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Nuclear Fantasies and Realities

The truth about Obama's new policy on nuclear weapons

Steve Chapman
April 8, 2010

President Obama released a new policy on the use of nuclear weapons the other day. From some of the reactions, I expected that on every government building, the Stars and Stripes would be replaced with a white flag of surrender.

Rudy Giuliani lamented that Obama bases his security policy on the charming belief that "we can all hold hands, sing songs, and have peace symbols." Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton said the plan puts America "on the road to nuclear impotence."

Obama deserves much of the blame for this criticism—not because of what he has done but because of what he has said. He has repeatedly endorsed the vision of "a world without nuclear weapons." When you make grand but wrongheaded pronouncements, some people take you literally.

What has gone unnoticed is the president's qualifying statement that our arrival in Shangri-La is "unlikely to be achieved even during my lifetime." As for what happens after 2040 or 2050, it won't be his problem.

In reality, there is no reason to think Obama has any intention of junking our doomsday weapons and confronting our enemies with an arsenal of honeyed words. Under the new arms control deal with Russia, we will get to deploy upward of 1,550 warheads. If you're on the receiving end, it only takes one to ruin your whole day.

But the alarmists see looming disarmament in three different developments. First, they decry Obama's new pledge not to use nuclear weapons even against a country that attacks us with biological or chemical weapons.

In formal terms, that was a significant change from the Bush administration's policy. In the real world, it has about as much content as the inside of a bass drum.

Obama made a point of refusing to offer this guarantee to nuclear states (I'm looking at you, North Korea) or states that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but have not abided by its terms (heads up, Iran). His offer would, however, apply if Canada starts lobbing mustard gas over the St. Lawrence Seaway.

More important is that any promise Obama makes regarding our possible use of nukes is subject to change if a crisis erupts. It's not like he signed a contract with rogue states allowing them to get a court injunction to prevent him from pushing the button.

Our enemies know that if they attack us, 1) we will have more military options than any country on earth, 2) all will be on the table, and 3) whichever one we choose will put them in a world of hurt.

Obama is also charged with capitulating to Moscow on our plans for missile defense—even though the New START agreement puts absolutely no limits on anti-missile weapons. The alleged problem is that the Russians reserve the right to withdraw if our defenses become too formidable.

Big whoop. Either side can pull out of an arms control accord anytime for any reason. If they were truly worried, the Russians would not be downsizing their offensive capability without getting missile defense concessions.

Another charge is that by refusing to develop new nuclear weapons or conduct test explosions of existing ones, Obama is practicing disarmament through deterioration. At some point, the thinking goes, our aging nukes will no longer work. So we might as well not have them.

This claim is not entirely fantastical. In fact, the directors of the country's three nuclear weapons laboratories have warned that existing methods of maintenance and refurbishment may not be enough to ensure "a safe and reliable nuclear force."

But the directors could be letting their self-interest in development and testing cloud their judgment. A 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences found "the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of its existing weapons stockpile without periodic nuclear tests." More recently, an independent panel of experts reached the same conclusion.

If there is a problem, it's way off in the future, and there will be plenty of time to address it. In the meantime, we have vast stores of the most destructive weapons ever created, deliverable to any target in the world in a matter of hours if not minutes.

Republicans may hope to profit from imagining that America is becoming weak and helpless. The people in charge in Tehran and Pyongyang can't afford such illusions.

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