Rep. Buck McKeon is a congressional Republican from California and the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
President Obama, in an effort to appease the world community, recently altered the long-standing policy on when the United States would utilize a nuclear response to protect citizens, allies, and interests. The administration's Nuclear Posture Review serves to outline the "president's agenda for reducing nuclear dangers and pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, while simultaneously advancing broader U.S. security interests."
While some may admire the president's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, we need to consider what French President Nicolas Sarkozy reminded us of last fall: "We live in a real world, not a virtual one." America's nuclear deterrent is designed to send a simple message to potential state and non-state aggressors: The cost inflicted upon those who would attack the United States—whether that assault is with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons—will be so high that it would deter them from acting in the first place.
This long-standing policy of "calculated ambiguity" has served America well. One striking example was the thinly-veiled nuclear threat former Secretary of State James Baker issued to Baghdad in 1991, just prior to the first Gulf War. He sent a strong signal to the world: If Saddam Hussein or his military forces used chemical or biological weapons against United States and coalition forces, the United States may retaliate with tactical nuclear weapons. Policymakers can debate whether the United States would have employed nuclear weapons under such a scenario. But we know one thing for certain: Saddam Hussein did not use chemical or biological weapons.
The president's new policy assures nonnuclear states that are signatories to and in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that the United States will never use nuclear weapons against them. Our country would not deploy or threaten to use nuclear weapons in retaliation, even if the United States, our allies, or interests are threatened with biological or chemical weapons.
Perversely, this new policy could actually undermine the president's top priority of preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Senior administration officials have made it clear that all options are on the table with regard to Iran and North Korea. However, there are questions as to how the policy would handle countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. All three are NPT signatories, but they also support or have active terrorist cells. Most likely, the United States would never employ our most devastating weapons against any of these terrorist cells, but broadcasting our intentions only weakens our deterrent.
Also, the United States currently offers a "nuclear umbrella" to more than 30 allies, who in turn have agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons. It is possible that the policy changes and weapons reductions could lead to less confidence in our nuclear deterrent, which could drive some of our friends to consider developing their own.
The president appears to fundamentally believe that altering U.S. nuclear policies will "restore our moral leadership" to encourage others to do the same. However, we have reduced our nuclear stockpile by nearly 80 percent since the end of the Cold War. Despite these reductions, Iran and North Korea continue to expand their nuclear programs and al Qaeda remains intent on acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Our nuclear forces work for us every day by providing assurance to allies and deterrence to adversaries. This capability is a point of strength—and a moral responsibility—for America.
Read why renouncing the use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear countries is good for America, by Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.