the “sole purpose” of the American nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks; elimination of one leg of the “strategic triad” of nuclear-armed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers; a pledge to withdraw the few remaining forward deployed American nuclear weapons from Europe; “de-alerting” more of our nuclear forces—and this litany is by no means exhaustive. They got none of it.

Much of what they did get turns out to be something like a cheap, Canal Street knockoff of the object of their desire. Consider the pledge to renounce the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological threats. It is immediately followed by a caveat: “Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”

So will we or won’t we? To say that the policy is now muddled would be an understatement. Who knew that Obama was a believer in strategic ambiguity?

This caveat pointedly does not apply to chemical weapons, however. Hence a repeat performance of our Gulf war deterrence of Saddam would seem to be off the table. Or is it? The Nuclear Posture Review for the first time links two formerly separate policies: “negative security assurances” (promises not to attack nonnuclear states with nuclear weapons) and implicit or explicit threats to wield nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear attacks. The United States has always reserved the right to respond to conventional or chemical-biological warfare (CBW) attacks with nuclear weapons. Now, apparently, we won’t even threaten a nuclear response to biological (unless we decide otherwise; see above) or chemical attacks if the attacker is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in good standing. Got it?

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