On the presidential campaign trail, Barack Obama was often critical of the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. But apparently preemptive disarmament is just fine in the president’s dossier. How else to describe the administration’s infinitely naïve decision yesterday to, in effect, fold up the American nuclear umbrella?
Henceforth, on the administration’s initiative, the United States must desist from using nuclear weapons against officially non-nuclear countries – even if they use such weapons first against the United States – while halting the development of new nuclear weapons. The reasoning seems to be that even if this ends up emboldening America’s enemies and endangering global security, we can all sleep better at night knowing that we’ve “done the right thing.”
To soft-peddle the perils of this monumental concession, the administration has made exemptions for rogue states like North Korea and Iran, for whom “all options” will still be available. But even with this modest nod to the reality of a dangerous world it’s hard to see how surrendering the nuclear option is anything but a setback for U.S. security – especially when it comes on the heels of defense budget cuts; reductions in domestic missile defense spending; and the abandonment of missile defense shields in Poland and the Czech Republic. The last of these can already be judged a failure since it was part of a strategic gambit to buy goodwill from Russia and win Moscow’s support for stiffer measures against Iran. Both have yet to materialize.
Most troubling is the operative principle in these concessions. The administration truly seems to believe that if the United States leads the way in reducing its nuclear stockpiles, the world will follow its shining example. That fantasy is embarrassing enough when expressed by bongo-beating college peaceniks, but it is downright dangerous when it becomes the basis for the country’s national security. If the Iranian experience has taught any lesson, it is that rogue states will be more – not less – emboldened by perceived concessions on the part of the United States. Repeated offers of diplomacy have only encouraged the mullahs to pursue the nuclear weapon more relentlessly, with the consequence that Iran is expected to have an operational nuclear bomb any day now.
Not to worry: The president and his defenders point out that the United States would reserve the right to retaliate militarily in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on its soil. That the administration has not completely signed away the country’s right to self-defense is comforting. But given the staggering devastation of a nuclear attack and the increasing sophistication of nuclear weaponry, the threat of conventional militarily reprisal sounds like the geopolitical equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight – after one has been fatally shot.
That highlights yet another flaw in the administration’s plan. While the United States will drop out of the nuclear race, other countries will continue to develop and modernize nuclear technology. Two consequences will follow: First, America’s already aging nuclear arsenal – nuclear and Asia expert Gordon Chang points out the average age of an American nuke is now 26 years – will become even more antiquated. At the same time, other nuclear and aspiring nuclear powers will continue to increase the size and superiority of their nuclear capabilities, with the U.S. falling ever farther behind. China, for instance, has reportedly expanded the size and scope of its nuclear program in recent years, and shows no signs of scaling down its arms buildup: the 7.5 percent spending surge in China’s 2010 military budget was modest only compared to the double-digit increases that have been the norm in recent decades.
What the Obama administration views as virtue looks to the rest of the world like weakness. It is a hard but ineradicable feature of foreign affairs that strength is respected more than surrender, might more than good intentions. President Obama may not agree with that. But so long as he is commander-in-chief, and entrusted with the country’s national security, he has an obligation to act as if he does.