06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nukes: Wheat and Chaff

The nuclear issues that are the subject of this week's conclave are numerous and complex. Assessing each is complicated since the gathering is more of a photo-op cum political happening than it is a serious diplomatic conference. Such is the now recognizable style of Mr. Obama on all matters. The questions in play are nonetheless consequential, so let's temporarily set aside the implications of style to examine substance.

A. Nuclear Disarmament & The Zero Option

This is the easiest question to handle. We never will achieve a nuclear free world. Getting very close to zero is highly dangerous for obvious reasons; and modest reductions in the arsenals of the United States and Russia are strategically meaningless. Yes, it is a talking point in the proliferation context since with have a legal obligation under the NPT to lower the number of warheads in the arsenals of n-weapons states. No would-be weapons state, though, cares a fig about those numbers in making the momentous decision of whether or not to go nuclear.

B. Ensuring the security of nuclear stockpiles and of highly radioactive material is, of course, of the utmost importance. In this sphere, the ideas on the table fall into three categories: the vapid; the technical; and the absurd. In the first is some kind of convention containing anodyne language declaring all parties readiness to worry about the problem and vowing earnestly to worry. In the second, there could be of some small utility to agreements on the exchange of practical information on how to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to, or activation of weapons or weapons grade material. The specifics, probably, are better worked out in bilateral or wider ad hoc cooperative projects -- as the US has been doing for 50 years.

The third category refers to the headline story about terrorists and nuclear weapons. Obama made this the leitmotif of the conference in his public remarks yesterday to the effect that terrorism is the most important nuclear threat we face. That is simply untrue. An accurate statement designed to educate rather than to play on emotions would say that the seizure of nuclear materials by 'al-Qaeda' would create a vitally dangerous situation BUT it is not an urgent concern because the likelihood of such an eventuality coming to pass is close to zero. The old al-Qaeda is a weak, fragmented grouping able to do little more than survive physically. This is the outfit that, over the past 8 + years, has been capable of organizing nothing of great consequence. The London and Madrid bombing were essentially local operations; the Christmas bomber incident rank amateurism. Trying to blow a plane out of the sky once every several years is not a laughing matter; but to cite it to stoke fears of nuclear terrorism is rank scare-mongering with no evidential basis. Right out of the Bush-Cheney playbook. An outfit that cannot manage to get its hands on fire-retardant underwear will not be able to build or steal a nuclear warhead.

The 'terror' theme tells us that the Washington Conference aims for maximum publicity -- not maximum effectiveness -- in dealing with real problems. By associating everything nuclear with the emotive imagery of terrorism, the White House is seeking to squeeze as much political benefit from the occasion as possible. It burnishes Obama's image as a bold leader setting ambitious goals with a strong moral tinge. The Nobel Obama. The hope is that that the intangible effects will somehow be an asset at home and abroad. Yet, a bit of sober thinking leads to the conclusion that the latter aspiration is unrealizable. The American media will fall for it hook-line-and sinker. Our sycophants elsewhere will join in the accolades. But will there be a change of thinking or action in Moscow? In Beijing? In Tehran? In Islamabad? In New Delhi? In Pyongyang? Engaging those governments returns us to the realm of the real and the serious.

C. As to the new Nuclear Posture Review, there is truly little that is new. It simply restates past doctrine with an historical update. The question of "no first use" or not is a Cold War issue. The United States' strategy for countering the Red Army's enormous advantage in conventional arms was to deploy thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. If NATO forces were breaking before the onslaught, we theoretically could use small nukes against battlefield and rear echelon targets to stem the tide. Moreover, our capability for doing was intended to deter the Soviets from launching a conventional war in the belief that we would not put our cities at risk to prevent them from occupying Western Europe. Whether any of this reasoning existed anywhere other than in war game rooms is an open question. Today it is all irrelevant.

That leaves the question of whether Washington has an interest in keeping open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea (what is meant by states not in compliance with their NPT obligations). It is not at all obvious that these doctrinal nuances have any practical meaning. Preemptive nuclear strikes are highly risky since one never knows with certainty that they will disarm an enemy and prevent them from responding in other highly disagreeable ways. Think of 20,000 North Korean artillery pieces firing in Seoul. Think of Iran's several opportunities to wreak havoc in the Gulf. That is one.

Can an America deter Iran from using biological weapons? Here specific scenarios are crucial. An unprovoked, aggressive use is one theoretically possibility. Frankly, though, I cannot imagine such a situation unless we revert to 'mad mullah' fantasies. That's two. Reaction to an American and/or Israeli massive airstrike is another scenario. This is more realistic in terms of motivation. Israel can protect itself via deterrence as it did Iraq during Gulf War I (see public remarks by Vice-President Aziz). There is no Iranian threat to American territory -- for technical reasons. To American bases? Technically speaking, yes. Would the Iranian leaders' judgment on this be affected by abstruse doctrines promulgated in Washington? Probably not. They would decide whether or not to use unconventional weapons in the awareness that Washington's response was impossible to predict.

These last are matters of consequence. We can only hope that they will be addressed with the sobriety they require once the cameras have stopped rolling and the spin machine quiets down.