4.06.2010

Concerned over Obama's new nuclear weapons stance

President Obama is crafting a new U.S. nuclear posture, shifting policy on when the U.S. would use nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

At the outset, I don't see the logic in his moves. While I need to dig down into the changes in policy, I think the ones outlined in this New York Times article are foolhardy. They leave the U.S. with insufficient military flexibility:

To set an example, the new strategy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary. Mr. Obama's strategy is a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation's nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China. 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 nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

So many questions arise. Why would the U.S. unilaterally renounce the development of new nuclear weapons? Why would it unilaterally bar itself in advance from counterattacking against a nation that had just crippled it severely in some way? And are rogue and terrorist states actually greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China?

Nuclear weapons should not be used or even threatened excessively - we saw the problem with trying to use atomic weapons as leverage in small-scale disputes, such as the islands off mainland China during the Eisenhower administration. They're simply too big of a hammer for some tasks - and we've seen how conventional wars have played out in the past 65 years despite the looming presence of nuclear weapons.

But use and development of nuclear weapons shouldn't be off the table from the outset as a policy matter. That's blatantly shortsighted and a bit naive.

Obama's reply:

"I'm going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure," he said in the interview in the Oval Office.

Well, again, I'm going to have to investigate the precise provisions of Nuclear Posture Review. But on its face, it does not appear to preserve all the tools necessary to our national security:

He ended up with a document that differed considerably from the one President George W. Bush published in early 2002, just three months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Bush, too, argued for a post-cold-war rethinking of nuclear deterrence, reducing American reliance on those weapons. But Mr. Bush's document also reserved the right to use nuclear weapons "to deter a wide range of threats," including banned chemical and biological weapons and large-scale conventional attacks. Mr. Obama's strategy abandons that option — except if the attack is by a nuclear state, or a nonsignatory or violator of the nonproliferation treaty.

I trust Obama's taken a nuanced approach to this issue, but I think Bush ultimately ended up with the better policy.