Missing the Target

Obama’s nuclear policy is aimed at the wrong country -- his own.

In his slightly more than one year in office, President Barack Obama has sought to change how America does business. Even his detractors must concede that he has left an indelible thumbprint on the American style of governance. Not content to simply change America’s domestic affairs, he has also sought to reset America’s relationship with the world. From Cairo to Prague, he has spoken of the need for new ways forward, for “change,” to use the cliché. Nowhere has the President sought greater changes than in how America, and by extension the free world, seeks to minimize the dangers of suffering a devastating attack with nuclear bombs or other weapons of mass destruction.

The President’s hopes for a world one day free of nuclear weapons are well known. How he wants to get there, however, is problematic. He canceled plans to deploy a formidable system of anti-ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe, dealing a serious blow to close allies in the region while opting for a far less ambitious program of limited missile defenses stationed aboard Navy warships. His Administration has in the past several weeks announced plans to sign a new treaty with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by both nations (a laudable goal, but one undercut by worrying signs that the treaty’s math is faulty).

Most worrisome was the recent release of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NRP). This assessment, conducted during every presidential administration, examines the role that nuclear weapons play in American military and foreign policy, sets future goals and identifies problems. It also lays out, in measured bureaucratic language, the view that a president personally has to the most fearsome weapons at his disposal.

The new NPR seems determined to limit when America would (and would not) use nuclear bombs — they would not be used against countries that do not possess their own arsenals, even if that country has undertaken a devastating biological, chemical or cyber attack upon America or an ally. The Administration has left itself some wiggle room, reserving the right to respond to a massive biological attack, made possible by rapidly advancing medical science, with nuclear weapons, if the casualties warranted such a retributive taking of life. (How the Administration would respond to an electromagnetic attack is not specified.)

There is nothing inherently objectionable to these proposals — everyone should fear the terrible power of nuclear weapons, and no one in their right mind would ever wish to see America forced to deploy such a weapon against any other nation, nuclear-armed or not. But in so clearly articulating under what circumstances America would use nuclear weapons, America has denied itself one of the most useful tools in deterring a hostile attack — unpredictability and ambiguity. While many on the left might be uncomfortable with such assertive displays of strength, a large part of nuclear deterrence is the unspoken truth that America had the ability to utterly crush an enemy if it ever became necessary.

Whether or not it intended to (and it of course didn’t) is irrelevant. The possibility existed, and that alone made America safer. That advantage has been thrown away for the sake of yet more happy rhetoric from an Administration that seems to have little else to offer. What does the Administration hope to accomplish by publicly declaring that it would only use nuclear weapons in the face of a terrible crisis from a powerful enemy?

Promising never to nuke a non-nuclear power unless provoked (Somewhat akin to a sane man proudly promising not to murder his neighbor) will have little impact with the rogue states that the President needs to worry about the most. The NRP isn’t aimed at any US ally, or benign states like Ghana or Mongolia. It’s aimed directly at Iran, North Korea, Syria — countries who might be temped to use, or threaten to use, a nuclear weapons against America or an ally. It’s doubtful that they’ll be much moved by yet another show of good faith from a doggedly friendly President.

When questioned on that point, Gordon Chang, Forbes.com columnist and author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, said, “The leaders of the rogues probably took little note of that. Why? President Obama's policies against them have been so ineffective in the first place.  Kim Jong Il, for instance, went on his spree of provocative acts last spring.  The U.S. did almost nothing then — and has done almost nothing since. The Iranians are no doubt relieved that Obama policy toward them has been just as feeble as Bush's. The Syrians? We have not even tried to punish them for their North Korean-reactor-in-the-desert maneuver.

“The rogues will take notice if — and only if — the administration does something effective.  In his pursuit of a grand strategy, he is taking his eye off more pressing issues.” Mr. Chang’s suggestion on how to get serious without taking military action, something President Obama would be loath to do? “A complete embargo on commerce with Iran enforced by a naval blockade, air patrols, and an unprecedented diplomatic offensive. And one on North Korea as well.”

Good advice on how to make the world a safer place and truly bring about a world free of nuclear weapons. Whether or not the Administration will take such a stand, or will continue to buy the world’s favor by putting limits on its own behavior, is yet to be seen. Given developments in U.S. foreign policy since President Obama took office, however, there is little cause for optimism.