The Trouble With Nuclear Abolition

I’m guessing readers thought I would write about Iran this week given all the headlines of protests and violent efforts to crush dissent in the wake of their presidential election. Seventeen people have been killed as this is written, with the most visible being the shooting of 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan. But it’s hard to say more than my fellow columnists (and friends) Ivan Eland and Alan Bock. I’ll just say to those who argue that the United States should respond more forcefully, you and what army? Notwithstanding whether it’s a good idea or not (it’s not), the United States has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan and is in no position to intervene in Iran. And encouraging the protesters (whose side I’m firmly on) would likely have the same result as then-president George H. W. Bush’s Feb. 15, 1991 Voice of America radio broadcast:

"There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: And that is, for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."

In case no one remembers, the Kurdish and Iraqi uprisings were resoundingly crushed by Saddam Hussein. Finally, I wish I could take credit for this, but it’s from an e-mail from a good friend:

"Calls to have President Obama enthusiastically embrace the Iranian opposition are dangerously misguided. Given America’s long, troubled history with Iran, a U.S. endorsement of the anti-regime demonstrations would be about as helpful as Nancy Pelosi endorsing a candidate in a GOP primary – in Utah."

OK, enough about Iran.

Instead, I thought I’d write about President Obama’s clarion call earlier this year "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." It’s a case of déjà vu all over gain. More than a quarter-century earlier, President Ronald Reagan ushered in the Strategic Defense Initiative to "to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles" which "could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves."

The logic of a world without nuclear weapons is simple enough: the world would be a safer place if we didn’t have to live with the prospect of nuclear war and all its attendant horrors. Not to put too fine a point on it, but can anyone recall the last time we actually had a nuclear war? Even President Obama admits that "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down."

Moreover, the logic of no-nukes assumes there are no benefits associated with nuclear weapons. But one benefit of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance during the Cold War was that neither country was willing to risk direct military confrontation for fear of it escalating to nuclear annihilation. Another benefit of the U.S. strategic arsenal is that it acts as a powerful deterrent against any country contemplating directly attacking America. And to a degree, it probably deters terrorists from attacking using means that have a return address, such as ballistic missiles.

Possible benefits of nuclear weapons aside, a world without nuclear weapons might be safer for some, but for whom? It’s clear that one of the motivating factors for countries like North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear capability is to deter U.S. military intervention. What do Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have in common? Neither of them had nukes. Another thing that’s clear is that in a world without nuclear weapons, the United States – with the largest and most powerful conventional military in the world – would be more free and arguably more likely to exercise that power. (And the estimated $52 billion spent on nuclear weapons and programs could be plowed back into buying more conventional weapons.)

Of course, President Obama (like George W. Bush before him – can anyone say "mushroom cloud"?) is concerned about the prospect of nuclear terrorism:

"One nuclear weapon exploded in one city – be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague – could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be – for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival."

But concerns about nuclear terrorism – or any terrorism for that matter – need to focus on the reasons, not just the means. I know to readers I’m a broken record, but needless U.S. military intervention and meddling in the internal affairs of other countries – particularly Muslim countries – is a factor for motivating terrorist attacks. And until we are willing to admit that we are part of the problem (which is not the same thing as blaming America or saying we deserve to be attacked), we will never be able to come up with a solution.

So I guess that does bring me back to where I started… Iran. At least as this is written, President Obama has been able to resist the urge to meddle, because he does not want to give legitimacy to any claims that the United States is interfering with Iran’s internal affairs, which would likely stoke the flames of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. His critics argue that the United States will be accused of meddling whether we meddle or not (fair enough, and, in fact, we have been accused). But if we hope to make any headway with Muslims, our deeds must match our words. Those Muslims who already we believe we are meddling in Iran will believe that no matter what. But it is to the rest of the Muslim world that we must demonstrate that we are not.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.