Commentary Magazine


Hillary and Obama Go Nuclear

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two doves posing as hawks, are fighting a phony war. Who is winning?

Obama, on the defensive on account of his muddled idea last week of meeting foreign dictators without preconditions, precipitated the latest skirmish by calling for the possible use of U.S. troops to clean out terrorist enclaves in Waziristan. But then, in response to a question, he ruled out use of the most powerful weapon in the American arsenal.

Here are his exact words, courtesy of the New York Times:

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” he said, pausing before he added, “involving civilians.”

But then he quickly said: “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”

Later in an interview on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, sought to clarify the remark about nuclear weapons, saying he was asked whether he would “use nuclear weapons to pursue al Qaeda.”

“I said no one is talking about nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama said. “I found it was a little bit of an off-the-wall question.”

Hillary Clinton, hawk talons extended, immediately pounced, saying “I think that Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents, since the cold war, have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any President should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”

Hillary has won this round so far, on both style and substance. Even if there are no plausible scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used in Pakistan, American policy should remain ambiguous, as it has been since the dawn of the nuclear era.

Not that there haven’t been injurious exceptions. Ironically, some of the most serious ones come from the Clinton camp, and from Bill Clinton himself.

Appearing on Meet the Press in 1994, Clinton’s second Secretary of Defense, William Perry, said that he could not “envision any circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons would be a reasonable or prudent military action” in a Korean conflict.

This was a damaging departure from longstanding U.S. policy. The United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea in 1953, and it has long been interpreted to include “continuation of the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.”

If Perry’s statement did not embolden North Korea, by in effect folding up the nuclear umbrella, it almost certainly caused considerable anxiety in South Korea. And the harm here is clear, for what is vitally important but little understood is that the stated American willingness to use nuclear weapons in defense of our allies is the lynchpin of our nuclear non-proliferation policy.

Countries that rely on America for protection—like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, to take the critical Asian ones—have less reason to develop nuclear weapons of their own in direct proportion to their confidence that the U.S. will honor its promises to go to the max in their defense.

Also of relevance in understanding the Hillary-Obama phony war, because Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign-policy adviser is her husband, and because most of what she knows about foreign policy she learned during his two terms in office, is Bill Clinton’s own misformulated forays into nuclear doctrine.

Appearing on the Charlie Rose Show in June 2004, Clinton scored the Bush administration for alleged revisions in the American nuclear posture: “We have never said we would use nuclear weapons first; now we’re out there trying to develop small-scale nuclear weapons for battlefield use. . . . It’s a very troubling development to me.”

The only truly troubling development here is the ignorance displayed by a former President of the United States. Ever since the formation of the NATO Alliance, the United States has indeed stated its willingness to use nuclear weapons first in defense of our allies.

The policy of the Clinton administration itself was to threaten to use nuclear weapons first in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack (as well as a nuclear one) on our allies. Here is the congressional testimony of Walter Slocombe, Clinton’s Under Secretary of Defense, in 2000: “we have made clear that any use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States or our forces or our allies would meet with a prompt and overwhelming response from which no weapon in the American military arsenal would be excluded.” John Deutch, in 1994 serving as a Deputy Secretary of Defense, put it more simply in the Clinton administration’s much discussed Nuclear Posture Review: “We have not adopted a no-first-use pledge.”

Also contrary to Bill Clinton, the United States has had “small-scale nuclear weapons for battlefield use” beginning in the 1950’s and they became a major part of our arsenal by the 1960’s. Like previous annual Pentagon reports on the American defense posture, the one that appeared in Clinton’s final year in office stated unequivocally that “the United States must maintain survivable strategic forces of sufficient size and diversity–as well as . . . theater nuclear weapons . . . to deter potentially hostile foreign leaders with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Although one cannot hang Hillary for the sins of Bill, this little history is worth recalling as we watch the continuing phony war between the two neo-tough Democratic contenders.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.