Nuclear dread has hovered over America like a mushroom cloud from the era of bleak atomic war novels, like "On the Beach," and Cold War spoofs, like "Dr. Strangelove," to current terrorist scenarios built around suitcase-sized weapons smuggled into New York Harbor. The fear today is nothing like the panic spawned by banner headlines about Soviet atomic spy rings, duck-and-cover drills in elementary schools, backyard fallout shelters and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis. But all it takes is a few words like "dirty bombs" or "nuclear blackmail" to remind us that the window of vulnerability never quite closes.
Even though we prefer to airbrush away the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the truth remains that America is the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons in war. The miracle of it all -- seemingly defying all statistical odds and political prophesies of doom -- is that the nuclear peace has held for 65 years, long enough to collect Social Security. A minimum of nine nations currently possess nuclear weapons (and South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine had them in the past). Yet, for all the face-offs in the Middle East, along the Korean peninsula, and in the mountains of Kashmir, not one isotope of uranium or plutonium has ever been fired in anger.
This uneasy peace has come at a price that goes beyond budget appropriations and promising careers squandered in think tanks on intellectually dense doomsday studies. Over the decades, our political and military leaders have lost the ability to talk about nuclear weapons and the strategy that governs their existence in a language that is comprehensible to anyone other than maybe graduate students in strategic studies. Because presidents, Cabinet secretaries and generals cannot talk honestly in public about this deadly arsenal, they constantly resort to a mind-deadening array of acronyms, buzz words, and linguistic evasions.
With a fanfare of presidential statements, Cabinet-level press conferences and lengthy background briefings by deputies, the administration released Tuesday its guiding blueprint on nuclear strategy, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review
. This is an inspiring piece of writing filled with bold pronouncements that are immediately contradicted by fine-print caveats. The document unequivocally pledges that America will not initiate a nuclear exchange (except in those cases where we might) and earnestly promises to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the overall national security strategy (while maintaining most of the current nuclear arsenal as a devastating deterrent).
And -- just in case you think that policy has really changed -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his introduction, "The steps outlined in this report will take years and, in some cases, decades to complete. Implementing them will be the work of multiple administrations and Congresses, and will require sustained bipartisan consensus." In short, the seas will rise, empires will fall, and Republicans and Democrats will live together in lamb-like harmony before all these incremental steps actually go into effect.
Top-level documents often seem like they were deliberately written to be opaque. But Barack Obama is supposedly a leader who understands the power of words and the need for rhetorical clarity. But those traits certainly did not come across during the president's interview
with The New York Times in advance of the release of the Nuclear Posture Review. In one carefully hedged sentence that brought to mind Victor Hugo's 823-word
monstrosity from "Les Miserables," Obama used 137 words to say, in effect, "yes, but on the other hand," about his nuclear doctrine. The clotted phrases that Obama brandished in that one sentence included: "a robust nuclear deterrent ... invest in improved infrastructure ... lone or primary deterrent ... evolving and shifting ... less emphasis on nuclear weapons ... conventional weapons capability ... all but the most extreme circumstances ... the START Treaty ... further discussions with the Russians ... nuclear umbrella ... long-term vision."
It is not Obama's fault. Iran's nuclear ambitions represent the dominant challenge facing the world this month -- and, for obvious reasons, an American president cannot talk about what he might or might not do. Or how he might react to what the Israeli might or might not do. Instead, the Nuclear Posture Review opts for studied ambiguity. A major goal of American nonproliferation policy (warning: big surprise ahead) is "reversing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran." And how does America intend to pull off that neat trick? The report warns these two rogue nations: "Their continued defiance of international norms and agreements will lead only to their further isolation and increasingly international pressure."
The truth is that -- unless the French go on the warpath or the Brits wanted to renew the War of 1812 -- our current over-sized nuclear arsenal is of limited utility beyond bare-bones deterrence of, say, North Korea. At a Tuesday briefing, Jim Miller, the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy (now that is a job title), stumbled over his words as he tried to justify the need for the 1,550 nuclear warheads that America intends to maintain in its arsenal. As Miller put it, "We still believe that approximate parity (with Russia) is appropriate ... to make sure that there aren't misperceptions, misunderstandings on either side, any sense of advantage or disadvantage." Translation: That was the number that the Russians agreed to and if we have one nuke less than they do, Dick Cheney and Company will claim that Obama is selling American security down the Volga River.
Obama the Peacemaker is this week's political refrain as the president flies to Prague on Thursday to formally sign the new 1,550-warhead arms control treaty with Russia and then convenes an international conference next week on the security of nuclear materials. All this nuclear crusading is simultaneously laudable and largely symbolic -- a presidential gesture toward the world as it ought to be rather than it is. And as we wait for that far-off nuclear-free world, there remain the intractable problems of North Korea and Iran.