Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nukes: nervous non-policy?

Nuclear tensions not felt since the Cold War are with us in the forms of sabre-rattling North Korea and Iran, and in unstable Pakistan.

Does the United States have a policy for the use of its own nuclear weapons?

I first had this thought during the Vice-Presidential debate last year. I blogged my concerns that neither then-Senator Biden or Governor Palin were able to give a solid answer to this very direct question:

What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?

Governor Palin went first and did toss in the word "deterrent," but in terms of specific action spoke only of keeping nukes out of hostile hands. She then sidestepped into a discourse on Afghanistan and never answered the question.

Senator (now Vice President) Biden piggybacked, using up most of his response time on Afghanistan. He then spoke of the need for "arms control" and never gave an answer about when nuclear weapons might be used.

I called it "spooky" that two individuals who were trying to stand one heartbeat from the Presidency - one heartbeat from Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, one heartbeat from our only public office authorized to make the nuclear call - couldn't offer even a broad principle for using these weapons.

But these were the Veep candidates, after all, and perhaps their respective standard bearers and campaign staff had warned them to "play safe" and avoid controversial specifics.

Then, early this month, President Obama spoke in Cairo, Egypt. The speech contained some strong and even provocative statements, and some affirmations of America's right to defend itself. Until it came to the issue of nuclear arms.

The President, in perhaps the weakest paragraph of the entire speech, said

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

Compare that with his earlier, sterner words

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people...

He shifted from "relentless confrontation to protect the American people" to a toothless reiteration of treaties that are already being ignored.

I make no claim to be an expert in International Relations or national defense, but I was a Cold War soldier, stationed in Europe with a nuclear armed artillery battalion. Our potential to fire nukes into numerically superior Soviet tank formations was one small piece of American defense and foreign policy, and the fact that we were trained and willing to use the weapons in certain circumstances actually helped deter a third European bloodbath in the Twentieth century - a war which might well have escalated into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) around the world.

I see two possible policy answers and have to wonder why neither major political party has people able to speak either of them.

1) "We will make measured and limited use of nuclear weapons if necessary to prevent much greater destruction." This was President Truman's decision in order to end WWII. Despite some revisionist historians' claims, a conventional invasion of Japan would have been an unimaginable slaughter and humanitarian nightmare for both sides. The Allies had already seen Japanese soldiers and even their families on garrisoned islands commit suicide rather than surrender. Conventional bombing of Japanese cities was igniting the largely wooden construction into fire storms that literally sucked thousands into incinerating funnel clouds. The dropping of two atomic bombs ended the war and killed far fewer people on both sides than would have been lost in an invasion, an inevitably long conventional effort to subdue the Japanese home islands, a guerrilla resistance by well trained and zealous forces, the horrific displacement of civilians, escalating deaths due to disruption of sanitation and other infrastructure, and possible escalation as other regional powers took advantage of the chaos.

Would a nuclear strike on a belligerent and apocalyptic nation's WMD capacity be legitimized by such a policy? Yes. Would the belligerent and apocalyptic nation's ability to terrorize the world be more likely without such a policy? Yes. It contributes more to the world's stability, I believe, to state this policy than to mumble a vague "Let's hope we don't have to deal with that," which seems to be what both major parties offer today.

2) "We will use nuclear weapons against any nation or movement that uses WMD against the American people or their allies." This is the old Cold War "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) concept. It has been the primary deterrent to WMD use since 1945.

MAD has its weaknesses today. The Cold War was waged by calculating power blocs, but WMD are now in the hands of unstable and even self-destructive regimes. If Pakistan descends into chaos, WMD could well be in the hands of a diffuse movement rather than a nation state, and MAD would require a new ruthlessness that does not fit well with our Western values. We would have to be willing to vaporize a "Holy City" or a cluster of villages and their schools full of jihad-indoctrinated children if they doubled as WMD bases.

"Isn't there another way? What about President Obama's call to build a nuke-free world?" Are we willing to pay that price? Are we willing to let the CIA destabilize - even eliminate - foreign leaders who get the WMD jones? Because it will take that, plus deterrence, plus efforts at consensus-building and alliance, plus many other realities beyond the formalities and photo-ops at a negotiating table. And remember, some of the folks likely to have nukes in the near future won't tell you where their tables are or even who has authority to sit at them.

Goodness gracious this is a "Christian" blog. Like I said above, I am no expert on Caesar's kingdom. But I know enough to worry when one of the glories of our Constitution, the delegation of ultimate military authority to an elected, accountable civilian President, comes out in twitches and mumbles instead of a level gaze and a firm word.

Back to what I know a bit about. Let us pray...

For Peace
Almighty God, kindle, we beseech thee, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with thy wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquillity thy dominion may increase till the earth is filled with the knowledge of thy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For the President and All in Civil Authority
O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979)

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