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Nuclear Equivalence

Talk about pointless gestures. The administration has disclosed the number of nuclear warheads in our arsenal — 5,113, if you were wondering. That’s down from a high of 31,255 nukes in 1967. Like other big figures, such as the size of the intelligence budget, that were once classified, the release of this information does nothing to endanger our national security, as far as I can tell. But what point is it supposed to serve? Here is what Secretary of State Clinton had to say:

“We think it is in our national security interest to be as transparent as we can about the nuclear program of the United States,” she told reporters at a high-level nuclear conference in New York, where she announced the change in policy. “We think that builds confidence.”

I don’t want to make too big a deal of what is a relatively small point in and of itself, but this seems to demonstrate an odd belief that U.S. military capacity is part of the problem, not the solution, to the world’s problems. Implicit in Madam Secretary’s statement is a sort of moral equivalence, which suggests that our nukes are, at some level, just as problematic as those of, say, North Korea, and that if we show the right path toward transparency and arms control, rogue states will follow our lead.

In reality, American nukes are as different from those being built by Iran or North Korea as a cop’s handgun is from a gun wielded by a serial killer. What counts is not killing capacity but in whose hands it resides. No one worries about British or French or American nukes. Nor should anyone worry about Israeli nukes — as long as Israel doesn’t face annihilation, they will never be used.

That’s because countries like the U.S. and Israel have democratic systems with checks and safeguards against capricious use of the ultimate weapons. The problem with Iran is that it has no such safeguards. If it were to acquire nukes, its weapons would be in the hands of millenarian religious fanatics who jail or kill anyone who criticizes them. Seeing America downsize its nuclear arsenal or disclose its size won’t make the mullahs follow suit; if anything, it will embolden them to be more aggressive because they will see the latest gestures by the administration (correctly) as an indication of our lack of resolve to stop them.


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