Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Mushrooms Are Pretty

President Obama has issued a revision of when the US will use nuclear weaponry:
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.

Those threats, Mr. Obama argued, could be deterred with “a series of graded options,” a combination of old and new conventional weapons. “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 in the interview in the Oval Office.

For the past half-century, much of the world lived under the shadow of a nuclear threat -- the idea that we were a button-press away from global annihilation. The goal of many was to try and put the nuclear genie back in the bottle -- to forestall what to many seemed like an inevitable trek to self-imposed extinction. Basically, this new policy restricts (to the extent that a positivist statement of policy by an actor empowered to reverse that decision literally whenever he so choices can be a "restriction") the use of our nuclear arsenal to either (a) cases of nuclear attack or (b) states not a part of the NPT.

But apparently, a substantial chunk of the population prefers a world where it is entirely unknown whether and when the US will unleash apocalyptic waves of destruction. The person who sent this to me said it made it wonder if Obama should be tried for "treason". Roger Simon inquires "Does he hate us? Does he hate this country?"

Meanwhile, actual military policy expert Robert Farley notes that we are perfectly capable of projecting conventional deterrence through our massive conventional arms advantage. The threat to bring nukes to a chemical or biological weapons fight was never credible in the first place, both because of the difference in scale of destruction and because we can sufficiently deter through conventional means. Finally, as Whiskey Fire points out, the whole problem with the new form of threats we face (from terrorist organizations and other NGOs) is that we're skeptical of whether conventional deterrence postures work against them at all, dissipating the defensive force of nuclear weaponry.


N. Friedman said...


I am not sure what to think of the policy. I do note, however, that you seem to have it both ways. On the one hand, convention force can protect us. On the other hand, conventional force cannot protect us (at least not from terrorist groups).

You claim that nuclear deterrence does not work against terrorists. I think there is no obvious answer. Are the leaders of terrorists - those who tell others, but not themselves, to become shahids - deterred? I cannot imagine one answering this with any assurance.

On the one hand, it seems logical that our possession of and threat to use nuclear weapons has so far limited the nature of the violence employed by terrorists and would do so in the future. Their goal, after all, includes them remaining in leadership positions, not becoming shahids. So, it is logical to believe that, while we clearly cannot prevent their violence by the posture the US has thus far adopted, we can at least deter (and may have, in fact, deterred), if not prevent entirely, some forms that a terror attack might take.

On the other hand, I can imagine that terrorists might, instead, think we would not dare use nuclear weapons anyway, in which case such people are not much deterred, if at all. So, who knows?

Your last comment ("that we're skeptical of whether conventional deterrence postures work against them [terrorists] at all, dissipating the defensive force of nuclear weaponry") makes no sense. Whether or not conventional weapons deter tells me nothing about whether nuclear weapons deter.

I have a relative from the former USSR - winner of a major prize for top physics student in the former Ukrainian Soviet Republic and a genius by any measure. I argue a lot with him and other relatives of mine from the former USSR. Among them, it is not uncommon to hear the view that the way to deal with terrorists is nuclear. I am skeptical of that view, at least as they put it (which I shall describe below). However, I do note that their argument is not irrational.

The physicist relative said, back in 2001, that the US should respond to 9/11 by announcing publicly that Afghanistan has been divided up into grids (i.e. into grids as they appear on graph paper). We should then have announced, according to him, that Afghanistan has one week to turn over bin Laden and his minion or face one grid on the map being eliminated per day by nuclear weapons.

My view about that is that, in a limited sense, this relative is absolutely correct. Bin Laden and his crowd would probably have been handed over and without much ado. And, that might have been the end of massive terror attacks for many, many years because such attacks would be seen, to paraphrase bin Laden, as the losing horse.

My relative ignores that there would have been severe consequences for the US, which would be seen as a pariah country in many parts of the world including among its supposed allies. And, as always occurs when countries fear a large state, new alliances, directed to counter the US, would form. So, my view is that it would be a Pyrrhic victory because the US requires, to survive and thrive over the long term, at least a modicum of being accepted by other countries.

