Obama’s New Nuke Policy: Preemptive Appeasement

A horrific scenario I hope never occurs:

Washington D.C. was attacked today by Country X. Agents from X unleashed a massive chemical and biological barrage. Tens of thousands lie dead and dying, more are sick. Officials fear the worst as the prevailing winds are carrying the contaminants towards Baltimore. Residents in that coastal town have been fleeing for their lives.

Luckily, President Obama was not in the Capitol at the time of the attack.

He was however quick to rush to a microphone to assure the world that the United States would not retaliate with nuclear weapons.

“My lawyers have assured me that Country X has been in full compliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty. They have consistently filled out all the forms required of them—in triplicate—and have undergone all their inspections.

“Since my latest Nuclear Posture Review, I pledged that we will not use nuclear weapons against any country that has completed all the proper paperwork.”

When asked how the United States would respond, since it would not be allowed to use its best weapons, Mr Obama said, “Capitol police have been asked to work double shifts to bring those that carried out this incident to justice.”

Think I’m joking? From yesterday’s Nuclear Posture Review’s Executive Summary:

During the Cold War, the United States reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a massive conventional attack by the Soviet Union…Moreover, after the United States gave up its own chemical and biological weapons (CBW) pursuant to international treaties (while some states continue to possess or pursue them), it reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter CBW attack on the United States and its allies and partners.

Note the attempt to hide the most frightening news in a parenthesis: “while some states continue to possess or pursue them”. The report continues:

Since the end of the Cold War…the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks—conventional, biological, or chemical—has declined significantly. The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

Thus, “[massive] conventional, biological, or chemical” attacks will not be responded to with nukes.

And how about the “paperwork” hilarity? True, too. The report:

[T]he United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

In other words, as long as your documentation is properly filed, and you have proved you don’t have any nukes secreted away, you are free to attack with as heinous and horrible biological or chemical weapons as you have without fearing nuclear retaliation.

There is some good news. While those that attack us won’t have to duck and cover, they will still “be held fully accountable.” We’ll hit back with dialog!

Why make this radical change in nuclear-weapon-use policy? Mr Obama says that tying one arm of the U.S. behind its back will serve as an incentive for warlike nations such as Iran to recognize “the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT.”

You might have noticed the loophole: countries who attack us that were not in compliance with the NPT or who were but had nuclear weapons (even though they didn’t use them) might have to face our nukes. What would trigger our nuclear response? The Posture Review says a “narrow range of contingencies.” But it doesn’t say what those contingencies are.

The strongest language says that the “United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, but will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.” [emphasis mine]

This says that future policy will soon say that nukes would not be used in any way except as a deterrent against nuclear attacks. In other words, we’ll allow anything—including proliferation, experimentation, and engineering improvements in other countries’ nuclear weapons technology—and we won’t respond. And we might not even respond if attacked with nukes: we’ll just hope the aging stockpile deters others from attacking.

The Posture Review, incidentally, is also quick to say that the U.S. will not proliferate, experiment, or engineer improvements in our own nuclear weapons technology.

In case there are any countries out there left worried that we might hit them back, the Review soothes by saying that “our willingness to use nuclear weapons” has not “in any way increased.”

The theory behind these actions is that if we act like a nice guy, everybody else will too. It’s the “Can’t we all just get along?” nuclear Policy of Hope.

I don’t know about you, but I feel much safer.

21 Comments

  1. Happily, most of your potential enemies won’t believe it, and will suspect that a hysterical USA would lash out with every weapon to hand. I dare say they’d be right so to assume.

  2. Would the use of thermonuclear weapons really be an appropriate response to the scenario you have posed? Can you identify a realistic scenario which would be appropriate? That is, under what circumstances would it be appropriate to obliterate a city with (say) one million residents? What targets other than cities require the use of nuclear weapons for their elimination?

    Time to put away the N2O and get back to work.

