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Hold the Mushroom (Cloud)

Obama promises not to nuke terrorists who poison us.

By Petrarch  |  April 7, 2010

The New York Times exultantly reports:

President Obama said Monday that he was revamping American nuclear strategy to substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons... 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. [emphasis added]

We at Scragged are generally fans of clear statements and plain speaking.  One of our bigger annoyances with President Obama has been that he tends to say whatever sounds good at the moment and then at a later moment, he'll say or do something totally different because it sounds better then.  In a democracy where people are supposed to choose their leaders based on their merits, it helps if what they say bears some resemblance to what they plan to do in the real world.

That's also true in international diplomacy.  Forests have been felled decrying the awful consequences of international misunderstandings and miscommunications: from the way Europe stumbled into World War One over a two-bit assassination in a worthless backwater, up through Saddam Hussein thinking he had an American greenlight to invade Kuwait when in reality he'd just encountered a waffling diplomat who was trying to say nothing at all.  Most of the time you get the best results by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Key concept: most of the time.  When it comes to the greatest destructive force known to man, though, clarity of intention is exactly what you do not want.

To whatever extent Mr. Obama has brightened the lines and made American nuclear policy plain, he has made America less safe.  Why?

Suicide Is Painful

Consider the situation often encountered in the movies, where a character has a grenade or explosive vest while standing in a room surrounded by enemies.  He makes a threat to blow up himself and them if they come any closer.

They need to decide: how likely is this a real threat?  By blowing himself up, he'll kill them but kill himself too.  Does he really want to do that?  How much does he hate them?

Is he generally a stable, rational person who doesn't do anything without thinking it through?  Or is he a borderline psychopath who might actually enjoy going through with it?

Based on these factors, the bad guys might stand aside in fear and let our hero leave in peace; or, they might say "Yeah, sure, you'd never dare" and walk up and knock him out.

The whole power of his position is that the enemies do not know what he will actually do.  They have to make a guess - an educated guess perhaps, but a guess all the same, gambling their own lives that they're right.  For any rational person, this will give them pause.

During the Cold War, the Soviet leadership may or may not have been totally amoral but they most certainly weren't nuts.  They didn't want to get fried any more than we did and they didn't want their grandkids to grow up with three heads.  They had no particular desire for the world to end in a nuclear holocaust, but they needed us to know that, if it came to it, they were willing, and they had to know that we were willing too.  That's what "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) was all about.

Thus, whenever American and Russia were in conflict, every decision to escalate carried the question, "Will this shove them over the edge and make them push the button?"  Throughout the Cold War, the free world and the Communist world engaged in any number of proxy wars where we supported some tinpot dictator and they supported a different one, but rarely if ever did our own forces come to blows.

There was a very good reason for this.  Were we likely to destroy the world over some Third World country being defeated?  Not really; nor were the Soviets.  If the American Army itself got clobbered by the Red Army in direct conflict, though - that would be a different matter and everybody knew it.

Since nobody on either side wanted escalation to that level, our various fights had a certain pressure from above trying to keep them from expanding.  It didn't always work and sometimes it led to wars being needlessly lost or excessive cost, but at least it prevented the End of the World.

MAD worked only because nobody knew what, exactly, would trigger the End of the World!  Everybody could tell when things were getting tense, and every rational leader was very, very careful not to push things too far because they did not know precisely where the edge was.

Juuuussst This Far...

Barack Obama has now written the epitaph for this extremely useful, life-saving, even world-saving strategic ambiguity.  A nice clear bright line has been laid down, conveniently marked off so that our enemies can walk right up to it, ostentatiously keeping their toes on the right side - then reach across, still with their feet in the right place, and slap us in the face.

Where, precisely, is the line?  The Washington Post says:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.  [emphasis added]

Much more likely to work.

OK, so this change doesn't apply to Iran or North Korea which are not in compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaties; we'll still nuke them (supposedly) if they step out of line.  Fair enough.

Are they our only enemies?  What about Venezuela?  What about Cuba?  For that matter, what about the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamists in Somalia, or any number of other bad actors from Libya to Syria?  They do not have nuclear weapons, so this policy gives them a free pass to hit us with anthrax, smallpox, Ebola virus, H1N1, or any other nasty thing they can come up with just as long as it doesn't make us glow in the dark.

For fifty years, chemical and biological weapons have not been used in international conflicts because the United States has maintained an open threat to nuke anybody who tries it.  As of today, we have withdrawn the threat.  In fact, we've underscored it with a negative promise; we now promise not to reduce Dr. Death and Chemical Ali to their component atoms no matter how many Americans they kill.

It is very hard to build an atomic bomb and even harder to cover up the fact that you've done it.

It's not exactly easy to weaponize a virus, either; but if you manage it, it's very much harder for your victim to track it back to you.

Remember the anthrax attacks not long after 9-11?  Almost a decade on, and we still do not know exactly how that happened because our prime suspect is dead and the trail died with him.

Was Bruce Ivins just a lone nutter?  Was he paid off by, say, Iran?  Had he secretly converted to Islam and gone on the jihadi trail?  Was he involved at all?  Was he actually totally innocent and uninvolved, and the crime was committed by someone else entirely?  Was he an innocent man driven to suicide by government pressure?

We will never know, and no price will ever be paid by a guilty party.  Don't you think that our enemies have observed this keenly?

George Bush made it plain that pursuing nukes (but failing to actually get them) was a bad idea.  Saddam Hussein paid the price for doing this; Muammar Quaddafi decided he didn't want to and turned over all his nuclear works.  Barack Obama has now told the world, "Don't want to run the risks involved in getting The Bomb?  No problem; hit us with something chemical or biological instead, we really don't mind."

Do we seriously suppose we have no enemies who wish to do us harm, or that those funny-sounding foreigners are too stupid to figure it out?  Germs kill Americans just as dead as anything else and the only reason we haven't already had this happen is because enemy leaders knew that if they tried it, they'd face a very angry Uncle Sam jabbing the nuclear buttons with all ten fingers.  Now they won't; it's open season on Americans everywhere, even on our own territory.

For fifty years, Americans have feared the day when they look out their window and see a mushroom cloud.  No more!

Now we must fear something worse: the day when our neighbors start to keel over dead without the warning of a massive explosion.

Nice move, Barack!