Is President Obama on the right track with his new commitment to unilaterally scale back America's threat to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks on the U.S. and its allies? And as world leaders assemble in Washington on April 12 to discuss matters of global nuclear security, is Obama's cherished goal of ridding the world of nukes ever likely to be a reality? Would a nukes-free world in fact be a safer, more peaceful one? Even if Obama is right that he is not likely to see a nuclear-free world in his lifetime, will a trend toward declining global nuclear arsenals make America more or less safe? Is Obama right that the chief threat to the United States is no longer a massive nuclear attack by another nation-state, but rather nuclear proliferation that leads to terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon?
These questions are prompted by the administration's newly released "Nuclear Posture Review." The most hotly debated item is this bald pledge: "The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT" -- the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- "and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations." In practical terms, this means America is now forswearing the use of nukes against a nonnuclear state that attacks the U.S. or its allies with chemical or biological weapons -- and is instead vowing, as the review states, "the prospect of a devastating conventional military response." Perhaps the future will belong to the Pentagon's Prompt Global Strike program, with intercontinental ballistic missiles, armed with conventional warheads, able to a hit a target anywhere on the planet under an hour from launch.
As worded, Iran and North Korea are not covered by this pledge. Still, "realist" critics are attacking the Obama administration for buying into the "bad-nukes myth" -- into the idea that nuclear weapons and the threat to use them make for an unstable world. After all, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union never invaded a Europe covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella -- even though the U.S.S.R. possessed a massive advantage in conventional arms.
"The Obama Administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies," Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl said in a statement objecting to the new Obama policy. Who is on the right side of this issue -- the Obama "no nukes" camp, or critics like McCain and Kyl? Is this likely to become a political issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, with Obama getting attacked from the right as soft on national security?