  3. The threat is a deterrent, Schnoerk. There is no specific trigger scenario, but the possibility that the USA will retaliate in a thermonuclear manner is something for other countries to consider. Without the deterrent, they might not be deterred. Nobody wants Iran, for instance, to glow in the dark for the next 10,000 years, but the fact that we can make it do so ought to give them pause.

  4. The world is, and always has been, a very dangerous place. Limiting our options in regards to self defense is just naive and may very well come back to haunt us or our children in horrific and nightmarish ways. We want the world to know that we are reasonable, peaceful people but also that we will not tolerate the worst kinds of terror and perception plays a big role in that deterrent. Fire bombing Tokyo in 1945 was far worse than dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki but the world doesn’t remember that. The world remembers nuclear horror and the fact that we used those weapons even though we had conventional alternatives (incredibly costly conventional alternatives for all concerned, but conventional alternatives nonetheless). Downplaying the nuclear deterrent only impresses those nations and people that are already the least likely to cause us harm. The fact that we have actually used nuclear weapons in the past and maintain a policy of using them under the appropriate circumstances impresses those people and nations that are likely to harm us, helping to keep them in check.

    A few years ago I was fortunate to meet the pilot of the plane that dropped the Nagasaki bomb. I thanked him, deeply and sincerely, for saving my father’s life (who was training for the invasion of Japan when he dropped his bomb). He may also have saved many other lives over the years by visibly and horribly demonstrating our willingness to defend ourselves against criminal aggression. We should not waste that effort or those lives spent proving the point.

  5. That statement change little to anything:

    If countries do not comply to the NPT treaty then this statement doesn’t concern them. North Corea and Iran are out. So are countries that would acquire arm from them.

    Plus this doesn’t prevent conventional retaliation which in Iraq had the effect of a nuclear attack.

    Other than Russia and China, no country can compete with the US army. So the risk of any such attack occurring is very slim.

    The only kind of attack the US can be subjected are IED, sniping and your own crazy militia terrorist.

  6. You forgot to mention that the new policy fairly clearly puts the DPRK and Iran into their own categories.

    Depending on your foreign policy theory (neo-liberal [not the icky dirty boo hiss kind of liberal, guys], neo-realism, constructivist, etc.), this move can actually be said to send a strong signal to the so-called “rogue states.” By effectively separating them from signatories of NPT, this policy has the potential to further isolate those states and send a negative signal to them. The response by Ahmadinejad demonstrates, I think, the fact that this policy is certainly in favor of Iran’s current policy.

    Keep in mind that in foreign policy circles, “signaling” is often seen as just as important as actions or explicit statements. And before someone tells me that signaling is just namby pamby Democratic stuff, please note that the Eisenhower Doctrine, for example, was as much a signal to the USSR as it was an actual foreign policy. Every President engages in signaling.

    While I myself tend to be hawkish on security, I tend to believe that the nuclear umbrella, in and of itself, is not a sufficient deterrent anyway. We could aim a thousand Minuteman missiles at Pyongyang and it’s not going to stop them from building a nuke for two reasons:

    1. They know that we have a no-nuke before you attack us first.
    2. They know that we’re not going to commit what would essentially be the destruction of an entire nation.

    Whether we like it or not, we are neither going to strike first (that would be a break from even the Cold War policy), nor are we are not going to stop the DPRK from building weapons through pointing nukes. Hell, if it were that easy, they’d have stopped already.

    Furthermore, by playing good, it’s possible to increase support for American policy by creating an “us against them” atmosphere, bringing more NPT members into the fold, and possibly isolating the two baddies even from their allies. Look at how China has grown weary of DPRK. Rallying around that and making China “part of the good guys” the way this policy could strengthen American non-military efforts against DPRK.

    That said, I think we should maintain a strong forward-deployed presence in Asia and the Middle East. Including a nuclear presence. I just don’t think that this policy is necessarily as bad as it’s been made out to be. Let’s face it: a directly aggressive unilateral policy in the past didn’t stop the DPRK– but getting China on our side in that regard? That might do it.

    Personally, I like any policy that makes an “us against them” kind of situation more apparent. It draws lines in the sand and lets the a-holes know who’s who and what’s what.

