Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jim Walsh on the Nuclear “Table”

Jim Walsh, Board Member of Council for a Livable World (the Center’s sister organization), gave a great radio interview last Friday on nuclear weapons, the recent Obama-Clinton spat, and that proverbial “table” for “On the Media,” a program produced by WNYC and syndicated by NPR. You can listen to the interview using the audio player below; otherwise you can download the MP3 by clicking here or read the transcript by clicking here.

Walsh also recently put out a tremendous op-ed on keeping the nuclear option on the “table,” in which he argues, “Presidential candidates who think they can go around threatening the potential use of nuclear weapons to look tough without serious international repercussions are living in a bubble.” The full op-ed is provided below.

Obama-Clinton Food Fight Goes Nuclear

The Obama-Clinton foreign policy food fight took a new turn recently, when candidate Obama declared that he would not use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the fight against Osama Bin Laden. “That’s not on the table,” declared the Senator from Illinois. According to the Associated Press, his rival, Senator Clinton, took a New York minute to “criticize” Obama, saying that presidents should not make “blanket statements with respect to… non-use of nuclear weapons.”

This incident follows a bizarre moment in a recent Republican presidential debate when virtually all the candidates affirmed that US should consider attacking Iran with nuclear weapons in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

These exchanges tell us something about both the candidates and the state of thinking, such as it is, on nuclear weapons in the Bush era. Unfortunately, the news is not very good.

First, full disclosure. I am in no way whatsoever connected to the Obama, Clinton, or Republican presidential campaigns. Having testified before Congress on nuclear weapons issues, traveled to Iran and North Korea, and attended meetings of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), I have, however, learned a thing or two about nuclear weapons.

Following in the footsteps of President Bush, the modern father of the doctrine of nuclear preemption, most presidential candidates pay loving fealty to “the table.” No option can be removed from this table. Everything is on the table, even if that includes using nuclear weapons against countries that have no nuclear weapons, like Afghanistan and Iran. (Iran is suspected of having a nuclear weapons program but years from having any weapons; Afghanistan has no nuclear program). Taking anything off the table is said to make one look weak – a non-starter for Republicans and Democrats’ greatest fear.

But wait a minute. Everything is on the table? What about poison gas or biological weapons? Is a candidate weak if he or she refuses to endorse their possible use? How about hostage taking? Should the US take the estranged family members of alleged terrorists and execute them one by one until the terrorist gives himself up? Preposterous you say! That’s illegal, immoral. It endorses the slaughter of innocent people. True on all counts, but these same objections apply to most uses of nuclear weapons, including the ones discussed by our presidential candidates.

Consider the legal issues. The International Court of Justice, of which the United States is a member, ruled on the legality of nuclear weapons in 1996. The court found that the only possible legitimate use of nuclear weapons – and even this was contentious and controversial – was for deterrence and possibly retaliation against a nuclear attack by another country – a condition that does not apply to any of the cases in question.

The moral issues should be self-evident. No use of nuclear weapons, whether strategic or tactical, is possible without the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. (Keep in mind that the main objection to terrorism is that it embraces the killing of civilians.)

Of course, too many will argue that in a post 9-11 world, international law and morality have to be set aside in the name of national security. We have to get them before they get us. Fine. Take law and morality out of the equation. Is this good policy? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Will we be safer following the unilateral use of nuclear weapons against the Muslim world?

One would think that the experience of the last four years had taught us something, but maybe not. Senator Clinton clearly believes that she “got” Senator Obama, that his decision to take nuclear weapons off the table in these circumstances shows naiveté.

The irony is that it is Clinton who is naïve. Presidential candidates who think they can go around threatening the potential use of nuclear weapons to look tough without serious international repercussions are living in a bubble.

Clinging to the nuclear “option” looks like a not so veiled nuclear threat to other countries. It increases their incentive to acquire nuclear weapons in order to defend themselves and makes the US look like a nuclear rogue. It reduces our ability to work with other countries to improve the nonproliferation regime, making us look both hypocritical and dangerous. Loose nuclear talk makes us vulnerable, not strong, and calls into question the judgment of those who seek to be commander in chief.

Obama may not be a nuclear expert, but on this issue his instincts are right on. By contrast, Clinton is playing politics with an issue that could have profound ramifications for the future of nuclear proliferation.

Finally, the press has to take some responsibility for this ugly state of affairs. Candidates are given a free pass when they intone, “all options are on the table.” This sounds good but is often offered without content. Where are the follow-up questions? What are the circumstances in which using nuclear weapons preemptively is allowable? Sadly, the candidates get a pass.

Obama may not win the nomination or the presidency, but at least he isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. If voters are truly tired of the politics of unilateralism and self-defeating threats, then the candidates in both parties better rethink their nuclear strategy. In the meantime, I’m sitting at a different table.

Jim Walsh is a Research Associate at the Security Studies Program at MIT and a frequent commentator on CNN.

1 comment:

Russ Wellen said...

Well-known columnist Robert Scheer also summed it up nicely today:

"Great, so forget the hope that a woman president might prove to be more enlightened than macho men in the matter of peacemaking, and instead rest assured that Hillary would have the cojones to 'push the button' that would kill us all."