Here's a really lethal combination. Telling the enemy that you are going after him with inadequate forces and then specifying in advance what the limits of your rules of engagement are. Barack Obama, just days after saying he would send American forces into Pakistan if Musharraf did not crack down on al-Qaeda said but added that he would not use nuclear weapons against al-Qaeda under any circumstances. The Washington Post reports:
"His position could not be more clear," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He would not consider using nuclear weapons to fight terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan." That position came a day after Obama vowed he would be willing to strike al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan with or without the approval of the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Obama's rival, Hillary Clinton, said talking about the specific "use or non-use" of nuclear weapons was unwise.
The New York senator and former first lady quickly pounced on Obama's remark about nuclear weapons at a Capitol Hill news conference. "I think presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use, or non-use, of nuclear weapons," she said.
"Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non use of nuclear weapons," she said.
If Obama's disavowal of nuclear weapons has any possible meaning it must be that the US will not use nuclear weapons against al-Qaeda even if it launched a nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological attack against the US from Pakistan or Afghanistan. (Obama's spokesman specifically said "Afghanistan and Pakistan".) A retaliation for the use of those weapons are the natural circumstances under which the use of nuclear weapons would be contemplated. One would hardly consider nukes in response to an al-Qaeda attack using car bombs, small arms or even 200-ton jetliners to attack. We've been there, done that.
How likely is it that such a pledge would ever have to be considered? A President Obama would be in office from 2008 to perhaps 2016. Over that time frame, most analysts would regard the possibility of al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons as almost nil, unless of course it could seize Pakistani atomic weapons. But the odds that al-Qaeda can mount a radiological, chemical or biological attack are substantially higher. One expert I listened to says the use of radiological bombs against Western targets is a definite possibility. A radiological attack planned or mounted from Afghanistan or Pakistan within the 2008-2016 time frame is not to be discounted. While the proper response to such an attack may not include nuclear weapons (because effective conventional ripostes are available) Hillary Clinton is right in saying that categorically taking the option off the table merely simplifies al-Qaeda's planning by telling them in advance what they need not fear. One might even argue that it signals what they may attempt with relative impunity.
This is especially dangerous because biological weapons may eventually come to rival, if not exceed the lethality of nukes. And one of the grey areas which was never fully explored during the Cold War is whether a sufficiently lethal non-nuclear attack would cross a threshold which would provoke an American nuclear retaliation. But because it was a grey area, no foe using such weapons could ever be sure that US national command authority would consider the threshold crossed. To Obama at least, the area is not grey. Insofar as the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan are concerned, the answer is crystal clear. "His position could not be more clear," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He would not consider using nuclear weapons to fight terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
One might argue that Obama has forgone nothing, but simply "reduced tensions" by making the non-use pledge. If the chances of a nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological attack are vanishingly small then it might be argued he can freely renounce a counterstrike with nuclear weapons without real risk. He gives up nothing in exchange for "reducing tensions". But in that case his renunciation amounts a stunt. It would be the equivalent of promising animal rights activists that he would not shoot a T-rex if he encountered it while jogging in Central Park. And since there is essentially no chance he will meet a T-rex in Central Park, Obama would be foregoing nothing while making animal rights activists happy. But the possibility al-Qaeda may acquire some very lethal weapon with which to attack America is considerably greater than encountering a dinosaur in New York City. Therefore one cannot help but conclude that Barack Obama is actually foregoing something of actual deterrent value and military advantage.
But in exchange for what? The Counterterrorism Blog suggests that Obama has drafted a national security platform with the help of former national security policy experts.
The speech by the Illinois Democrat was surprisingly sophisticated for this early in the campaign season - even as a response to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) calling his foreign policy views "naive" - and demonstrated an unusual depth of understanding about the secret CIA-run war along the Afghan-Pakistan border. One line in particular by Obama jumped out at me: "The Taliban pursues a hit and run strategy, striking in Afghanistan, then skulking across the border to safety."
That is not only true - and true also of Al Qaeda-led fighters conducting cross-border ops - but surprising to hear in any public setting these days, much less a high-profile political speech by a leading presidential candidate. Obama had help from a group of former Clinton and Bush National Security Council veterans, including some who haven't even endorsed him: Richard Clarke, Susan Rice, Rand Beers and Mary McCarthy.
And my guess is that Obama's stance is being articulated for political advantage by casting himself as a "war fighting" President yet one who will fight it on terms his political base will approve of. Here's a man who will attack Pakistan if need be, with a scale of forces that has excited derision it's true, but who will never go too far and use nuclear weapons. Obama is legitimately fleshing out what a liberal War on Terror would look like. And while one might criticize it as being dangerous, stupid or whatever, he has at least mapped out an alternative to the Bush strategy. And in so doing Obama has distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton who while more tentative than Obama in criticizing the Bush strategy, has not herself articulated a positive program for fighting the War on Terror, apart from looking wise and sage. And that's fair enough. Whether or not one disagrees with Obama's strategy (and I do) he has at least set it forth. If the Counterterrorism Blog is correct, then we are beginning to see the shape of a Democrat strategy in fighting the War on Terror.
Former Spook doesn't think Obama's new posture does deterrence any favors.
So much for that nuclear deterrent. Might as well scrap those Minuteman IIIs, Trident ballistic missile subs, and the thousands of tactical nukes in the U.S. arsenal. In a matter of a few seconds, over the course of barely 40 words, the man-who-would-be-president told America's adversaries that our nuclear option is off the table in any scenario. Or maybe just when civilians might be affected. Or, perhaps Senator Obama realized that's he's over his head in discussing national security policy (again), and needs more time to hash it out.
From our perspective, Mr. Obama's position seems clear enough. Under his administration, the United States would move from a "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons (long a cornerstone of our national security strategy), to rejecting their use altogether. Never mind that there are plenty of scenarios which could require a nuclear response, including a North Korean invasion of South Korea; a push by Beijing to take Taiwan, Iranian or Syrian regimes with ICBMs (possible within the next decade), or simply a resurgent Russia.
Personally, I'm not sure that Obama's remarks can be interpreted to eliminating deterrence with respect to nuclear armed states, though it certainly doesn't strengthen it, especially where those states resort to deniable terrorist proxies, based say in "Afghanistan or Pakistan". I'd just like to add, that for those who believe al-Qaeda is not deterrable in any case because of its religious fanaticism, the same does not necessarily apply to states or persons who may supply it with arms or materiel. While the utility of nuclear weapons may be be diminished in the age of terror, it is not necessarily extinguished.