Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Civilized leadership: Obama, changing long-standing U.S. policy, wisely restricts conditions for use of nuclear weapons

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.

But the president said in an interview that he was carving out an exception for "outliers like Iran and North Korea" that have violated or renounced the main treaty to halt nuclear proliferation.

Discussing his approach to nuclear security the day before formally releasing his new strategy, Mr. Obama described his policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward making nuclear weapons obsolete, and to create incentives for countries to give up any nuclear ambitions. To set an example, the new strategy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary.

Mr. Obama's strategy is a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation's nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China.

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.

Conservatives, of course, will scream bloody murder -- and already are. At Power Line, for example, John Hinderaker calls the president's decision "unbelievably stupid" and objects to the removal of ambiguity: "The cardinal rule, when it comes to nuclear weapons, is keep 'em guessing. We want our enemies to believe that we may well be crazy enough to vaporize them, given sufficient provocation; one just can't tell."

Oh, come on, please. It's like conservatives think the world is some Hobbesian playground that can be ruled by the bully who's prepared to cause the most harm to others.

Better not cross America... they might nuke us! They're craaaaaaaaazy!!!

Is that really how a civilized country operates? Well, conservatives would argue that that's just the way it is in the real world -- and that Obama is weakening America, and possibly destroying it.

But Obama isn't abandoning the possible use of nuclear weapons. What he's doing is saying that the their use would be heavily restricted. As it should be. Indeed, they should never be used at all, and Obama is certainly working towards the ultimate abolition of such weapons altogether. That may be an unrealizable ideal, but he ought to be applauded for breaking from decades of reckless saber-rattling and using the American example as one for other countries to follow, not to fight against. Sure, it's easier to push for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation when you have so many nuclear weapons yourself than to disarm and trust the U.S. and the other nuclear powers, but it seems to me that Obama is trying to use American power for good, not to scare the shit out of everyone else.

"I'm going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure," he said yesterday. That's fine, but what he seems to understand, unlike most of his predecessors, is that one of those tools is peace. And what kind of peace can there be in a Hobbesian playground?

The fact is, while many conservatives might very well be so crazy as actually to use nuclear weapons even when only mildly provoked, Obama realizes that the U.S. would, should, and could respond to such attacks differently -- with force, perhaps, but not with a potentially suicidal/genocidal counter-aggression that would likely destroy America's credibility and moral authority.

Health-care reform was a genuinely historic accomplishment for the president, and for the Democrats. There are other areas where such progressive change is needed, such as climate change. But in this case, should he succeed in his goal of making nuclear weapons obsolete, tossed into the dustbin of history, or should he even succeed in moving the U.S. away from its reliance on the nuclear threat, using America's renewed credibility and moral authority to allow civilization to triumph over brute force, he will truly have changed the world for the better.

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  • I've read some of the (predictable) reactions from the right, but what they don't seem to understand is that progress in a civilization means rational and forward looking policies, not muscle flexing alone. Of course if paranoia is to be the only motivator, then we've already lost in some important respect.

    By Anonymous JSpencer, at 10:12 PM  

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