  7. Backbeat,

    You said: “The world is, and always has been, a very dangerous place. Limiting our options in regards to self defense is just naive and may very well come back to haunt us or our children in horrific and nightmarish ways.”

    Fact is, we already limit ourselves in our strategic nuclear policy. This is old: look at the Cold War policy of making clear that the US would never drop the first nuke. This is old hat.

    The best reason to reduce reliance on nukes as a foreign policy instrument is not cost (though that is huge), but the fact that it provides a limited deterrence in a world where nobody wants to be the first to push the button.

  8. Warning: long rant ahead.

    This is indeed a mistake of almost biblical proportions.

    Ambiguity is the key to deterrence: if my enemy can plan exactly how far to push me, he will. If he doesn’t know, then he won’t.

    It really is that simple.

    @Ari: there never was a Cold War policy of making clear that the US would never drop the first nuke. Never. NATO policy was to be deliberately ambiguous about NATO war-fighting plans. The Soviets loved, seriously got the hots for, correlation of forces analysis and spent their economy into the ground trying to set things up in Europe so that it would be a set-piece battle that their side could control.

    All NATO had to do was to ensure that never happened, that the Warsaw Pact could never know when NATO’s nuclear threshold would be crossed. That wasn’t done to annoy academics and pundits, it was done because it meant that the politicians knew that if their own military couldn’t tell them when that was the case, they couldn’t start playing escalatio to further their own political goals. Their army commanders were fairly certain that their operational maneuver groups could pin down and take apart 7 Corps at the Fulda Gap, given the ability to dominate the battlefield: they also knew that if NATO could kill the follow-on forces, they’d fail. The Warsaw Pact, as we now know through the Poles, planned nuclear weapons usage from day one, fully content to destroy Germany (East and West) in order to ensure that the US would be driven from Europe: their problem was that they could never figure out when NATO would start firing and destroy the Red Army as a fighting force, and that made everything moot.

    War is, after all, nothing but politics via other means. What the Obama Administration is doing is telling our enemies that we’re so noble and Gutmenschen – that term doesn’t translate well, but do-gooders is close enough – that we won’t nuke them if they attack us with the cheap weapons of mass destruction: all this does is make such attacks just that much more likely. Chemical and biological weapons are the cheap weapons of mass destruction, vastly easier to make and use, and in many ways even more indiscriminate and henceforth vile.

    This is sheer idiocy. This is what academics want: to turn war and nuclear weapons into something nicely calculable, something that they can write a nice book about. Nothing bugs an academic more than dealing with uncertainty within the Ivory Tower. For this very reason ambiguity made sense.

    So what happens now? President Obama has given the green light for every nut case country out there with a real or imagined grudge to give it a try, we won’t nuke you.

    Idiots. Deterrence is about stopping wars from even happening, not resolving them with conventional weapons. Sure, the US can march all over any nation that tries something, but that means that the attack has occurred and that people have died. That means deterrence fails when it didn’t need to.

    The whole point of nuclear weapons is deterrence, preventing wars via deliberate ambiguity and via believable capabilities. Basic intelligence work looks at capabilities, not intentions, since intentions without capabilities is what tin-pot dictators are all about. As long as the US had deliberate ambiguity about when we would absolutely smash a country – and we’ve shown in the past the willingness to use nuclear weapons, see Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but had not only the capability, but also deliberately did not draw a line in the sand, then those tin-pot dictators knew how far they could go, which is nowhere.

    Let’s not forget that Libya publicly gave up its nuclear weapons program when it saw what happened to Iraq: it put the fucking fear of God into Gaddafi, of you pardon the vernacular.

    Now? What would persuade him to do that again? Fear of a angry New York Times editorial or a stern look from President Obama?

    Fear that the Marines will come? I’d fear them, so should you (Best Friends, Worst Enemy) if you are on the wrong side. But sending in the Marines is expensive and politically disastrous for the Democrats: it means fighting a war because you screwed up deterrence.

