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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2010

Exploring Obama's nuclear doctrine

 •  Troops pushed to brink

By Richard Halloran

Ever since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, American political leaders, strategic thinkers and military officers have argued, sometimes vehemently, over guidelines for using them. In one such discussion, a prominent "nuclear theologian" stopped to say: "Of course, none of us really knows what he is talking about because we have no empirical feedback on nuclear war."

Fred Ikle, the nuclear strategist who was an undersecretary of defense in the Reagan Administration, later drew lessons from six decades of nuclear history in his 2006 book, "Annihilation from Within." Among them: Benevolence is not enough to stave off a nuclear confrontation and it takes courage to comprehend the enormity of a nuclear war.

Into this context President Obama and his administration stepped last week with their "Nuclear Posture Review" and the New Start treaty signed by the president and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. Both were intended to reduce the threat of nuclear war but both seemed likely to rouse vigorous scrutiny at home and abroad.

Indeed, a thrust of Obama's nuclear policy has little to do with nuclear conflict. The president's doctrine focuses on nuclear terror and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But U.S. nuclear missiles can't fight nuclear terror when a bomb might be delivered in a rusty cargo ship, and not likely to be of much use against a nation refusing to give up the nuclear arsenal it is forging.

The review says, "Today's most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism. Al Qaeda and their extremist allies are seeking nuclear weapons. We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them." It continues, "The availability of sensitive equipment and technologies in the nuclear black market" makes it possible that "terrorists may acquire what they need to build a nuclear weapon."

On the spread of nuclear arms, the review says: "In pursuit of their nuclear ambitions, North Korea and Iran have violated non-proliferation obligations, defied directives of the United Nations Security Council, pursued missile delivery capabilities, and resisted international efforts to resolve through diplomatic means the crises they have created."

Neither Iran nor North Korea, moreover, has displayed any evidence that either is disposed to responding to incentives or pressure; the review proposes nothing new to confront them. It acknowledges only that unless today's trends are reversed, "before very long we will be living in a world with a steadily growing number of nuclear-armed states and an increasing likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons."

On China, the posture review says China has only a few missiles capable of hitting the U.S. but fails to note that Beijing has apparently adopted a strategy of minimal deterrence. China's arsenal includes 20 Dong Feng (East Wind) 31 missiles that are mobile and thus hard to target. Chinese leaders evidently believe those missiles would survive a U.S. attack and could be launched at American cities.

With Russia, Obama has rejected the deterrence of the Cold War, the review asserting "the nature of the U.S.-Russia relationship has changed fundamentally," Russia no longer being an adversary. The New Start treaty, which must be approved by the U.S. Senate, reflects that assessment. The posture review, however, notes that "Russia continues to modernize its still-formidable nuclear forces."

The Obama doctrine appears to ignore a basic principle of military power, which holds that strategy and forces should be calculated on the capabilities rather than the intentions of a potential adversary. Capabilities, including weapons and training, take a long time to acquire; intentions can change in a short time.

Finally, the posture review fails to mention the nuclear forces of India, Pakistan and Israel and where they might fit into the president's hopes of diminishing the chances of nuclear conflict.