The President has released his new Nuclear Posture Review. Every time I think I’ve seen the most amateur and naive possible misstep by this administration, they pull something new to astonish me.
For several decades it has been the US policy to treat nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threats as one. That is, from our perspective, a nuke is a slime is a bug. A key part of our policy of deterrence has been to respond to any Weapon of Mass Destruction attack with a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Since we have no biological or chemical weapon capability, that meant of course that our response would be nuclear. Now, this might seem to be a pretty unambiguous policy. But the fact is, it was far more grey than one would first think.
For instance, while a large scale nuclear, biological or chemical attack on the continental US would almost certainly trigger a nuclear response, there were a goodly number of scenarios where our potential adversary would NOT know what our response would be. As an example, if Saddam Hussein had used non-persistent chemical weapons against our forces in the field during Desert Storm (and we were certainly convinced he might like that option), would the US be willing to retaliate against a population center? Would we perhaps nuke a Republican Guard division in the field? What would our response be? No one knows. Our response was ambiguous, partly because we, as a nation, don’t like to think about these things, and partly because we can’t really know what our response would be until actually faced with such a situation.
But that strategic ambiguity has a purpose. By not knowing how we can be pushed, adversaries don’t know where the line is. They are less likely to take steps at the lower end of the scale that might result in a response they aren’t willing to suffer.
Instead, now, our President has just announced to the world that a catastrophic attack can be launched against us with no nuclear response. A potential adversary might just decide that it could ride out a conventional response to a WMD attack. This removal of ambiguity has eroded our safety.
What really confuses me is I can see no “upside” to this announcement beyond feeding the President’s ego.