The Threat from Obama’s New Nuclear Policy

April 6, 2010

President Obama is revising America’s nuclear strategy and will limit the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons in a report called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The New York Times describes a key change of the new policy:

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.

This is a radical change from the policy pursued by every President starting with John F. Kennedy. Until today, the US position was that an attack by a foreign power against the US or its allies could result in an overwhelming nuclear response obliterating the enemy. This kept the peace during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had conventional superiority in Europe, but, if it had chosen to overrun West Germany and other parts of Western Europe, it faced the threat that Moscow and all other major Soviet cities would cease to exist.

Now, our stated position is that if someone attacks us or our allies, we’ll have a bunch of lawyers review the attacking regime’s “compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty” before we decide what to do. Communist China must be salivating at the prospect of invading Taiwan without threat of US retaliation.

Obama said that he is carving out an exception for “outliers like Iran and North Korea.” And if there were serious attack on the United States, it is still hard to believe than an American government would not retaliate overwhelmingly. But the problem with the NPR is that much of the ambiguity of what the United States may do is removed. Powerline comments:

The cardinal rule, when it comes to nuclear weapons, is keep ’em guessing. We want our enemies to believe that we may well be crazy enough to vaporize them, given sufficient provocation; one just can’t tell. There is a reason why that ambiguity has been the American government’s policy for more than 50 years. Obama cheerfully tosses overboard the strategic consensus of two generations.

Or pretends to, anyway. Does anyone doubt that the administration would use nukes in a heartbeat if it considered such measures necessary? I don’t. The problem is that when the time comes to actually use nuclear weapons, it is too late. The danger here is not that the Obama administration has really gone pacifist. On the contrary, the significance of today’s announcement appears to be entirely symbolic–just one more chance to preen. The problem is that our enemies understand symbolism and maybe take it too seriously. To them, today’s announcement is another sign that our government has gone soft, and one more inducement to undertake aggressive action against the United States.

Hot Air comments on the changed incentives for jihadists and rogue regimes:

In limiting the nuclear deterrent to nuclear weapons (and, in certain cases, biological attacks) instead of WMD generally, doesn’t this create an incentive to focus on developing bio and chemical weapons? In most cases those are less dangerous than nukes, but nukes are also harder to develop and more easy to monitor. Do we really want tomorrow’s A.Q. Khans focusing on smallpox instead?

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