The Strangelove Caucus
On Wednesday, President Obama gave a speech in Berlin that covered a wide range of foreign-policy issues but focused principally on nuclear weapons. His central proposal consisted of a call for reductions in the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by “up to one-third” from the limit of 1,550 set by the New START agreement, which would leave both nations with just over a thousand. (He also called once again for the U.S. Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, said he would push forward with the Nuclear Security Summit process, and pledged to work with NATO allies to seek reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.)
Almost immediately afterward, the nuclear hawks came out in response. The “Senate Missile States Coalition” put out a statement the same day strongly criticizing Obama’s nuclear-reduction proposal. It consists of a catalogue of poorly reasoned and highly dubious assertions. For example:
● Mike Johanns: “The Cold War may be over but we still face dangerous threats as rogue nations like Iran and North Korea work to develop nuclear arsenals. Simply put, now is not the time to draw down our defenses.” North Korea has an estimated ten nuclear weapons. Iran has none. Even if these numbers increased somewhat in the near future, the idea that America’s nuclear posture or the size of its arsenal ought to depend significantly on those two nations makes little sense.
● Max Baucus: “Maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent keeps America safe and supports good-paying American jobs.” The military should not be viewed as a jobs program, and creating or maintaining jobs is a terrible reason for military spending. Under this logic, you could never cancel a single weapons program, no matter how ineffective or wasteful, for fear of the jobs it would cost.
● Mike Enzi: “The president wants to appease Russia with this agreement.” This old, tired line from last year’s presidential race makes even less sense than normal in this context. As current reporting on Obama’s proposal has indicated, it’s not clear that Russia even wants to negotiate any further limitations on its nuclear arsenal right now.
● The main point that the senators stress, repeated several times throughout their statement, is the need for the United States to maintain a “strong nuclear deterrent.” Yet they never explain exactly how an arsenal of over a thousand deployed strategic nuclear weapons—not to mention several thousand more in reserve—would fall short of being that, or what military missions or purposes it would be insufficient for.
In short, the overriding problem here is the senators’ casual assumption that more nuclear weapons are by definition better, without regard to the strategic functions they are meant to serve.