Hillary's Nuclear Umbrella

Hillary Clinton wants to extend our nuclear protection. But this would embolden our friends to the point of stupidity—and we’ll be left to clean up the mess.

President-elect Barack Obama has demonstrated his sympathies with America's peace movement on precisely one issue: Iraq. His opposition, increasingly muted during the presidential campaign, convinced many on the Left that this most liberal of senators was one of them. But then he rolled out a national-security team that could cheerfully serve any Republican short of neocon fellow-travelers George W. Bush and John McCain. Now sources claim that President-elect Obama will promise to retaliate against Iran if Tehran attacks Israel with nuclear weapons.

Maybe it's time to ask how many wars the next president plans on fighting.

Offering Israel a nuclear umbrella is a slightly abbreviated version of a campaign promise by Senator Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama's primary opponent and now secretary of state-designate. She bluntly stated: "Iran must know that an attack on Israel will draw a massive response." Indeed, she added, "we would be able to totally obliterate them."

But Senator Clinton didn't stop with Israel. She advocated providing "a deterrent backup" for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries.

Opening America's nuclear umbrella over Israel, and even more so over additional nations located in such a volatile region, is one of the nuttier proposals to emerge from the 2008 election. First, why even broach such an idea when Tehran appears to be nowhere close to developing nuclear weapons? U.S. intelligence officials have reaffirmed their judgment that Iran has not restarted its earlier program, and the International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohammed ElBaradei recently observed that the Iranians "do not have even the nuclear material, the raw unenriched uranium to develop one nuclear weapon if they decide to do so." The issue of a nuclear umbrella would be relevant only if Iran had nuclear weapons.

Second, Israel already possesses a nuclear arsenal estimated at one hundred fifty to two hundred weapons. The reason Israel developed them was to ensure its military superiority in any conflict. Should Tehran be foolish enough to initiate a war with Israel, it would ensure its own destruction. If Iranian leaders won't be deterred by the prospect of Israeli retaliation, they won't be concerned about Washington's response either.

Third, how credible is a promise by the U.S. government to intervene? It seems odd for American officials to discourage an Israeli preemptive strike while pledging to take the United States into war. One unnamed Bush administration official doubted that Tehran would take the threat seriously, telling Haaretz, "Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed?"

Fourth, how would it be in America's interest "to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed?" Israel might be a good friend, but that's no reason to make its enemies our own. And it's certainly no reason to contemplate nuclear war on behalf of a nation well able to defend itself and that is not vital to America's security.

Israel isn't alone. Senator Clinton went on to mention any other "countries that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions." U.S. allies Egypt and Turkey also have contemplated developing nuclear weapons, so they presumably would be among the latter. Perhaps even Syria, which may have been cooperating with North Korea to build a nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel earlier this year.

Opening a nuclear umbrella over all of them might reduce their interest in going nuclear-so long as they believed in America's foolish guarantee. But such a policy would put Washington even more directly in the middle of conflicts and controversies of no concern to Americans and certainly not worth U.S. involvement in a nuclear war, even against a state with only a small arsenal. And by Senator Clinton's logic, shouldn't Israel be expected to disarm to take advantage of America's nuclear umbrella?

Moreover, if the principle is sound, and Iran developed longer-range missiles along with nuclear weapons, shouldn't Washington extend its nuclear umbrella over all of the Mediterranean and even Europe? How about the Caucasus? Africa? India? If discouraging proliferation, however distant the prospect, is viewed as more important than ensuring American security, they why not extend the U.S. nuclear arsenal over every country against every country?

Fifth, threatening Iran with destruction would do more than create a deterrent to an Iranian assault. It would encourage Tehran to develop asymmetric weapons which would avoid the nuclear threshold. Making good on the threat would ensure American involvement in any resulting conflict. And Washington's promise to intervene would encourage all of its new client states to take more, and more irresponsible, risks.

We've already seen that in Taiwan and Georgia, where regimes relying on U.S. patronage challenged large neighbors (China and Russia, respectively). Rather than seeking to dampen conflict and resolve disagreements, Israel and other beneficiaries of an American nuclear guarantee would be more likely to seek new advantages by challenging the status quo. Should war erupt as a result, Washington could ill welsh on its promise, irrespective of how egregious its allies' misconduct.

Ever since the cold war ended, U.S. foreign policy has presumed Washington's right to meddle, promiscuously intervening in conflicts with little or no relevance to American security. Opening a nuclear umbrella over Israel and other Middle Eastern states would be more of the same. But it's time for change that we can believe in on foreign as well as domestic issues. It's time for Washington to begin avoiding rather than joining conflicts around the globe.