    Osama found a hole in out deterrence: he truly believed that the US could do nothing, that he had found the asymmetric warfare tools he needed, hiding in Afghanistan behind the Taliban. He blew that call, but believed that he could get away with it, and ordered the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

    Ye gods of the copybook headings. Kipling had it right. When we forget basic truths, death and destruction follow.

  9. dearieme has it right. Most of the world understands President Barack Unbush’s statements have as much substance as a scoop of ice cream during a heat wave, so massive harm has probably not occurred. The problem, though, and John F. Opie speaks well to this, is that a dozen more junior third world Bin Laden’s will now begin to miscalculate and struggle for a score of years to find a way to kill and maim Americans – and the odds are a couple of them will eventually be successful. All because of the narcissistic ego of an untrained and inexperienced “celebrity” politician who at first only wanted to position himself to make a run for the presidency in 2012, but discovered a nation of idiots deliberately kept blinded by a conniving and supportive media. Are we absolutely sure this isn’t all an episode of Monty Python?

  10. An exchange at immigration somewhere in New York, Chicago, Boston or D.C. circa 2000…

    “Your paperwork appears to be in order Mr. Usuqua Midik as does your brother’s Mr. Uliqua Midik. Welcome to America! Good luck with your flight training classes! America can always use a well trained pilot dedicated to his mission.”

    Can damage be done by bureaucratic, diplomatic, sliceomatic, devotion to paperwork?…………….

  11. Ari, “a world where nobody wants to be the first to push the button” is certainly not the world we live in. There are many people who would love to be the first to push the button and, I’m reasonably certain, will someday. Mankind has a long and vivid history of extreme violence, repression, meglomania and blood. Oceans of blood. That is not going to change and, in fact, may get worse given a swelling population, competition for resources, modern technology and instant communication. John F. Opie captured it very well above. We need our enemies – and there are many of them – always wondering how far they can push us before we turn their cities to hot dust. A clear line in the sand works against us but, fortunately, we have already demonstrated a willingness to use nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict and our past actions will hopefully speak louder than our present words.

  12. The scenario as given is extremely unlikely.

    Military headquarters people have for a long time shared an ironic calculation among themselves: No enemy would bomb this place, it would reduce the confusion. Now we’ve got the real thing.

    The only people on the planet who think Washington DC is particularly important to the United States are politicians. For the vast majority of non-Americans, both well and ill intentioned, it’s the major cities, especially New York. You’ll notice that the 9/11 bombers gave DC only a secondary effort, and that none of the later attempts have been directed toward Washington or Washington-bound flights.

    Conclusion: If you live in New York, buy a gas mask. That’s where unsophisticated enemies will hit anyway, and sophisticated enemies would gas Manhattan and collapse in gales of delirious glee as FEMA, TSA, and the rest of the alphabet soup jostled one another to make it worse, while President Obama apologizes to the attackers for offending them so terribly.

    Regards,
    Ric

  13. John,

    I still disagree. The US made its no first use policy fairly clear in 1978 at the UN Special Session on Disarmament. While yes, NFU has been limited and wavered, it’s been fairly clear, even under the Bush Administration– whose nuclear policy was somewhat varied as well– that NFU was fairly well-understood amongst NPT treaty members.

    For a second example of affirmation of NFU, look at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the NPT.

    “So what happens now? President Obama has given the green light for every nut case country out there with a real or imagined grudge to give it a try, we won’t nuke you.”

    But let’s face it: it’s not the nut case countries that are really our primary security concern at this moment. It’s international non-governmental terrorist groups, who are not going to be deterred by traditional nuclear weapons anyway.

    Now, let’s actually read some of the NPR:

    “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons
    against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their
    nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

    In other words, we’re just not threatening the use of nukes against non-nuclear states who are party to the NPT. That’s not terribly exciting.

    The review then goes to say that we won’t nuke states that are not party to the NPR and use CBWs. This is what sticks in people’s craw, it seems. But here’s the caveat:

    “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.”

    In other words, we leave ourselves an out that lets us change this policy at any time depending on how we feel about the situation.

