Krauthammer, Conservatives Wrong on Nukes

Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post this morning, would have you believe that President Obama's nuclear reduction initiative is wildly off-base and naïve. Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and other conservatives have echoed this sentiment. The only thing naïve and wildly off-base is their opinion.

Writing for the conservative point of view, Krauthammer states:

"Under the old doctrine, supported by every president of both parties for decades, any aggressor ran the risk of a cataclysmic U.S. nuclear response that would leave the attacking nation a cinder and a memory."

That's all well and good. And, yes, the nuclear deterrent worked in the Cold War era. But, I just checked my calendar, and it's now 2010, not 1985, and the threat the United States faces, and likely will face for some time, is from terrorist organizations, not nation-states. Further, to effectively combat terrorists, we need the cooperation and good-will from as many nations as possible.

To the first point, nuclear deterrence is quite ineffective when fighting a war against terrorists, and even some rogue nations. The war in Afghanistan is a perfect example, here. Al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, plotted the worst attack on American soil, and executed it. What happened when we invaded Afghanistan? Al Qaeda packed up and moved to Pakistan. Or Iraq. Or Yemen. Or wherever it wanted to. That's what terrorist groups can do, that the Soviet Union could not. Nuclear deterrence worked against the USSR, because if it launched an attack on America, it couldn't just pick up, move and hide. Terrorists can.

So, Krauthammer imagines a scenario:

"Imagine the scenario: Hundreds of thousands are lying dead in the streets of Boston after a massive anthrax or nerve gas attack. The president immediately calls in the lawyers to determine whether the attacking state is in compliance with the NPT. If it turns out that the attacker is up to date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation. (Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.)"

Such an attack, as I said, isn't likely to come from a state, but from a terror group. Let's say it's al Qaeda. Who, under such a scenario, would he have us nuke as a response? Saudi Arabia, we know, allows funds to help al Qaeda. So let's nuke them. Afghanistan still has elements supportive of the terror group. Let's nuke them too. We know that they're largely based in Pakistan, though. Nuke them, as well. And, add to the list all the other states that give the group room to operate, allow al Qaeda to get material or financial support. Pretty soon, we're nuking a lot of the world in response.

Even if one state, like Iran, was largely behind the attacks, the way they would avoid an immediate response would be to have an attack go through a proxy terror group, and deny any direct responsibility. Again, a nuclear response would prove quite difficult, as we would have to take time to "prove" the attack came from Iran. And, what if we did eventually prove it? Would we nuke Tehran and millions of civilians a year later, despite their denials of responsibility, finally realizing Osama bin Laden's dream of a US war against Islam? Would we be prepared to face the consequences of that?

In the modern world, a cache of hundreds and hundreds of nuclear warheads serves no purpose. Once upon a time, it represented the ability to level the entire Soviet Union. Now, it merely represents excess. And, ineffective excess, at that.

To fight the enemies we face today, we have to focus on smaller operations, that strategically strike terrorists where they are, and take them out. That's one of the reasons I was not sold on the Counter-Insurgency operation in Afghanistan, laid out by the President, over a smaller counter-terror operation. But, the second part of dealing with our enemies is having the good will and cooperation of the world to cut of streams of funding, and to gather and share intelligence. It becomes much harder to do that when the world wants to reduce nuclear weapons, and we say 'no.'

If at a future point, having a large nuclear deterrent makes any sense whatsoever, the United States could build new weapons in very quick turnaround, and reintroduce the deterrent. Until or if that time ever comes, however, American security is ill-served by a relic of a Cold War passed, no matter how tough Krauthammer and his cohorts want to sound.

Note: supports the petition in support of the President's goal of reducing nuclear weapons, hosted by Global Zero. You can sign that petition with us, here.