Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Draw-down. Dangerous or a Tempest in a Tea Pot?

There are a lot of things about the way President Obama has conducted and crafted his foreign policy that might be deemed dangerous or weak. But, his recently announced new policy on nuclear weapons isn't one of them. All he's done is acknowledge military and political reality. The only thing that's really debatable is the presentation or spin.

In a nutshell he stated that he wants to draw down our stockpiles, pledged not to use nukes against nations that don't have nukes, even in the event of biological or chemical attack, stated that we will not develop new nuclear weapons, just keep the current ones well maintained.

Let's address the quantity first. The Bush administration drew down U.S. nuclear weapons from around 6,000 to around 2,200. Nobody raised a stink about that. Here's why. When nuclear weapons were all the rage, the U.S. and the (then) Soviet Union engaged in a nuclear weapons building contest. Now that we've had a few decades to think about it, from a military standpoint the huge overkill in nuclear arms production is a liability, not an asset. Nuclear weapons have to be maintained and guarded and stored. People have to be trained and paid to guard them, maintain them, use them and store them. If you have 10 or 15 times more nuclear weapons than you'll ever possibly need, you're tying up tremendous resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. A few dozen or even a few hundred nukes, strategically placed and well maintained, is plenty. The most hawkish military Commander in Chief still would have drawn down our numbers because the military would have asked him/her to. He or she just wouldn't have made a show of it.

As for the policy of not nuking non-nuclear states, that's once again a policy that likely would have been practiced anyway, if not stated. The rules of warfare have changed. It used to be standard practice to blow away civilians in an attempt to intimidate the enemy into surrender. Today, civilian casualties are no longer acceptable. If a regime commits an atrocity, even with millions of deaths involved, you go after the regime. It may result in civilian casualties due to the fact that you would have no time for warnings or evacuations, but if you kill everyone within the same city as the bad guy, you become the bad guy. I have no problem with a pre-emptive strike if such an attack is deemed even highly probable, and if the bad guy has nukes, well if it's us or them, they lose. The President also left himself an out here. The policy is subject to change as weapons capabilities change. In, other words, if a chemical or biological weapon and delivery system capable of widespread destruction surfaces, all bets are off.

The presentation here is a desire to create an incentive for regimes that don't have nukes, not to develop them, store them, hide them or take delivery of them. A hawk might have presented it a little differently; "We reserve the right to use nuclear weapons against any nation in possession of nuclear weapons." Same policy, different spin.

The drama surrounding the "new" policy is a political technique I like to call "pushing on a train". That's when you put yourself in a position to take credit for something that was going to happen anyway. In economics, you pass some impotent bill with a nice name like "The Restore American Growth Act" a few months before your top economic advisors tell you that historical stats indicate the economy is likely to recover. Presto! You're an economic genius.

A lot of pundits on the right have made a big deal over this policy announcement. I think they should save their capital for something more meaningful.

More info: Yahoo News

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