    You then went on to say: “This is what academics want: to turn war and nuclear weapons into something nicely calculable, something that they can write a nice book about. Nothing bugs an academic more than dealing with uncertainty within the Ivory Tower. For this very reason ambiguity made sense. ”

    And the entire 8 years of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy being based on an Ivory Tower-based paradigm is somehow different? Neo-conservatism and Fukuyaman beliefs are no different. The only difference here seems to be that you believe that it’s wrongdoing when it’s done by the other side.

    “Fear that the Marines will come? I’d fear them, so should you (Best Friends, Worst Enemy) if you are on the wrong side. But sending in the Marines is expensive and politically disastrous for the Democrats: it means fighting a war because you screwed up deterrence.”

    Again, though, what will deterrence do about groups that have no national borders?

    “Let’s not forget that Libya publicly gave up its nuclear weapons program when it saw what happened to Iraq: it put the fucking fear of God into Gaddafi, of you pardon the vernacular. ”

    Yes, and that fear of God was instilled by the US’s conventional military capabilities. No nukes were needed. The US’s forward deployed forces are, in many cases, the most effective deterrent we have.

    I think my biggest issue with your argument is not that I’m some dove– it’s the fact that I think that I don’t think that the nuclear deterrence is going to stop the Al Qaedas. They don’t stop Pakistan from building nukes and aiming them at India. They don’t stop Iran from building nukes and aiming them at Israel.

    Hell, they didn’t even stop the DPRK.

    Furthermore, I think it’s important to realize that by focusing on the tin pot states, we lose sight of the fact that our battle today is not largely a state-based one: it’s guerrilla.

    I agree with the de-emphasis on nukes not because we shouldn’t maintain the umbrella– we should– but because it lets us increase focus on the looming threats we face.

    Backbeat,

    “There are many people who would love to be the first to push the button and, I’m reasonably certain, will someday.”

    Yes, there are people who’d love to strike the first blow– those aren’t the people with their fingers on ICBMs and launch vehicles, or even bombers. Those are terrorists and underground groups who aren’t going to be deterred by our ability to launch nukes at Moscow anyway.

    The fact is, we are not going to deter the kinds of attacks we’re now most worried about with Minuteman missiles. No matter how much we grumble and growl about it.

    Ric,

    “If you live in New York, buy a gas mask. That’s where unsophisticated enemies will hit anyway, and sophisticated enemies would gas Manhattan and collapse in gales of delirious glee as FEMA, TSA, and the rest of the alphabet soup jostled one another to make it worse, while President Obama apologizes to the attackers for offending them so terribly.”

    I’m not too worried. I’ll still gladly live without a gas mask.

    Besides, I hate to say it, but on an organizational basis, the terrorist groups are actually quite sophisticated. And that’s the problem. We call them unsophisticated because they aren’t organized based on international terms, but they sure are well-managed. Unfortunately, by viewing them as otherwise, we harm our ability to understand the threat that they pose.

    I’m a helluva lot more worried about crazy underground groups than I am about Kims or Ahmadinejads.

    TSA can go to hell, though.

  14. Yobama just gave Amadimmijihad a good reason to use their first nuke on us instead of Israel!!

    If we do NOT respond they have won an enormous propaganda victory that could light the fire in the gut of every fundamentalist Muslim on the planet.

    If we DO respond he gets the war he thinks will bring back the hidden Imam.

    Doesn’t look good for Yobama, and incidentally, US!!

    Ric Locke,

    One airliner hit the Pentagon, the other was for the Capitol. Your logic is fallacious. The symbolism can be more important than the actual engagements. See Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Total military loss for the NV, yet, it won the war for them.

    Ari,

    Minuteman missiles???

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  15. Ari,

    Most Israeli citizens have gas masks. Necessary apparel there.

    Yes, the Marines are a deterrent against some types of aggression, but not all. Similarly, nuclear-tipped missiles are deterrents for some types of aggression, but not all. It would not be a good idea to “deemphasize” either one.

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