Have you noticed how much of what passes for political leadership today amounts to easy, simple, intuitively popular gestures? The idea is to collect an immediate political benefit while obscuring and discounting the long-term costs.
That's a reasonable summary of the Obama administration's approach to U.S. national security where nuclear deterrence is concerned. With the Cold War now more than two decades behind us, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear stand-off that was its centerpiece seems obviously anachronistic today. Despite the Putin/Medvedev regime's crude nationalism and politically opportunistic anti-U.S. rhetoric, few can imagine plausible scenarios for a U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation. Similarly, despite the vague, prevalent sense that China's spectacular economic rise will portend geopolitical rivalry, and possible conflict, with the United States, few imagine convincing circumstances for a nuclear confrontation, save some future, stunningly miscalculated brinksmanship over Taiwan.
Of the other nuclear powers, Britain, France, and Israel are our allies, and India's and Pakistan's arsenals are geared to their mutual nuclear stand-off. As to today's upstart nuclear proliferators—North Korea and Iran—it is widely assumed that the U.S. nuclear deterrent would so overmatch whatever nascent nuclear capabilities they might develop that U.S. forces would be unquestionably adequate to deter any threats against us or our allies. And then there are the anxious-making scenarios of terrorists acquiring one or a few nuclear weapons, presumably from a destabilized Pakistan or a malignant Iran, for use against the United States. But few can suggest plausible ways that the sizeable U.S. nuclear arsenal would come directly into play deterring this menace.
All of which has set up an environment in which it's been safe for President Obama to embrace the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the world, as he did in Prague in 2009. And it incentivizes him to push for further radical nuclear reductions with Russia, beyond the New START limits of 1,550 operational nuclear weapons and 800 strategic launchers agreed just two years ago this month. Reports last month indicated that Obama's team were considering reducing U.S. operational nuclear weapons to as few as 300-400 warheads—placing the nuclear arsenal of the world's supposed "sole remaining super-power" on par with those of Britain, France, or … ahem … Pakistan! Or, for that matter, of China—although recent reports of a 3,000-mile network of Chinese tunnels concealing its nuclear weapons activities suggest that we might know less than we imagine about China's actual nuclear capabilities.
In pursuing these cuts, Obama is pushing on an open door. To a public unconcerned about issues of nuclear deterrence, Obama looks virtuous—a man of peace. For his own party, particularly its antinuclear left-wing, he's able to deliver, seemingly costlessly, on their most fervent hopes for nuclear disarmament—especially U.S. nuclear disarmament. Having failed to satisfy many of their other fervent hopes—"card check" for unions, tax hikes on the rich, closing Guantánamo, etc.—giving up "more nuclear weapons than we need" via arms agreements with Russia is an obvious "cheap thrill" for his base. And Republican opposition will be limited. With the imminent retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl, few in Congress enjoy deep expertise on nuclear deterrence and arms control issues. And, in any case, arguing for more—not fewer—U.S. nuclear weapons in an election year environment is an obvious political loser.
So, what's the problem? Just this. Obama's nuclear weapons policies are based on nothing more than a collection of untested assumptions. What if they're wrong?
Politically attractive as his nuclear reductions agenda seems, even President Obama, posturing as the "man of peace" meriting his Nobel Peace Prize, must be able to see the irony here. With less than 2 percent of the defense budget at stake in the nuclear forces, drastic, ideologically driven cuts now that heighten the risks of future nuclear conflict, and the uncertainty of the outcome, could end up being one of history's most expensive "cheap thrills."