President Obama has announced a new American policy concerning the use of nuclear weapons (the Nuclear Posture Review). According to the New York Times, 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.
Given our inability to stop Iranian nuclear proliferation, the president apparently wants to assure countries seeking nukes that there is no advantage in gaining a nuclear deterrent, since we would not use such weapons against them if they remained in line with nonproliferation statutes. We had previously asked the Iranians to desist by several deadlinesby the UN meeting in New York, the G-20 summit, face-to-face negotiations, and the first of the year. All were ignored.
So Obamas fallback position has come down to something like this: Why get a nuke, when we wont use one against youno matter what you do to us? But get a nukeand all bets are off. He apparently views such reasoning as superior to the existing presumption that could be condensed as: Dont dare get a nuclear weapon, much less consider using one, since the consequences for you will be too terrible to contemplate.
In some sense, Obamas announcement is also the logical dénouement to a number of lofty campaign promises in which he pledged to cut back on what he called unproven missile defense systems, not to weaponize space or develop nuclear weapons, to set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, to seek a global ban on the production of fissile material, and to achieve deep cuts in our nuclear arsenals. So the Nuclear Posture Review is part of this larger utopian vision whose enactment in part we have already seen in the recent nuclear agreements with Russia and the pullback of missile defense from the Czech Republic and Poland. Again, all of it is nobly intended, and in its particulars not so different from some of the objectives set out long ago by the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations. But three grave concerns nevertheless arise.
First, the president putting forth this comprehensive agenda is not an old hawk like Reagan or the Bushes, but rather one who has apologized, bowed, and backpedaled abroad in courting enemies like Syria and Iran while snubbing old friends such as Britain and Israel. Context matters. Fairly or not, the world will see these latest pronouncements as more in line with the abstract idealism of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate than with the leader of the worlds sole superpower, on whom billions in the real world rely to keep the peace through deterrence.
Further, Obama is currently engaged in an ongoing war against radical Islam, whose adherents seek to gain weapons of mass destruction. He operates in a landscape in which nuclear proliferation is on the rise from Iran to North Korea, and when a host of other anti-American autocracies such as Syria and Venezuela either boast about their desire to obtain nuclear weapons or have already stealthily built reactors. The timing, in other words, could not be worse. Appearances also matter.
Second, the American people will not stand for any Commander-in-Chief ruling out, in advance, the use of nuclear weapons, even in the event that the nation is attacked with biological or chemical weapons. Just imagine: al Qaeda conducts a deadly anthrax attack in Manhattan that kills thousands, while the architects of such destruction retreat to underground sanctuaries along the Afghan-Pakistani border; or Hezbollah operatives release nerve gas in an American mall that is traced directly to a plant in the Iranian desert. I doubt seriously whether any president would rule out the use of a tactical nuclear weapon if it militarily proved the best option to prevent further carnage.
Third, ambiguity is essential in nuclear poker. All nuclear states must at some point play the game. A potentially aggressive state never quite knows how bad the reaction might be should it gamble and initiate an attackand this is what keeps the peace. Predictability and limiting options on the part of responsible states only invite unpredictability and the expansion of choices for known bad actors.
Remember, too, that the problem of nuclear weapons does not involve democracies. No one loses sleep over a democratic America, Britain, France, India, or Israel trying to threaten in preemptive fashion other responsible nations. The worry is instead over the combination of autocracy and nuclear capability. Autocratic countries usually look to force, not philosophy or dubious international assurances, when they calibrate their own nuclear policies. The magnanimous promise to non-nuclear Iran that it can continue to subsidize terrorism without worry of an American nuclear responseeven to a truly devastating attack on the U.S.will probably not convince Iran to stay non-nuclear. More likely, such assurances will only hasten Irans proliferation policies, on the assumption that if the U.S. is already reaching out and offering concessions before the theocracy goes nuclear, just imagine what could be wrung out of the Obama administration when Teheran finally gets its bombs.
So these well-meant gestures are both ill-timed and ill-conceivedall the more so in coming from someone who, in just 14 months in office, is attempting to overturn numerous bipartisan American foreign policies of a half-century, largely on the premise that the United States in some fashion has been in the wrong and needs to make amends to an array of belligerents.
Victor Davis Hanson is a contributing editor of City Journal; a classicist and military historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and the editor of the forthcoming Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome.