A new nuclear posture

A NEW NUCLEAR POSTURE…. The Obama administration released its Nuclear Posture Review yesterday, outlining — and limiting — the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons. It’s “an important down payment on a saner nuclear policy,” and the first meaningful shift in U.S. thinking since the end of the Cold War.

Naturally, Republicans are “outraged.” They always are.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose understanding of national security issues is a fantasy of media bookers, told CNN yesterday, “I think the only thing that would work with Iran is they’re thinking that there’s a military consequence that could be faced if they become nuclear, and the farther he moves away from that, the more difficult his role with Iran is going to be.”

It’s as if the right doesn’t bother to learn about the policy before condemning it.

Obama and administration officials, however, argue that the new policy sends exactly the right signal to Iran and North Korea, that by not complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing nuclear weapons, they are less safe.

“I actually think that the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] has a very strong message for both Iran and North Korea,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday. “We essentially carve out states like Iran and North Korea that are not in compliance with NPT.”

The message to these countries, Gates said, “is that if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that’s covered in the NPR. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”

Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, agreed, saying that the new policy should be welcomed and that it maintains “a very tough line” on Iran.

“The president is clearly signaling that we are really decades away now from the end of the Cold War,” he said. “That the real threats are no longer just those nuclear weapons states that bedeviled us in the past but they’re the terrorist groups, and they’re the renegade states like Iran and North Korea that are truly disruptive and a threat to the world.

“It seems to me that this new nuclear policy review by the Obama Administration strengthens the ability to the United States to counter that threat and safeguard American interests.”

Fred Kaplan also had a good piece on the Nuclear Posture Review, including an explanation of how the administration perceives the purpose of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

Obama’s strategy carves out a novel, and very intriguing, chunk of middle ground. It rejects “no-first-use,” noting that the United States is “not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.” However, it does declare that the United States will not fire nuclear weapons first at any country that has signed, and is in compliance with, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The distinction may seem semantic, but in fact it’s substantial…. Obama is now saying that in conflicts with countries that don’t have nuclear weapons and aren’t cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all options are not on the table. We don’t need to brandish, much less use, our nukes. We can launch sufficiently devastating attacks with conventional weapons and defend ourselves against whatever those countries might throw against us.

Such an approach hasn’t even been considered since the start of the Cold War. It’s a welcome and overdue change.