The New York Times broke the news last night that the Obama administration will release today its Nuclear Posture Review – a congressionally-mandated document put out by each administration outlining America’s approach toward its nuclear arsenal, usually for that President’s entire term in office. The NPR overall seems like a big important step in the right direction, but is one that could have gone further.
The Washington Post ran with the headline “Obama to take middle course in new nuclear policy,” noting that “The document also reflects the continuity in the nuclear establishment, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates straddling the two administrations.” The Wall Street Journal, led with the headline “U.S. keeps first-strike strategy.” Noting that:
To many arms-control advocates, the review is likely to be a disappointment. “It’s a status quo document, I think, in virtually every respect,” said Bruce Blair, president of World Security Institute and co-coordinator of Global Zero, a disarmament group.
Yet the reaction from the far-right was immediate and revealing. The Times story was linked to on Drudge under the banner headline, “No nukes even in self-defense.” This got the vitriol pumping. Sean Hannity talked about it with his guest David Kupelian who said, “it’s signaling to the enemy. It’s giving them a huge advantage. It doesn’t make any sense.” Jennifer Rubin at Commentary, called his NPR “incomprehensible,” adding that “we are signaling to potential foes that they can take a potshot at the U.S. without risking a nuclear blowback, Obama makes crystal clear just how unserious he is about taking out Iran’s nuclear capability.” CNN’s new reputable pundit Erick Erickson asked “How many Americans are going to die because of the Obama administration’s incompetent handling of our national security?… it is capitulation and waving a white flag for our enemies.”
The right’s claim of “signaling to the enemy” conveniently leaves out mentioning who that enemy actually is. Is it Russia? If so thinking we are “enemies” with Russia is not just right wing amnesia – the Cold War ended after all – it is really dangerous. Are they talking about China? They have less than 300 nuclear weapons. We have over 9,000. Al Qaeda? Nuclear weapons obviously don’t deter a diffuse terrorist network or else terrorist attacks wouldn’t have occurred in the first place.
Claims that this leaves us exposed to Iran and others are just baseless tea-party talking points. At least read the news stories. The NPR’s assertion that the US won’t attack non-nuclear states has a huge caveat. The US pledges not to attack non-nuclear states, as long as they are compliant with the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – considering that Iran and North Korea are NOT compliant with the NPT means the Obama administration has made a direct point of telling these two countries that we could nuke you! Furthermore, the United States has a really enormous conventional military that the Obama administration is spending more on than any other administration before him. Countries are deterred from attacking us, because, as we have shown over the last two decades, we are quite capable of destroying rogue regimes (rebuilding is another story). This is why many arms-control advocates are calling it a status quo document – this all reflects current reality.
Still, reflecting current reality, represents a massive step forward in moving beyond the legacies of the Cold War. The NPR shifts the focus of the nuclear bureaucracy toward the most acute nuclear dangers of the 21st century – terrorism and proliferation and it will importantly enable the US to significantly cut its number of nuclear weapons in the years ahead by recognizing that these weapons have little military utility. This approach also has the firm backing of the US military. Colin Powell reflected this widely shared view, when he said recently that from a military perspective “nuclear weapons are useless.”
This is hardly radical. The NPR could have gone further and declared that the United States would not use nuclear weapons unless attacked by them. It could have also said that the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal was to deter attacks against the United States. It could have made unilateral reductions. This would have both reflected strategic realities and would have sent a huge signal to the world that we are indeed going to work to move beyond the nuclear age. It chose instead a middle course.
The right’s reaction to this middle course doesn’t just expose its extreme knee-jerk vitriol, but also demonstrates their attachment to a completely insane and imaginary approach to foreign affairs – where we need to refight the Cold War and where we need to enter a new arms race.