How revolutionary is Obama's nuclear posture?

Military analysis.
April 6 2010 6:53 PM

Nuclear Dreams and Nightmares

Obama's new and old policy on The Bomb.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

The Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review today, and those seeking clarity from the major newspapers must have come away more confused than ever.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com . His 1983 book about the nuclear strategists, The Wizards of Armageddon, is still in print.

The New York Times, in a front-page preview of the report headlined "Obama to Limit Scenarios to Use Nuclear Weapon," called the president's new strategy "a sharp shift from those of his predecessors."

Yet the Wall Street Journal, titling its story "U.S. Keeps First-Strike Strategy," shrugged off the report as "a status-quo document" that makes "only modest changes."

Both stories exaggerate. The actual 49-page report is neither dramatic nor ho-hum. In a formal statement this morning, President Barack Obama said it takes "specific and concrete steps" that "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national-security strategy."

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That's the most that can be said for it, but that's hardly trivial.

Disarmament activists had hoped for more. But, like the single-payer advocates in the health care debate, they were fooling themselves if they expected it.

The big issue—a matter of suspense in arms-control circles—was whether the document would declare that deterring a nuclear attack is the "sole" purpose of nuclear weapons or merely their "primary" purpose.

If it was the "sole" purpose, that would mean the president was declaring that the United States would never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack on U.S. or allied territory. It would signal a "no-first-use" policy.

If it was merely the "primary" purpose, that would mean the United States might use nukes in other circumstances, for instance in response to a chemical or biological attack or to a large-scale conventional invasion of an ally. We would, in other words, reserve the right to fire nuclear weapons first—as we have been doing, and declaring, since the atomic age began.

Obama's strategy carves out a novel, and very intriguing, chunk of middle ground. It rejects "no-first-use," noting that the United States is "not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons."

However, it does declare that the United States will not fire nuclear weapons first at any country that has signed, and is in compliance with, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The distinction may seem semantic, but in fact it's substantial. Throughout the Cold War and in the two decades since, presidents have always maintained a strategic ambiguity about when and whether they might use nuclear weapons. The commonly invoked phrase has been that "all options are on the table," sometimes with eyebrows raised while saying "all."

Obama is now saying that in conflicts with countries that don't have nuclear weapons and aren't cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all options are not on the table. We don't need to brandish, much less use, our nukes. We can launch sufficiently devastating attacks with conventional weapons and defend ourselves against whatever those countries might throw against us.

This declaration has three tangible effects. First, the nuclear war-planners at U.S. Strategic Command are, in effect, ordered to stop looking for targets in treaty-compliant countries—and to stop listing "requirements" for more nuclear weapons to hit those targets.

Second, it provides another incentive for countries—even unfriendly countries—not to develop nuclear weapons (if they believe the U.S. declaration, anyway).

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