Sen. Clinton and the Dangers of Cold War Posturing

08/03/2007 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What was previously a trifling dispute between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on foreign policy just got ugly -- and dangerous.

In response to a question, Obama ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton pounced, arguing that "presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents (sic) to keep the peace, and I don't believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or nonuse."

Potential first use of nuclear weapons is apparently the doctrine of the Clinton campaign. This, as she said, is a hoary shibboleth of the Cold War. The U.S. reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first to keep the Soviets from invading Europe with their alleged conventional military advantage. In fact, the Russian advantage in conventional forces was probably mythic and they had no intention of invading in any case.

But even though the leaders of Hillary's foreign policy team were steeped in conventional Cold War doctrine, even they should object to sustaining a doctrine of first use.

The U.S. has overwhelming conventional military advantage in the modern world. For us, nuclear weapons are irrelevant for military purpose and horrifying in potential use. We have a profound security, military, humanitarian, legal and just plain common sense stake in driving a campaign to make nuclear weapons illegitimate, to brand their use and testing as immoral, and to lead efforts against proliferation, testing, use and for nuclear disarmament. For this country to continue to threaten the first use of nuclear weapons -- particularly against countries that have no such weapons -- isn't just immoral, it is profoundly stupid. It can only erode our security, not serve it.

Any Democratic president, upon taking office, should make a campaign against nuclear weapons central to U.S. foreign policy. She or he should revive efforts at nonproliferation, invest in cleaning up loose nukes and initiate deep cuts in the U.S. arsenal as openers for a campaign to encourage all nations to get rid of nuclear weapons. For this to move at all, we will have to renounce publicly our commitment to using nukes as a weapon of war -- and certainly our commitment to first use.

This isn't radical. A vast array of generals -- aware of our conventional military advantage - would sign on. Hell, Henry Kissinger, the old war criminal himself, has called for a campaign for nuclear disarmament.

I understand Hillary's desire to prove her credentials on security -- but this is a new world, not a Cold War world, and this bit of conventional posturing is bad policy -- and should be bad politics.