Commentary Magazine


Topic: World War III

Containment Has Its Own Costs

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

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Obama’s Empty Nuclear Posturing

I find it hard to get excited about the Nuclear Posture Review released today by the Obama administration, in part because the relationship between “declaratory” nuclear policy and actual nuclear policy has always been tenuous at best. During the Cold War, the U.S. always reserved the right of first use of nuclear weapons, meaning that it if the Red Army rolled into Europe, we would supposedly nuke Moscow. What would have happened in an actual World War III is hard to know, but there is good reason to doubt that any U.S. president would have been the first to order nuclear escalation, whether the Russian hordes were crossing the Fulda Gap or not.

Likewise, today, for all the speculation going on about whether the U.S. will extend its nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors in case the Islamic Republic acquires nuclear weapons, there is good cause to doubt whether the U.S. (especially under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Barack Obama!) would really be prepared to incinerate Tehran in the event of Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia or even Israel.

Thus, I don’t attach much significance to the Obama administration’s narrowing the categories under which the U.S. would supposedly use nuclear weapons. As the Washington Post account notes:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

I suppose the administration gets credit for resisting liberal pressure to foreswear any first use of nukes, but, to my mind, any such policy, whether it remains on the books or not, is not terribly credible. It’s fine to keep a small nugget of deterrence alive by not formally burying it, but it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever using nukes unless it had first been attacked with WMD – meaning nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The Obama review says that countries that employ only biological or chemical weapons won’t be nuked unless they’re out of compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Actually, the administration is leaving even more wiggle room than that. According to the New York Times:

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

In short, the Obama policy isn’t that big of a change from the policy it inherited. It is, as the Washington Post has it, a “middle course.”

To my mind, the real test of our nonproliferation policy isn’t how we claim we will respond to hypothetical scenarios but rather what we do about actual current dangers. In regard to Iran – the world’s No. 1 proliferation threat – the auguries aren’t propitious, with the Financial Times reporting that a new round of sanctions won’t be on the UN Security Council agenda in April. Thus, Obama’s threats to hit Iran with tough sanctions if his entreaties to talk were rejected are increasingly being exposed as hollow. That kind of wishy-washiness is something that Iran and other rogue regimes understand. By comparison, the theoretical language contained in the Nuclear Posture Review seems more like, well, academic posturing.

I find it hard to get excited about the Nuclear Posture Review released today by the Obama administration, in part because the relationship between “declaratory” nuclear policy and actual nuclear policy has always been tenuous at best. During the Cold War, the U.S. always reserved the right of first use of nuclear weapons, meaning that it if the Red Army rolled into Europe, we would supposedly nuke Moscow. What would have happened in an actual World War III is hard to know, but there is good reason to doubt that any U.S. president would have been the first to order nuclear escalation, whether the Russian hordes were crossing the Fulda Gap or not.

Likewise, today, for all the speculation going on about whether the U.S. will extend its nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors in case the Islamic Republic acquires nuclear weapons, there is good cause to doubt whether the U.S. (especially under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Barack Obama!) would really be prepared to incinerate Tehran in the event of Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia or even Israel.

Thus, I don’t attach much significance to the Obama administration’s narrowing the categories under which the U.S. would supposedly use nuclear weapons. As the Washington Post account notes:

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

I suppose the administration gets credit for resisting liberal pressure to foreswear any first use of nukes, but, to my mind, any such policy, whether it remains on the books or not, is not terribly credible. It’s fine to keep a small nugget of deterrence alive by not formally burying it, but it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever using nukes unless it had first been attacked with WMD – meaning nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The Obama review says that countries that employ only biological or chemical weapons won’t be nuked unless they’re out of compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Actually, the administration is leaving even more wiggle room than that. According to the New York Times:

White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.

In short, the Obama policy isn’t that big of a change from the policy it inherited. It is, as the Washington Post has it, a “middle course.”

To my mind, the real test of our nonproliferation policy isn’t how we claim we will respond to hypothetical scenarios but rather what we do about actual current dangers. In regard to Iran – the world’s No. 1 proliferation threat – the auguries aren’t propitious, with the Financial Times reporting that a new round of sanctions won’t be on the UN Security Council agenda in April. Thus, Obama’s threats to hit Iran with tough sanctions if his entreaties to talk were rejected are increasingly being exposed as hollow. That kind of wishy-washiness is something that Iran and other rogue regimes understand. By comparison, the theoretical language contained in the Nuclear Posture Review seems more like, well, academic posturing.

Read Less




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