Obama sets new limits on nuclear weapon options

Posted on April 5, 2010

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President Obama announced today a revamping of American nuclear strategy by outlining specific instances where nuclear weapons would not be used, even in a potential self-defense situation:

It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

Those threats, Mr. Obama argued, could be deterred with “a series of graded options,” a combination of old and new conventional weapons. “I’m going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure,” he said in the interview in the Oval Office.

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

The President is also freezing the development of any new nuclear weapons. It should be noted that he isn’t completely ruling out nuclear weapon use in self-defense, despite hysterical observations to the contrary. Allahpundit has some good analysis and what seems to be a clearer breakdown of where nuclear weapons would still be used:

Unless I’ve misunderstood, we reserve the right to nuke the following, whether in self-defense or otherwise: (1) nuclear states, (2) non-nuclear states that are in violation of the NPT (i.e. Iran), (3) non-nuclear states that attack the U.S. with bioweapons, but only if they possess a stockpile large enough to pose a risk of a “devastating strike.” I hope I’ve misunderstood that last one; the idea of Obama explaining to Americans that, yes, 50,000 people may be dead of smallpox but we can’t nuke country X because they don’t have a big enough stockpile of the virus yet is dark comedy gold.

Really, this move isn’t meant to deter Iran and North Korea, it’s to put pressure on Russia and China to reduce their own stockpiles. But to be honest, I don’t see how unilaterally disarming and limiting our potential nuclear options makes any impact on Moscow and Beijing, who will most likely greet the news with something like, “That’s very nice of you.”

Nuclear non-proliferation is certainly a laudable goal, and no one should take their use lightly. It seems that this move still leaves a number of options still on the table and, while designed to be a major step forward in arms reduction, it’s really just more talk and positioning than anything else. I might understand the thinking that the President is using this as a means of putting pressure on Russia in order to help with Iran, but we can’t expect the Russians to respond to this by simultaneously reducing their own arms and agreeing to tougher sanctions simply because they don’t get anything out of it.

The problem is that the President is fighting the last war, not the current one. The nuclear arms race was a desperate problem of the 70s and 80s – but the nuclear problems we face today come from rogue states like Iran and North Korea and from terrorist organizations attaining a small nuclear device. The President is wasting time putting diplomatic pressure on Russia and China over a Cold War issue when he should be more worried about putting pressure on Tehran and Pyongyang.

Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice

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Posted in: News, Politics