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Another Nuclear Delusion

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Is false advertising always bad? That certainly is not the case with the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which is being billed by the White House as the greatest shift in American doctrine since Dr. Strangelove devised a doomsday machine. The truth of the matter is that there is less change in the administration’s pronouncement than meets the eye—or should I say eyewash?

An intriguing exception is the announcement that the U.S. would no longer respond first with nuclear weapons if attacked by states using chemical or biological weapons, so long as such states are non-nuclear and in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Because Iran and North Korea are not in compliance—North Korea has quit the NPT and acquired atomic bombs of its own—they still need to worry about nuclear retaliation. As the NPR puts it in describing this “negative security assurance”:

In the case of countries not covered by this assurance—states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations—there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.

An important question to ask is: why did the U.S. make this switch, which basically leaves our first-use policy toward Iran and North Korea intact but alters it for all other countries? An explanation of sorts has been put forward at a press briefing by James Miller, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy:

part of the rationale for the negative security assurance and its change was, in fact, to encourage North Korea to go the opposite direction and to desire to be one of those states that are compliant with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

In plainer words, we are trying to dangle a carrot—or at least wave a smaller stick—in front of North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, to get him to surrender his nukes and rejoin the NPT. Here is how the Obama doctrine is supposed to work.

Because North Korea is not in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, under the new policy, if Pyongyang uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or an ally, the Dear Leader would have to fear getting greeted in return with an atomic blast.

On other hand, if North Korea gives up its nuclear capabilities and returns to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in the event of war, the United States would deliver “only” what the NPR calls “devastating” conventional retaliation for chemical or biological weapons use.

What can be said about this set of inducements?

In thinking about it, one must consider that the North Koreans are most likely to use chemical or biological weapons in the event of a conflagration on the Korea peninsula. Yet several years ago, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said in open congressional testimony that if war erupts, the United States intended not only to defeat the North Korean military, but to topple the regime. If Kim Jong Il sees that he would be finished even if the United States refrains from nuclear use, what incentive does he have to rejoin the NPT? He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

What is more, nuclear weapons are precisely the means by which Kim believes he can deter a “devastating” conventional attack by the United States—or at least save his regime. He would have to be dead drunk on Hennessy Cognac to give them up. The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons have a psychological deterrent effect that cannot be duplicated by the threat of conventional retaliation. And why should we think that Kim would be deterred from using chemical or biological weapons by a conventional threat, especially if he would in all likelihood be using such weapons in desperation?

Finally, Is there any reason to think that Kim will believe the U.S. pledge of restraint? We don’t trust the North Koreans and they don’t trust us. Our own self image may be that of boy scouts and girl scouts, but peering out from under his supersize sunglasses and bouffant hairdo, the demented leader of North Korea does not see us as we see ourselves. Why just yesterday North Korea claimed that “the United States has deployed at least 1,000 nuclear weapons in South Korea.” In truth, the United States withdrew all nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990’s.

The bottom line is that the rationale for this leg of the NPR is a prime example of half-baked, seminar-room, cloud cuckoo-land thinking. Let’s thank goodness that ultimately it is not our words but our sticks and stones that are keeping the peace.

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