Deterrence and Bouncing Checks

James Perkovich writes in the National Interest that president Obama’s plan for a Nuclear Zero may even be more attractive after the Crimea.  While conventional wisdom holds that America’s retreat in the Crimea may induce other countries to arm themselves with nuclear weapons out of doubt for the American deterrent, Perkovich says that the crisis shows how subtly prescient Obama’s policy is. Aren’t we glad there are no sabers to rattle? he asks. For saber rattling must eventually mean the sabers will be crossed; just because deterrence worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future. He writes:


unlike many of his opponents, the president and his supporters remember that deterrence is not fail-proof—otherwise it would not work. The weapons deter because they could be used, and any use could escalate to mass destruction. Even if deterrence is stable between the U.S. and Russia, it may have a higher probability of failure between less experienced pairs or, more ominously, groups of nuclear-armed states. As the eminent nuclear strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman put it several years ago: “The case for abolition…is that it is hard to believe that the past 60 years of self-restraint can continue for the next 60 years.”

But at least one group of allies may disagree with the case for abolition. The New York Times writes that Japanese are worried about the US response in Crimea.

When President Bill Clinton signed a 1994 agreement promising to “respect” the territorial integrity of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons, there was little thought then of how that obscure diplomatic pact – called the Budapest Memorandum – might affect the long-running defense partnership between the United States and Japan.

But now, as American officials have distanced themselves from the Budapest Memorandum in light of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, calling promises made in Budapest “nonbinding,” the United States is being forced at the same time to make reassurances in Asia. Japanese officials, a senior American military official said, “keep asking, ‘Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?’


The other group of people who seem to disagree with Perkovich are the Russians. The Washington Free Beacon reports that the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) warned Congress that Russia has been engaged in a nuclear buildup for more than a decade.  If the nukes are so useless then why is Putin building more of them even as Obama builds down?

“Russia has maintained and continues to modernize their strategic deterrent capability,” Adm. Cecil Haney, the Stratcom commander told the House Armed Services Committee. …

State Department cables sent to Washington earlier this year included dire warnings that Russia is vastly increasing its nuclear arsenal under policies similar to those Moscow followed during the Soviet era.

The cables, according to officials familiar with them, also stated that the Russian strategic nuclear forces buildup appears aimed at achieving nuclear superiority over the United States and not nuclear parity.

The nuclear modernization has been “continuous” and includes adding fixed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and mobile ICBMs, along with a new class of strategic missile submarines, Haney said in testimony….

By contrast, Haney testified to the committee that U.S. nuclear forces are in urgent need of modernization to update aging nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and support and production infrastructure, most of which were made decades ago.


“Under budget sequestration, which could be re-imposed in 2016, U.S. nuclear force modernization will be undermined,” the Free Beacon added.


Open Wide

Open Wide

Maybe it’s because the Russians are stupid and keep doing, as the president points out, things that are perversely contrary to their self-interest. President Obama must be more enlightened and far-seeing than Vladimir Putin. At least that’s what president Obama’s supporters believe. Here he is, depicted as the “only adult in the room” in this recent cover from the New Yorker.

But the Washington Post had harsh words for the “only adult in the room” in an editorial. It wrote “on Syria, U.S. and U.N. are all talk and no action:”

Five months have passed since Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared that “the world must act quickly” to stop a “war of starvation” being waged by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad against “huge proportions of the population.” It’s been nearly six weeks since the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2139, which ordered the regime and rebels to “promptly allow unhindered humanitarian access” and threatened “further steps” in the case of noncompliance.

Since then, according to U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos, the war of starvation has worsened. The number of Syrians cut off from international aid has grown since January by 1 million, to 3.5 million. At least 180,000 people are in areas directly blockaded by government troops, which refuse to allow in supplies of food or medicine. In direct contravention of the U.N. resolution, the Assad regime has authorized aid convoys to cross only one of eight border posts identified by U.N. relief coordinators.


“All talk and no action.” Harsh words. But in fairness the administration does more than talk. They also “watch closely.” The Washington Times reports, “U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching North Korea for signs that Pyongyang’s next military provocation will be a long-range missile flight test.” One of the missiles which may be tested is a weapon designed to reach Guam:

Systems likely to be tested include the Taepodong-2, which has been tested five times since 2006 and most recently in December 2012, and a new road-mobile KN-08 missile that has not been flight-tested. A third possible system in the longer-range category is the Musudan intermediate-range missile that can reach all U.S. bases in the region, including Guam.

Isn’t Guam US territory? Relax. Fortunately the administration is chilled out already; calm, measured and constant. After receiving news that Russia is planning to carve off even larger slices of Ukraine, John Kerry warned that any such action would “incur further costs for Russia,” which is exactly what he said when Putin first started carving up the Eastern European in the first place.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

Kerry noted that Ukrainian government leaders were traveling on Monday to all the affected cities “to try to negotiate evacuation of government buildings and de-escalation of tensions,” Psaki said.

The secretary called on Russia “to publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs, called for de-escalation and dialogue and called on all parties to refrain from agitation in Ukraine,” she said.

“He made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” Psaki said.

Advertisement quotes an expert who says Putin’s actions in Syria suggests wants to go for the psychological kill but the target is not Obama’s psyche itself. That is about as invulnerable as 36 inches of Krell metal. It is America’s credibility that Putin is intent on destroying.  The article says:

“Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone. “If Russia can show it’s capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin.”

What it will achieve is destroy the remaining trust in the US; prove to the world that Putin can make Obama jump through hoops just like a trained poodle. The fact that the poodle may be doing it voluntarily does nothing to dispel the impression that Putin is the ringmaster and the poodle is the trained animal.

Obama made this easier, from the political point of view, by writing a bouncing check to the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainians. Writing such instruments — making a sonorous promise and walking it back — has the inevitable effect of reducing one’s credit rating. So when Japanese officials ask  ‘are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?’  they are basically wondering whether Obama’s checks are any good.


What do you think?

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