My relative counters that such is not how the world works. He says that, historically, the "East" - where he comes from - does not respond to reason or persuasion, only brutal force. And, on his view, the "East" would respect us more if we adopted a brutal approach. And, that would advance the position of the US.

From my reading of this topic, his point is not without at least some merit. However, we live in the West and are not an Eastern follower of Tamirlane's philosophy, as he would prefer.

On a different topic, my son was accepted into Vassar College and plans to attend. We are really excited because, as you know, Vassar is really hard to get into.

David Schraub said...

Vassar is an excellent school, congratulations.

I can have it both ways, though, through relatively simple logic. First, make a division between what deters traditional state actors, versus non-traditional terrorist groups. Then argue that we don't need nuclear deterrence for the former because conventional arms are sufficient, and we don't need nuclear deterrence for the latter because they're undeterrable, period ["conventional deterrence postures" not referring to the use of conventional weapons, but conventional models of deterrence]. Or alternatively, we don't need nuclear deterrence for the latter because conventional arms are a superior method of deterrence for said group. Either "box" works to ratify the new position.

This makes sense to me -- if a chemical agent is released in Newark, and we trace the attack to a terrorist cell operating out of Brazil, it really isn't feasible to threaten Brazil with nuclear annihilation. It's disproportionate both forward- and backward-looking (a nuclear strike does damage far disproportionate to a chemical attack, and a nuclear strike does damage far disproportionate to that needed to neutralize a terror cell). So nobody believes we'd actually do it, and it's the sort of thing that we really shouldn't do as a moral matter either.

N. Friedman said...

Thanks for the kind words about my son's future college. Vassar is a wonderful college. My problem, of course, is paying for both of my boys' schools at the same time.

Returning to our main topic, one can make all sorts of arguments here. Your argument on this page is certainly coherent. That, of course, does not mean that it is correct. The same goes for my Soviet relative although, clearly, his approach only works in parts of the world where there is no way to counter threats of power.

More generally, only time will really tell what Obama's doing really do. My general impression is that his overall approach to International relations seriously undermines the structure of the international system of states and that, as a result, he is making big wars far more likely to occur, most especially in the Middle East. His new nuclear policy can make sense yet be part of a wider strategy which undermines the international system or it may tend to increase the danger inherent in a policy that seems to be based on removing US influence over the International system in the hope of buying good will among nations among which International good will has little meaning. Which is to say, I am skeptical about Obama's overall strategy more than the nuclear component.

joe said...

N. Friedman's, All due respect to your relative's genius, but if the USSR knew how to achieve its goals in Afghanistan it wouldn't have been forced out, and the whole premise of his argument rests on the assumption the Taliban had free, easy access to a man in hiding in a country that's a good distance short of a modern nation-state.

As for Obama's announcement, it doesn't seem to me it means very much because any president can just change his mind on a dime if ever we were in a stage where use of nuclear weapons would be considered. And at that point I suspect the change in policy would be a tertiary issue.

So basically this is entirely a matter of NPT-related optics, but it could have some marginal benefits at that level. Meanwhile, I suspect partisans back at home will be glad to gnaw this over for a week or so.

Cycle Cyril said...

The division between states and terrorist groups is not as clear cut as you idealize it to be.

While there are small groups of terrorists able to terrorize the ability to be destructive on a large scale requires a state sponsor.

This was the case for 9/11 and is the case for the terrorists, for example, in Israel wherein the PA acts as the state sponsor (while denying any responsibility) or Iran, acting via Hamas or Hezbollah, is the state sponsor, or in Iraq wherein Iran is the sponsor of many terrorist attacks.

One of the major problems with Obama's edict is the removal of ambiguity. By delineating when nuclear weapons can be used it provides an easier calculation for a state, if they were so inclined, to sponsor a terrorist act.

