The Left’s Nuclear Delusions Die Hard

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The Left’s Nuclear Delusions Die Hard

Post by Didge on Thu 14 Dec 2017 - 22:52

By December of 2016, the imminent prospect of handing control of America’s nuclear arsenal over to Donald Trump already had the American left on edge. The president-elect sent them careening over the brink when he offered some thoughts on U.S. nuclear policy on Twitter.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” he wrote, “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” As Trump tweets go, this one was pretty circumspect; the reaction to it from center-left reporters and experts was, however, not. Their responses ranged from revulsion to steeling themselves to “look death in the face.” A year later, and that anxiety has not abated. The New Republic’s lead essay on Thursday from Barack Obama’s former point man on arms control and nonproliferation issues, Jon Wolfsthal, is indicative of the left’s intellectually hobbling apprehension when it comes to Trump and nukes.


Wolfsthal began his essay by asserting that Donald Trump has abandoned the conventional norms that governed America’s approach to dealing with bellicose nuclear powers. He contended that the U.S. responded with “calm” both before and after the Wall came down, which both deterred aggressors and reassured allies. Trump, by contrast, has reacted to North Korea’s threats by provoking Kim Jong-un and promising overwhelming retaliation in the form of “fire and fury.” Sure, North Korea deserves some blame for the current standoff, Wolfsthal conceded, “but much of the blame lies with Trump himself.”


Wolfsthal then dives into the sum of all liberal fears: America’s first nuclear posture review since 2010, which is likely to result in a long-delayed campaign to modernize America’s aging nuclear forces and infrastructure. Wolfsthal insists that American nuclear policy “states” that “the president will consider using nuclear weapons only if another nuclear state launches a nuclear attack” or “a massive conventional attack” on the U.S. or its allies. Trump is seeking to rewrite that policy, which he fears could lead to a new nuclear arms race and even the first battlefield use of these weapons in over 70 years.


These first few paragraphs are so dense with shoddy logic, misinformation, and paranoia that it’s hard to know where to begin dismantling them. Wolfsthal supports his claim that America has an unspoken “no first use” policy by linking to a Council on Foreign Relations document from 2009 proposing what shouldconstitute U.S. policy regarding the maintenance and use of thermonuclear ordnance, but that is in no way related to what that policy is today.


Wolfsthal acknowledged that, toward the end of the Obama presidency, a debate raged within the administration over whether to pledge only to use nuclear weapons in response to a kinetic attack. That Cold War-era liberal policy objectivewas rejected not because Obama was some hard-nosed pragmatist when it came to nuclear weaponry (he was wedded to the fantasy of a world without nuclear weapons for far longer than a competent president should have been), but because it was strategically unfeasible. There are plenty of dire circumstances that could necessitate the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, and ambiguity about the American position on first use helps to ensure that those conditions will never be met.


Obama wasn’t the only Democratic president to come to that regrettable conclusion. In 1980, weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. satellite imagery detected a menacing buildup of Soviet conventional forces along the Iranian border. U.S. policymakers would not have tolerated an invasion and occupation of the Islamic Republic, and the options for intervening in that conflict included the preemptive use of thermonuclear weapons on Soviet forces. “When there is the possibility of a major conflict with the Soviet Union, there is always a discussion of nuclear weapons.” Carter’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Jones told the New York Times. “That is fairly standard.”


Indeed, in a nuclear-posture review conducted for the Ford administration in 1977, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld outlined U.S. first strike policy succinctly. “The most ambitious (damage limiting) strategy dictates a first strike capability against an enemy’s strategic offensive forces, which seeks to destroy as much of his megatonnage as possible before it can be brought into play,” that review read. “An enemy’s residual retaliation, assumed to be directed against urban-industrial targets, would be blunted still further by a combination of active and passive defenses. . .” These tactics are obviously more applicable to neutralizing a peer nuclear competitor like the USSR than North Korea, but they demonstrate clearly that the U.S. never took a first strike off the table.


Finally, the notion that Trump and Trump alone is advocating for a more robust nuclear deterrent is either ignorant or willfully misleading. In February, CQ Roll Call’s John Donnelly reported that the Pentagon was urging Trump, as it had urged his predecessor, to increase America’s capabilities to “existing and planned U.S. armaments to achieve a greater number of lower-yield weapons that could provide a ‘tailored nuclear option for limited use.’” This recommendation should come as no shock to a nuclear-policy expert; America’s atrophied nuclear infrastructure is no state secret.


In a 2014 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Nuclear Agency Director and Navy Admiral Robert Monroe warned that U.S. nuclear warheads are fast reaching the point at which life extension programs cannot reliably preserve the functionality of those weapons. What’s more, the facilities that do that work—complexes like Pantex and Y12—are literally falling apart. “Building smaller bombs won’t keep other nuclear powers in check,” Wolfsthal insisted. On what basis does he stake this definitive claim? Who knows? His opinion is hardly universal. Bunker-penetrating weapons with adjustable yields aren’t just a feature of any modern nuclear state’s arsenal but necessary to deter preemptive aggression from regimes like North Korea’s, which cannot be allowed to harbor the delusion that it can survive a nuclear exchange in a hardened, underground facility.


Wolfsthal claimed that the size of America’s existing nuclear arsenal is not justified by the present threat environment, which is defensible. But he also argued that modernized nuclear weapons are also unjustified, as are low yield weapons. Even if they were, he added, the $1.24 trillion price tag on such an “extravagant and increasingly unnecessary” project (over the course of 30 years) is unaffordable. We’re left to conclude that Wolfsthal is arguing for entropy, which he admits will result in a defunct nuclear deterrent. Though it took many years, Barack Obama eventually abandoned the childlike ideal of a world without nuclear weapons. It seems not all of his acolytes got the memo.



https://www.commentarymagazine.com/politics-ideas/lefts-nuclear-weapons-delusions-die-hard/

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Didge

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