Our Nuclear Posture
Under the Obama administration? Supine.
Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By MICHAEL ANTON
Iraq signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the treaty’s first year (1968); hence, had the new policy been in place at the time of the first Gulf war, we could not have made the threats that we actually did use to good effect. But wait! Was Iraq “in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations”? If not, then the assurance would not have applied. We now know, thanks to the war and the inspections that followed, that Iraq maintained a secret and extensive nuclear weapons program. We realized little of this before the war, when the threats were made. So would they have been allowed or not?
In any case, why the two concepts are now linked is not clear. One of the rationales for the United States’ forswearing the development of biological and chemical weapons (apart from their inherent repugnance) was that our nuclear arsenal remained the surest guarantee against CBW attack. Well, not if we explicitly renounce the use of nuclear weapons in such circumstances.
Also, the point of the negative security assurance is to encourage regimes to live happily without nuclear weapons. This is not entirely fanciful. Tom Reed and Danny Stillman, in their history of nuclear weapons The Nuclear Express, tell how the reluctance of some of the former Soviet republics to return to Russia the legacy weapons of the USSR was overcome. Some Ukrainian generals were invited to StratCom headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, whereAir Force brass, poring over maps of their guests’ country, explained in vivid detail what it meant to be on the American target list in the event of nuclear war. The Ukrainian visitors turned white, returned to Kiev and recommended that all nuclear weapons in their country be repatriated to their motherland.
So, if promises not to use nukes against the nuclear-chaste encourages states to swear off nukes, how does promising not to use nukes against CBW-capable states discourage the development of the latter weapons? Wouldn’t that rather encourage it? If the clear consequence of being nuclear-armed is to place your country on the American nuclear targeting list, why shouldn’t the clear consequence of seeking, possessing, or using CBW not be the same?
No doubt the Obama officials who drafted this document believe that its many caveats, exceptions, and trapdoors leave sufficient flexibility for the president to do whatever he may think he needs to do in any contingency. And they may be right. But that misses a larger point. Deterrence is not always, or even mostly, effective in the midst of a crisis. It is also a function of an enemy’s impression of how far its intended victim can be pushed, and how hard he might push back if pushed too far.
By that standard, the new policy is a failure. It amounts not so much to strategic ambiguity as to strategic obfuscation. The new policy is deliberately designed to sound softer than the old, but is also qualified to the point that the new softness will appear to any semi-careful reader to be highly questionable. What is the real policy? It’s impossible to say simply from reading the report. What will an enemy take away from it? That we deeply desire to cultivate a reputation for dovishness while we reserve the right to revert to hawkishness at a moment’s notice. Whom is this supposed to scare or impress, much less deter?
Thankfully, the truly bad news pretty much ends there, at least in the Nuclear Posture Review. There is however a bit of bad news in the New START treaty, the text of which was finally released after Thursday’s Prague signing ceremony. The administration has repeatedly sworn that the treaty places no constraints on missile defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: “Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The treaty places no constraints on our missile defense plans—now or in the future.” Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher: “There is no limit or constraint on what the United States can do with its missile defense systems . . . definitely, positively, and no way, no how.”
And yet, there is this in the treaty’s preamble: