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The Virtues of Ambiguity

September 11, 2005

Walter Pincus, staff writer for the Washington Post, reports proposed changes in US nuclear doctrine.

The Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to use them to preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction. The draft also includes the option of using nuclear arms to destroy known enemy stockpiles of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

The document, written by the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff but not yet finally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would update rules and procedures governing use of nuclear weapons to reflect a preemption strategy first announced by the Bush White House in December 2002. The strategy was outlined in more detail at the time in classified national security directives.

The major change is that the draft revisions make explicit situations under which officers could request nuclear strikes. For example,

against an enemy that is using “or intending to use WMD” against U.S. or allied, multinational military forces or civilian populations.

Another scenario for a possible nuclear preemptive strike is in case of an “imminent attack from adversary biological weapons that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy.”

That and other provisions in the document appear to refer to nuclear initiatives proposed by the administration that Congress has thus far declined to fully support.

Last year, for example, Congress refused to fund research toward development of nuclear weapons that could destroy biological or chemical weapons materials without dispersing them into the atmosphere.

The draft document also envisions the use of atomic weapons for “attacks on adversary installations including WMD, deep, hardened bunkers containing chemical or biological weapons.”

Some of the reasoning seems a bit muddled.

The draft says that to deter a potential adversary from using such weapons, that adversary’s leadership must “believe the United States has both the ability and will to pre-empt or retaliate promptly with responses that are credible and effective.”

This is nonsense. If the US wants to be able to deter a WMD attack it has to be able to credibly threaten to inflict serious damage on a potential attacker after it has attacked.

An explicit, doctrinal commitment to preemptive or preventative nuclear strikes does very little to enhance the credibility of deterrence threats. Indeed, to the extent that the US does not engage in preemptive or preventative strikes when other actors develop WMD capability – which seems likely, given that the US hasn’t yet been sufficiently motivated to nuke North Korea, Pakistan, India, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, etc. etc. – such an explicit doctrine might actually undermine US credibility.

Pincus continues:

The draft also notes that U.S. policy in the past has “repeatedly rejected calls for adoption of ‘no first use’ policy of nuclear weapons since this policy could undermine deterrence.”

Which is exactly right. The US has never embraced an NFU (“no first use”) nuclear posture, which raises the question: what are these guys smoking?

The Bush administration never misses an opportunity to make a policy explicit that might better be left ambiguous. Remember Kyoto? There was no chance that Kyoto was going to become US law. All Bush and his team had to do was follow Clinton’s lead and ignore it. Instead, they gleefully ripped up the treaty, prompting other countries to ratify it while pissing away US public relations. Same with the “doctrine of preemption.” The US has always reserved the right to engage in preemptive and preventative war. There was nothing novel here. By shouting it to the rooftops, however, the Bush administration did a great deal to undermine the sense that American hegemony is, if not benign, at least tolerable.

There is, moreover, a healthy debate about the wisdom of using nuclear weapons to deter the use of other forms of WMD. Scott Sagan, for one, has written eloquently against the wisdom of such a policy. Scott doesn’t think even the previous posture of calculated ambiguity is a good idea, but it is, in my view, far better than a clear set of commitments to use nuclear weapons preemptively and preventatively. An explicit, public, policy commitment can only undermine the already faltering non-proliferation regime while giving additional cover to states seeking WMD capability.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.