THE BLOG
05/24/2010 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nuclear Naivete

Far-right conservatives posture as nuclear tough guys, but push a shockingly naive policy. Clinging to Cold War doctrines, they play politics with our nuclear weapons. It is a dangerous game that puts American security at risk.

Representative Mike Turner (R-OH) rammed through an amendment at the House Armed Services Committee mark-up of the Defense Authorization Bill last week that condemns the new U.S. nuclear strategy endorsed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the directors of the nation's nuclear laboratories. Why? Rep. Turner wants to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan.

That is the logic of what he wrote in USA Today, "When it comes to defending the United States against a devastating attack, our message should be clear and simple: If our nation is attacked, we will use all means necessary to defend ourselves. Period." We were attacked by terrorists on September 11. Turner apparently believes we should reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. Or Iraq. Or Venezuela. Or anywhere, at anytime.

This tough-sounding policy is just dumb. It would reverse decades of strategy followed by Republican and Democratic presidents who have told other nations: "If you don't have nuclear weapons, we won't attack you with ours." The new U.S. policy simply updates this long-standing pledge. It recognizes, as the Joint Chiefs know, that we have enough conventional firepower to deliver a devastating response to any attack. Turner's nuclear bravado would simply encourage other countries to get their own nuclear bombs.

We cannot afford this crude, naive approach to national security. We must be tough and smart.

The Obama Administration's approach is smarter. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said, "The chiefs and I fully support the findings of this nuclear posture review, because we believe it provides us and our field commanders the opportunity to better shape our nuclear weapons posture, policies and force structure to meet an ever-changing security environment."

Nuclear Power Complex

The far-right has a historic nuclear fetish. "The U.S. nuclear arsenal is as important as it ever was," says analyst Keith Payne, whose 1980 article, "Victory Is Possible," argued that we could fight and win a nuclear war. The far-right doesn't want to cut even one of the 5,113 hydrogen bombs that we currently have in our stockpile. If we did "Tehran and Pyongyang will conclude that... America is getting weaker," says former Under Secretary of State John Bolton.

But a growing bipartisan consensus of experts and military officials recognizes that whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have provided in the past are outweighed by the risks they present now. The greatest threats to our country, says the new nuclear strategy developed by the Obama Administration, are nuclear terrorism and new nuclear-armed states. To prevent both, we need the cooperation of many other nations. To get that cooperation, we must move together with them to reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons. "Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs," says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options."

The Obama strategy is built on this new bipartisan consensus that is embraced by both liberals and moderate conservatives. It is epitomized by the work of former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense Bill Perry, and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. These two Republicans and two Democrats argue now for "a world free of nuclear weapons." In January 2007 they wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands." The only way to prevent this is to move step-by-step to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons.

A 21st Century Plan

This consensus is growing. Two-thirds of the former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisors have endorsed their overall strategy. Dozens of groups in many nations are working on plans for how to do it. The Administration has embraced the policies in its new nuclear plans, reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy, carefully negotiating the New START treaty with Russia (now awaiting Senate approval), and convening the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington last month where 47 nations agreed to an action plan to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The public debate will also likely expand with the July 23 release of a new documentary from the team that made An Inconvenient Truth. The film, Countdown to Zero, is a nuclear wake-up call about the real threats we face and the urgent need for action. Lawrence Bender, the film's producer, says, "My hope is that Countdown to Zero will not only make people aware of the scope of this threat, but will also help create the political will necessary to ensure that the Senate ratifies the New START treaty without delay or partisan bickering."

The full House of Representatives should scuttle the Turner amendment when they consider the defense bill later this month. The Congress should pay attention to our current and recent military and security leaders. Our nuclear security is too important to leave to amateurs.