by Frank Gaffney
Barack Obama appears at this writing to be poised to embroil the United States in a new war in Syria in response to the recent, murderous use of chemical weapons there. Ill-advised as this step is, it is but a harbinger of what is to come as reckless U.S. national security policies and postures meet the hard reality of determined adversaries emboldened by our perceived weakness.
The focus at the moment is on what tactical response the President will make to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his alleged violation of Mr. Obama’s glibly declared “red-line” barring the use of such weapons of mass destruction. There seems to be little serious thought given at the moment to what happens next: What steps Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, may take against us, our interests and allies; what the repercussions will be of the United States further helping the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda forces who make up the bulk of Assad’s domestic opposition; and the prospects for a far wider war as a result of the answers to both of these questions.
Even more wanting is some serious reflection about decisions taken long before Mr. Obama came to office – but that are consonant with his own, deeply flawed predilections about deterrence. Over two decades ago, President George H.W. Bush decided he would “rid the world of chemical weapons.” The UN Chemical Weapons Convention has had the predictable – and predicted – result that the United States has eliminated all such arms in its arsenal, leaving only bad guys like Assad with stockpiles of Sarin nerve gas and other toxic chemical weapons.
No one can say for sure whether the threat of retaliation in kind would have affected recent calculations about the use of such weapons in Syria. What we do know is that they have been used, evidently repeatedly, in the absence of such a deterrent.
Unfortunately, President Obama seems determined to repeat this dangerous experiment with America’s nuclear forces. He has made it national policy next to rid the world of these weapons. And, as with our chemical stockpile, Mr. Obama seems determined to set an example in the hope that others will follow.
This policy has set in train a series of actions whose full dimensions are not generally appreciated. All planned steps to modernize our nuclear arsenal have either been cancelled or deferred off into the future – which probably amounts to the same thing. Consequently, we will, at best, have to rely indefinitely on a deterrent comprised of very old weapons. Virtually all of them are many years beyond their designed service life and most are deployed aboard ground-based missiles, submarines and bombers that are also approaching or in that status.
Confidence in the safety, reliability and effectiveness of these weapons has, since Bush 41’s tenure, relied upon exotic scientific calculations bereft of actual underground nuclear tests to confirm their accuracy. Accordingly, certifications on these scores by the directors of the nation’s national nuclear laboratories have become a function of informed guesswork, rather than empirically proven analysis. This is not a basis for reliable deterrence.
Another symptom of the deteriorating condition of our nuclear arsenal is the fact that the Air Force has taken disciplinary action for the second time in the past few months against some of those responsible for the operations of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. There are surely specific grounds for these punishments. But we are kidding ourselves if we fail to consider the devastating impact on the morale and readiness of such personnel when they are told, at least implicitly, by the Commander-in-Chief that their mission is not only unimportant; it is one he wishes to terminate as soon as practicable.
Seem far-fetched? Recall that eliminating outright our land-based missile force is something Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel personally endorsed prior to taking office. That may be the result if the President succeeds in reducing our nuclear forces to just 1,000 deployed weapons. As of now, it is unclear whether he intends to take that step only if the Russians agree, or will do so unilaterally if they don’t. Another uncertainty is whether Congress will go along with such rash cuts.
What is clear is that – with no more serious debate than has been applied to the implications of becoming embroiled in another war in the Middle East, this time with a country armed with chemical weapons against which we can threaten no in-kind retaliation – the United States has been launched on a trajectory towards a minimal nuclear deterrent.
Fortunately, a group of the nation’s preeminent nuclear strategists and practitioners under the leadership of the National Institute for Public Policy has just published a powerful indictment of this misbegotten policy initiative entitled Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence. It lays bare the faulty assumptions that underpin the Obama denuclearization agenda – not least the fact that the other nuclear powers, including all the threatening ones, are not following the president’s lead.
Some say America can no longer afford a strong and effective deterrent. We may be about to test that proposition in Syria. Heaven help us if we compound the error there by continuing our slide towards a minimum nuclear deterrent posture, en route to a world rid only of our nuclear weapons.
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