Obama Needs a Nuclear 'Kill List'

Leaders of states that sponsor terrorists must know that they are personally at risk, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

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President Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office  early one winter morning in 2012.
President Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office early one winter morning in 2012.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote here that we needed a far more aggressive strategic policy against terrorist organizations—especially the state sponsors of terror. I also recalled that it was PD-59—a strategic doctrine issued during the Carter administration specifically targeting the Soviet leadership—that "really got their attention" during the Cold War. And, that we needed an analogous strategic targeting policy to deter terror.

My conclusion that the targeted personal threat to Soviet leadership was so effective is based on official reporting as well as my personal experiences with senior Soviet officials—this while I served on the U.S. delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks during the 1980s. The idea that senior Soviets would be targeted—as leadership—by our strategic nuclear forces carried the Cold War to them in a way that made it "personal" for them—as was our intention. 

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And I confirmed it to them as dispassionately as possible that yes, in the event of war we would kill as many of them—the Soviet "nomenklatura"—as quickly as possible. This, I told them, was because we firmly believed that only a few thousand senior Communist Party people really "ran" the Soviet Union, and that without them, they would not be able to sustain a conflict with NATO and the West. By the way, when the Soviet Union imploded, the resulting regime collapse confirmed the operative assumption of this policy—that just a few "apparatchiks" were running the whole show in the Soviet Union.

The important thing was that they understood that PD-59, issued by a liberal Democratic President (they apparently forgot that Carter was a "nuke submariner" during his Navy days) meant that they essentially had targets on their backs, along with a few thousand other leaders of the Soviet Central Communist Party. I could see that this troubled them, and that they "believed it more" because it was issued by Jimmy Carter rather than Ronald Reagan, whom they thought was prejudiced against them. 

Now, we need to pin those same kind of strategic targets on the backs of terrorists, but even more important, on the leaders of those states who bankroll them or give them political cover.  

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Is this easier said than done? Maybe not, and here's how we could go about it.

First: We have the liberal president and, as with Carter, a strategic targeting doctrine against terror state sponsors like PD-59 coming from Obama (especially at the beginning of his second term) would be very persuasive. This is especially true because Obama has already established a "kill list" and implemented it with drones; and, the operational success of that program is a natural lead-in to establishing the a new strategic targeting doctrine itself—as a logical extension of the "kill list".

Next: We should not rule out the use of any of our strategic weaponry. For example, if we are ever attacked again on the scale of 9/11, we need to have the stated policy option to respond—against the attributed state sponsors of the attack —with mission-sized nuclear weapons, if such were otherwise appropriate. At least, the new strategy should not rule out the use of such weapons in response to another wide-scale terror attack, such as 9/11. 

Finally: Assuming that we had such a new strategy—and the targeting doctrine to support it, there remains an associated policy problem, a big one—that of attributing the acts of terrorists to their sponsors, so that the new strategy and doctrine had real "teeth"—and it would, in fact, operate to deter terror attacks against us worldwide.

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So, let's pontificate a bit and imagine what an associated—and supporting—policy on the "attribution" of terror might look like:

  • To begin, some acts of terror would render the issue of attribution irrelevant, as where the act itself was acknowledged or where it was patently obvious who was responsible. As a response to this kind of terror, Obama's "kill list" and drone strikes already fit within the application of the targeting doctrine, and serve as a natural bridge to a more comprehensive policy.
    • Other acts of terror might be accompanied by elaborate ruses and "covers" designed specifically to make it difficult to affix responsibility, let alone state responsibility. In these situations, our stated policy should be flexible enough to allow us to act in a more general manner, against the state sponsor leaders who were most likely to have been witting or supportive for the particular act of terror. The essential question here would be: "Does this mean that we might take out the leadership of a sovereign state terror sponsor in response to an act of terror against us, if there was a past history of their support of similar terror, or if there was reliable intelligence to support their complicity in the particular act of terror?" And, the answer to this would be, absolutely yes—and remember, the overall goal of the policy is to deter.
      • No intelligence is perfect; and our attribution policy could also place the burden of "clearing up" the operative facts of the particular incident of terror on the states that we believed to be most likely to be responsible or complicit. In short, we would tell them if we thought they were responsible or complicit, and also advise them that their leaderships were vulnerable for retaliation as a result.
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        For those who believe these ideas are fraught with danger or politically unrealistic, remember that terrorism is a form of open warfare against us "on the cheap", in that state sponsors are able to shrug their shoulders and plead ignorance, yet covertly aid and finance violence against us—when open warfare against us would be folly.

        And, these same cowards usually attack "soft" civilian targets: hospitals, religious shrines, and schools, killing thousands of innocents, using "soldiers" with faces hidden or dressed as civilians, children armed with suicide bombs—and commercial airplanes, cars and trucks turned into kamikaze vehicles.

        How do we best fight this savagery—perhaps even more fundamental and challenging, how do we deter it? Primarily, with our strategic policies and doctrines, we hold the state sponsors at risk for terror attacks against us whenever we can, especially for wide scale terror attacks. More specifically, we put the leaders of state sponsors at very focused risk—so that they will—personally—be targeted and killed because of their complicity. And, because the attribution of terror to them is the essential link in this targeting strategy—President Obama could easily adopt a version of this policy as a logical extension of his terrorist "kill lists", currently enforced by drone operations.

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