Friday, April 9, 2010

A Modest Proposal?

Peter Feaver has an op-ed in the NYT addressing  Obama's change in Nuclear Posture.  Feaver has served in both Clinton and Bush National Security Councils, has written on civil-military relations and nuclear weapons, and is one of the few prominent political scientists who is out of the Republican closet.  Indeed, he notes his GOP-ness early in this piece.  And he argues here that the change in posture is modest with heaps of outs for the administration.  Thus, he thinks that both sides are over-selling the change--that Obama is not changing that much and the critics are over-criticizing.  In my post, a couple of days ago, I suggested that Obama's course of action was likely to alienate both sides as it is pretty moderate.  Feaver read the document more closely than I did and found more loopholes.  But he also largely overlooks two things:
  • That Obama had to put a new gloss on the Posture if he wanted to make progress on proliferation agreements with the rest of the planet.  This new posture has an audience other than North Korea and Iran: countries that might be considering the development of new weapons of mass destruction.  This Posture does two things--it tells them how they fit into the picture and they make it easier for countries to sign onto a new proliferation treaty since the US is showing some progress.  Similarly, the new START agreement with Russia is not a huge change, but mostly ratifies each country's decisions to downsize their forces.  But it meets the condition that most folks at proliferation meetings demand--that the US and Russia make some progress towards zero.  
  • The other thing that Feaver overlooked was that the clarifications made by Obama can only increase the credibility of the deterrent.  We may be promising to deter less stuff--not to respond with nuclear weapons to certain kinds of attacks.  But that makes the promise to deter the other stuff more credible.  All encompassing threats are less credible than more proportionate, tailored threats.  The most important thing about a deterrent threat is that it is credible, more so than the total kinds of behavior it is seeking to prevent.  Preventing nothing because one has over-threatened is obviously worse than preventing much but not all unwanted behavior.  
Still, Feaver is largely right--the change here is mostly cosmetic, but not entirely so.  It has some strategic purpose--to do better at international meetings to negotiate the future of non-proliferation and to make US threats more credible.  

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