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*POINT* William Beecher: Obama’s Ill-Defined Nuclear Strategy

With President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit kicking off Monday evening, it may be an appropriate time to reflect on whether his newly formulated nuclear strategy is entirely consistent with his call for a “world free of nuclear weapons.” Or perhaps more critical—is it sensible, even prudent?

[See William D. Hartung's COINTERPOINT for another take on the Obama administration's nuclear strategy. Ed.]

Putting aside for the moment the possibility of every nuclear-armed country beating its weapons into radioactive medical-isotope ploughshares, there’s the question whether Obama is justified in assuming that this could happen at any point in the distant future, compelling the United States to forswear the development any new such devices? Reportedly Defense Secretary Robert Gates and much of the military establishment would like to create a new missile warhead as insurance against the failure of our aging arsenal.

If the administration’s objective is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, it’s presumably illogical to build any new models. Why waste the money? Besides, it would send the wrong signal to those we hope would join in the crusade to eliminate the nuclear menace.

The “fundamental role” of our nuclear weapons, Obama contends in the Nuclear Posture Review, is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies.

But what if the attack is by unconventional weapons—such as biological or chemical weapons? The response, he contends, should not be with nuclear weapons, but overwhelming use of conventional forces. Does he not recall that during the first Gulf War, the United States quietly passed the word to Baghdad that if it employed gas weapons against our troops, we were prepared to respond with nuclear retaliation?

American policy makers were mindful of the fact that Saddam Hussein had used such weapons against some of his own restive population during the war with Iran. Our troops went into battle in the searingly hot desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq wearing gas masks and other weighty protective gear. But Saddam apparently was convinced the nuclear retaliation threat was genuine and he did not unleash his formidable store of tactical gas weapons, even though he was losing the war.

In that instance, deterrence worked. And deterrence must, at all costs, always be credible.

If Obama is challenged on the question of whether the United States may or may not need a new nuclear weapon, he could point to the findings of the so-called Jason Panel, an independent group of scientists which advises the government on issues of science and technology. Its conclusion? That programs designed to extend the life of the nation’s nuclear arsenal were sufficiently effective to guarantee their potency for decades to come.

But the Jason Panel’s judgment has been challenged by the directors of the three nuclear weapons labs—Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore. Asked for their comments by Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), the ranking minority member of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, they disputed the Jason conclusions.

George H. Miller, director of Lawrence Livermore, wrote the main findings of the panel “understated in my view, the challenges and risks encountered in ensuring a safe and reliable nuclear force.”

Michael R. Anastasio, the Los Alamos lab director, said he “did not agree” with the panel’s conclusion about maintaining the country’s nuclear force with existing methods. “Some materials and components in the current stockpile cannot be replicated in a refurbishment,” he declared, adding that available methods to mitigate the effects of aging were “reaching their limits.”

Were they only feathering their own nuclear nests? The administration has allocated another $624 million in next year’s budget for the weapons labs and promises another $5 billion over the next five years to improve their aging infrastructure. But no new warhead, if you please, even if you use technology tested in the past.

So what about the realism of Obama’s quest for a world without nukes?

Would Israel agree to demolish its nuclear weapons, facing what it sees as an existential threat from Iran? It long ago attacked the Iraqi nuclear facility and more recently Syria’s, though with conventional armaments.

And what about those nations who did agree to disassemble all their weapons...except the five they left up their sleeves? Would Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, trust one another enough to believe, whatever treaty they might one day sign, that each would in fact destroy their entire nuclear arsenal?

What about Russia, with whom the United States has just signed another nuclear arms reduction treaty? How good is its word in such awesome matters? In 1975, Moscow ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that required all signatories to demolish their biological and toxic weapons. Yet it has been well established that, after its ratification, the Soviets constructed huge plants to manufacture tons of anthrax and other biologic agents.

In briefing reporters on the new nuclear strategy, Obama declared: “I am going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure.”

It depends on his definition of what “necessary” means.

William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.

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