Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rethinking Nukes

Apparently, Obama likes to have a dozen plates spinning at any one time.  Some random NYT reporters* get a chance to interview him, and Obama talks about re-thinking nuclear weapons. 
Mr. Obama argued for a slower course, saying, “We are going to want to make sure that we can continue to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons,” and, he added, to “make sure that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances.” 
Typical Obama--taking a course that is sure to alienate both sides of the spectrum, although probably coming closer to the left than the middle.  Nuclear weapons will no longer be used as threats against non-nuclear states except in the case of proliferators (Iran, NK) or in case bio weapons become so dangerous that a nuclear threat seems proportionate. 

The new policy:
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.

This step makes a great deal of sense as the threat to use nuclear weapons has always been limited in its credibility.  It seems to me that this is part of an evolution in strategic nuclear thought since the end of massive retaliation.  Using nuclear weapons as threats in situations where that threat is hardly credible (you launch a cyber-attack that hurts my country for a week or a month, and I will devastate your country for several generations) only diminishes the credibility of threats that are more appropriate--self defense, defense of allies from mass destruction.  It seems clear from Obama's statement that he seeks to maintain something like what the old nuclear gurus called escalation dominance but via conventional weapons--the ability to respond at every step of the escalation ladder.  This allows one to not have to jump from economic sanctions or a pin-prick conventional strike to all-out nuclear wear, which, again tends to be unbelievable.  Instead, one can threaten to escalate to the next step along the way, giving time for the crisis to play out and hopefully lead to somebody backing down before it is too late.

Obama's stance on Iran is similarly reasonable but not uncontroversial:
Mr. Obama said he wanted a new United Nations sanctions resolution against Iran “that has bite,” but he would not embrace the phrase “crippling sanctions” once used by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And he acknowledged the limitations of United Nations action. “We’re not naïve that any single set of sanctions automatically is going to change Iranian behavior,” he said, adding “there’s no light switch in this process.”
It is pretty clear that Iran is not going to back down in response to anything really.  Does not make sense to issue threats that cannot be followed or back Iran into a corner.  My take on this is that the best we can do is make it hard on the Iranians enough so that others do not follow their example.  Just as we could not dissuade North Korea, I doubt that we can deter Iran.  While Israel is rightly troubled by a nuclear Iran, we simply do not have any real threat to play, other than Iran's nuclear destruction if they use their nascent capability.  Pre-emption is not going to work until, ironically, Iran deploys a handful of nukes that could be targeted.  Right now, their production capability is dispersed and underground.  The most dangerous time will be when they enter a "use them or lose them" situation--when they have a few weapons that might be vulnerable in a first strike.  It is, of course, easier to take unrealistic and extreme positions on this issue, but Obama is actually in office, so he has to be reasonable.  Bush never did launch that war on Iran that so many expected (yes, you, Erin), so a more thoughtful Obama is even less likely to do so.

*  Random indeed.  It has been fun following a college roommate (that I have not talked to in more than twenty years) via his journalism. 

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