Obama's Inconceivable, Undesirable, Nuclear-Free Dream

Escalating events in Egypt and Syria are only the tip of the iceberg of international conflicts the United States may have ot engage in.

President Barack Obama
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At that time, American national strategy was founded on a policy of “massive retaliation.” Later, especially during the Kennedy years, this narrowly-circumscribed stance was modified by “flexible response.”

Today, a much more complex strategic landscape reveals multiple, inter-penetrating, and sometimes synergistic axes of conflict. There are now almost four times as many countries as existed back in 1945. In this expresslymultipolar world, Russia is once again a justifiably major American security concern. Initially, in the earlier post-Soviet era, the Russian nuclear stance had been prematurely downgraded as a prospective threat to the United States.

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Understandably, perhaps, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains fearful of possibly still-planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. In his view, a perspective that actually exhibits a standard or "classical" idea of  nuclear deterrence, such active defenses would jeopardize the stability of our changing balance of power. This is because the inherent logic of nuclear deterrence (Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had once spoken of the superpowers as "two scorpions in a bottle") is based firmly on the idea of "mutual vulnerability."

To shape an authentically improved U.S, strategic doctrine, President Obama will need to reconsider critically fundamental decisions on nuclear targeting. Among other things, any such reconsideration would examine certain basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting).

Originally, the essence of “massive retaliation” and its corollary, Mutually Assured Destruction, had been counter value targeting. Presently, in those relatively promising scenarios where enemy rationality might still be reliably assumed, effective U.S. deterrence could once again require recognizable policies of counter city targeting. In those unprecedented circumstances where we might need to face non-rational and nuclear state adversaries, however, gainful deterrence calculations could prove markedly more difficult.

America's strategic doctrine will have to address still-impending options for American preemption, known in law as "anticipatory self-defense," as well as more systematic methods for distinguishing adversaries (state and sub-state) according to whether they are rational, irrational or “mad.” Among these three discrete adversarial designations, there exist very consequential and discernible differences. This refined U.S. strategic doctrine will also need to measure and configure certain vital components of nuclear deterrence, active defense, cyberdefense and cyberwarfare.

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As codified at Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the "Supremacy Clause"), and at several corollary decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (especially, The Paquete Habana, 1900), international law is integrally part of the law of the United States. We will, therefore, have to examine such more-or-less intersecting elements of doctrine within the wider and more subtly layered strata of pertinent treaties, customs and legal principles. This jurisprudential examination should include authoritative criteria for identifying and justifying "anticipatory self-defense," and for undertaking nonproliferation regime enforcement.

Within the Department of Defense, and the larger U.S. defense community, a protracted lack of emphasis on nuclear strategy and tactics may already have left our military unprepared for certain uniquely threatening scenarios. To suitably confront this unsustainable deficiency, one generated, in part, by our continuing application of mistaken strategies to wars that involve nation-building, the president needs to commission a special and largely re-imagined Nuclear Posture Review.