Obama, nukes, and idiot-elite opinion

Any ignoramus knows that, if we have to attack al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan, we shouldn’t use nukes. And any sophisticated strategic analyst agrees. But a little learning is a dangerous thing, and reporters and politicians who know just enough strategic theory to get it completely wrong are ganging up on Barack Obama for saying something that’s obviously correct.

Barack Obama said:

1. Pakistan can’t be a safe haven for al-Qaeda. If there’s a good opportunity to attack al-Qaeda bases or leaders inside Pakistan, and the government of Pakistan won’t take that opportunity, we should.

2. If we did so, we wouldn’t use nuclear weapons.

Proposition #1 is arguable. Whether it’s right or not &#8212 whether it would be smart to make the threat, and whether it would be smart to carry it out &#8212 depends on lots of circumstances that I certainly can’t judge. But I for one find it hard to argue with the principle that al-Qaeda, having murdered 3000 Americans, is to be destroyed wherever it is found.

Proposition #2 is completely obvious. No al-Qaeda target in Pakistan could possibly be significant enough to justify breaking the taboo on using nuclear weapons. The threat adds nothing to our bargaining position vis-à-vis either Musharraf or bin Laden, partly because there’s probably nothing worth nuking and partly because the threat is utterly incredible: there’s no way any U.S. government would take the sh*tstorm of worldwide denunciation involved. (No, not even the current lunatic crew. I think you’d get mass resignations by the brass if the order came down.) And making the threat weakens us diplomatically by fuzzing the issue about which is the rogue outfit in the U.S./al-Qaeda confrontation.

The U.S. never publicly embraced the “No first use” pledge for historically sound reasons: using conventional forces alone, NATO didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of resisting an all-out Warsaw Pact assault on Western Europe. We were massively out-manned and out-tanked. We knew that, the Russki knew that, they knew that we knew that. So they had an infinitely potent threat to use in any confrontation with us &#8212 unless we had in reserve the counter-threat to “go nuclear.” On the other hand, we didn’t want to explicitly threaten to start a nuclear war on European soil, since that would have strengthened the anti-NATO forces in Europe. So we developed a policy of studied ambiguity. We didn’t explicitly threaten to use nukes, but neither did we promise not to use them.

That thought developed into the idea that we should never comment on the circumstances under which nuclear weapons would, or would not, be used, except for the explicit threat of massive retaliation for a nuclear attack on the U.S. itself. In principle, if Ronald Reagan had been asked about whether we might use nuclear weapons in Grenada, he should have said “We don’t comment on that,” even though everyone knew that the use of nukes in that context was utterly absurd.

Since we don’t currently face any conventional threat of Cold War dimensions &#8212 if a terrorist group is going to do more than enrage us, it would have to be with nuclear or biological weapons &#8212 there’s no particular reason now to maintain ambiguity in all circumstances. Obama’s best response to the question about nukes in Pakistan would have been “Are you kidding?” or “What kind of stupid question is that?” But “No” was certainly appropriate.

I thought HRC looked like an idiot, first attacking Obama first for saying that al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan weren’t off limits and then attacking him for saying that an attack on those targets would certainly be conventional rather than nuclear. But apparently the press is so devoted to the “Inexperienced Obama” narrative that any set of facts will be distorted to fit that narrative.

What’s most annoying is that Obama committed a “gaffe” only in terms of what might be called idiot-elite opinion. Any serious strategic analyst would say without hesitation that not using nukes in a hypothetical attack on al-Qaeda in Pakistan is an obvious decision, and that committing not to use them does some good and no harm. Any ordinary person would have no problem parsing the sentence, “We’ll attack al-Qaeda in Pakistan if we have to, but of course not with nukes.”

But a reporter or politician who half slept through a briefing from the Hudson Institute about nuclear strategic doctrine might have the vague sense that “We’re not supposed to say we won’t use nukes,” without any sense of the context in which that doctrine applies. And if the reporters and the politicians get together to say, “Ooooooohhhhhhh! Obama made a mistake! See how inexperienced he is!” some voters will wind up believing it, never noticing that the “mistake” consisted of reciting an obvious piece of common sense, with which the voter actually agrees.

Update More here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com