And the threat of an effective conventional response would be very difficult in a variety of countries that might be so inclined - such countries as Libya, Sudan or Somalia would be difficult to invade. And at least Libya has proven to be a sponsor of terrorism.

And that is assuming that you have the public backing a conventional attack. Many on the Left would protest and do their best to blame America and prevent any response.

Finally the object of war is a disproportionate response. This is not an issue of East or West. But an issue of human nature which is far from ideal and usually tragic in nature. Just look at the history of the last century and the World Wars.

Germany in WWI lost but did not suffer the consequences of a full loss. Many Germans felt that they were stabbed in the back by traitors because they never truly experienced a military defeat on their soil with their capital under the rule of the allies - and that sentiment occurred before the rise of Hitler. Peace only came to Western Europe after WWII when German suffer the disproportionate response of the Allies, including an undeniable military loss.

In summary it is the loss of ambiguity that can allow a terrorist state to believe they can suffer a conventional attack and survive that is the problem. The fact that Obama can change this decision depending on the circumstances does not change anything because it would only occur after the calculation and attack of the terrorist state/actors.

I have not even discussed other aspects of Obama's policies such as cutting back on conventional arms, or how our nuclear weapons are getting old and need updating (In WWII the US at the beginning had subs and torpedoes but the torpedoes were never tested adequately or updated and were useless in the first part of the war. This proved vital in the Pacific because Japan in many ways lost the war due to the huge attrition of ships and materials caused by our subs. Conceivably the war in the Pacific might have been shorten by months if the sub fleet was active from the onset.) But these are discussions for another thread.

Vassar has a beautiful campus and several magnificent buildings. My friend's daughter is going there in the fall and my son was there for a summer program. You can proud of your son.

joe said...

Independent of the wrongness of his claims, Cycle Cyric's posts read like a sophomore term paper.

That is not a compliment.

Cycle Cyril said...

Aside from the ad hominem attack and aside from the content-less rebuttal I would consider your use of Cyric as oppose to Cyril to be sophomoric in the original sense.

N. Friedman said...


My relative from the former USSR has lived in the US for decades. He was not part of the Soviet government so his views are not those of the government. The mention of Afghanistan vis a vis Russia has nothing to do with things here. That is a not a reasonable analogy and, I might add, the world differs significantly, given that there is now one major power, not two major powers locked in a rivalry.

Cycle Cyril,

Your point that there is not a clear distinction between terrorists and governments is well taken, in my view. One recalls the British pirates of long ago - and, for those disinterested in reading books, the movie The Sea Hawk. The same for the Barbary pirates, who were in sync with their government.

The rest of what you write is arguable. Like what David has written, there are a lot of potentially coherent opinions on the topic at hand.

joe said...

Cyril, some people are just to kooky to bother having a substantive debate with.

And I did not mean to misspell your name, though I do know who Cyric is. I'll chalk it up to a Freudian slip, as yes, racism is exactly the kind of thing an evil fantasy god would promote.

Cycle Cyril said...

Racism? Your allusion to racism in my comments is beyond belief. Once upon a time dissent was patriotic, now you are trying to make dissent racist.

Your continued ad hominem and content-less attacks should shame you but I doubt that could happen. You may consider this an ad hominem attack.

joe said...

"Racism" was about past comments instead of anything in particular you wrote here. But in thinking it over I am chagrined to realize that I likely may have been thinking of Superdestroyer's comment history instead. I apologize for that.

That said, I do think your comment earlier was shot through with faulty assumptions and the all-too-common hysteria we see about terrorist groups, though. I'll be the first to admit I did not offer a rebuttal, because frankly it's the same old crap I hear all over the media and I didn't (and don't) feel like giving it the time of day. When you're in a bad mood some things just warrant a derisive snort.

Cycle Cyril said...

Then it is best to say nothing and not look like a fool.