Belmont Club

Unthinking the unthinkable

President Obama is expected to restrict US nuclear weapons use, even in self-defense.  According to the Times Online, he will announce the doctrine that the US will not retaliate against biological or chemical attacks, for as long as the attacker adheres to the nonproliferation treaty.

In an interview with The New York Times ahead of the unveiling of his much anticipated revamped nuclear policy, Mr Obama said an exception would be made for “outliers like Iran and North Korea” that have violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But in a striking departure from the position taken by his predecessors, he said that the US would explicitly commit for the first time to not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that adhere to the nuclear treaty, even if they attack with biological or chemical weapons.

The given reason for the new declaration is to clarify the circumstances under which the US will use nuclear weapons without necessarily adopting an “no first use” pledge. The President also added he would not develop any new nuclear weapons on the way making such devices “obsolete”.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and assuming that such a policy enhances US security one would expect other countries to adopt similar policies. It will be interesting to see whether the other nuclear powers follow suit. After all if something is delicious other people will want to eat it. If President Obama remains the only person to gnaw on this bone then it only may cater to his own peculiar tastes.

As a practical matter the US has avoided using nuclear weapons in all conflicts since 1945, even against non-nuclear foes, out of the fear of escalating a conflict. It avoided such use even after the collapse of its superpower rival, the former USSR. But the US always sought to preserve an ambiguity over whether or not such weapons might be used, reserving the decision to itself, in order to leave a potential enemy in doubt — and in fear. The immediate change of the new policy, with its exceptions for “outliers like Iran and North Korea” will not be to alter practice but to change the messaging.

Messaging was always an important part of nuclear weapons policy because they were largely used for signaling. Too terrible to use, they were brandished in a kind of ritual display. Their effects of nuclear weapons were so great they bordered on the mystical; and like mystical objects they were shrouded in an an aura of mystery. That included a deliberate amount of uncertainty over where the red lines were. They were somewhere, and the fear was that in an atmosphere of increasing belligerence the ratchet would inevitably take them past a boundary, one which perhaps no one, not even their possessors, knew precisely.

Whereas in the past a foe could never be completely sure that an attack would not evoke a nuclear response, now a prospective foe has the assurance of a US President that he is immune from certain weapons under the given circumstances. One could argue that by restricting the circumstances of a US nuclear response Obama has made harder to escalate a conflict. But the counterargument can be made that President Obama has made the use of chemical and biological warfare that much more likely because prospective foes are, like mischievous children encouraged to test the stated boundaries and run the risk of accidentally crossing the line.

Boundaries are never definite in war and there is a risk to pretending that they are.  During the Falklands War, the UK described a total exclusion Total Exclusion Zone within which any Argentinian warship would be fired on.  The Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by the SSN HMS Conqueror outside the declared zone because the British decided the Belgrano represented a naval threat.  An Argentinian spokesman wryly remarked that “Britian may no longer rule the waves, but it still waives the rules.” There descends upon the battlefield a “fog of war” and within that mist it is often unwise to draw neat lawyerly lines. President Obama may be clever, or too clever by half.

Even before Obama made his announcement some experts believed that a terrorist WMD attack on the US was inevitable. Certainly the government, even under Obama, was preparing for it. The New York Times reported in November 2009 that the Department of Homeland Security had spent $250 million dollars deploying detectors which could find smuggled nuclear weapons but “had to stop deploying the new machines because the United States has run out of a crucial raw material”.

The ingredient is helium 3, an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays. But the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989.

“I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,” said Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, who is the chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem. …

The government wanted 1,300 to 1,400 machines, which cost $800,000 each, for use in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year.

At the White House, Steve Fetter, an assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the helium 3 problem was short-term because other technologies would be developed. But, he said, while the government had a large surplus of helium 3 at the end of the cold war, “people should have been aware that this was a one-time windfall and was not sustainable.”

And if the threat of nuclear attack could not be placed at zero, still less was it possible to rule out a chemical or biological attack, because they are easier to make. What has been ruled out, in certain circumstances, is nuclear retaliation. Whether President Obama’s new messaging on nuclear weapons — whether taking the psychological weapon of deterrence of the table along with the weapons doctrine itself — will make the world safer or increase the chances that biological or chemical warfare may be used are unknown. Policy makers have theories, simulation and models about the future. What the future has when it happens is facts. In the meantime, opinions on the subject differ. Until then, who knows?

A great amount has been talked and written about what constitutes a sufficient balance and what really is meant by the concepts of “balance” and “deterrence”.
Alva Myrdal

Democrats always assure us that deterrence will work, but when the time comes to deter, they’re against it.
Ann Coulter

Deterrence is the art of producing, in the mind of the enemy, the fear to attack.
Sterling Hayden

Deterrence itself is not a preeminent value; the primary values are safety and morality.
Herman Kahn

Nuclear deterrence doesn’t work outside of the Russian – U.S. context; Saddam Hussein showed that.
Charles Horner

So, we need to delegitimize the nuclear weapon, and by de-legitimizing… meaning trying to develop a different system of security that does not depend on nuclear deterrence.
Mohamed ElBaradei

The only peace that can be made with a dictator is one that must be based on deterrence. For today, the dictator may be your friend, but tomorrow he will need you as an enemy.
Natan Sharansky

Why then, lead on. Oh, that a man might know
The end of this day’s business ere it come!
But it sufficeth that the day will end,
And then the end is known.
William Shakespeare

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