The over-rated middle way

“Obama to take middle course in new nuclear policy,” a headline in the Washington Post declares.

There are a few instances where “middle” signals danger — he was driving drunk down the middle of the road — but generally speaking, middle is supposed to be good. But when the Post tells us Obama is going to take a “middle course” on nuclear weapons, this is one of those perverse instances where the newspaper editors seem to want to direct readers away from the story.

Obama’s going down the middle — not too much, not too little. Yawn, let’s move on to the next story. Oh yeah, but just in case you make it to paragraph three, it’s worth mentioning that the US wants Iran to understand that even as a non-nuclear state, it could be targeted by America’s nuclear arsenal.

That‘s a middle course?! Unless you happen to be in the Iranian government in which case it might sound more like an urgent call to develop a nuclear deterrence capability.

A year after his groundbreaking pledge to move toward a “world without nuclear weapons,” President Obama on Tuesday will unveil a policy that constrains the weapons’ role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas.

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

At Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin notes that Obama has made yet another reversal on a campaign position. No doubt under the sway of Pentagon and defense industry pressure, he now wholeheartedly embraces the biggest defense boondoggle of them all: missile defense.

For an Obama team that has been skeptical of the past U.S. administrations’ efforts to rapidly deploy ballistic missile-defense systems around the world, missile defense sure does get star billing in the United States’ newly released report on overall nuclear strategy.

The document claims that missile defense is critical to allowing the United States to shift away from nuclear weapons, especially now that the U.S. will no longer threaten to use nukes to retaliate against non-nuclear attacks, such as from chemical or biological weapons.
The NPR itself was careful to mention missile defense as only one of several capabilities needed to counter non-nuclear attacks.

But Secretary Clinton was less careful.

“It’s no secret that countries around the world remained concerned about our missile-defense program,” Clinton said, explaining that the NPR weighs in on “the role [missile defense] can and should play in deterring proliferation and nuclear terrorism.”

Ok, so now missile defense can deter chemical attacks, biological attacks, proliferation of nuclear technology, and suitcase bombs?

Regardless, the document makes clear that with fewer nukes to be deployed once the new START agreement goes into effect, and with the role of nuclear weapons now limited to responding to nuclear threats, the administration is now looking to missile defense, among other technologies, to fill in the gap.

“As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national security strategy, these non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden,” the review reads.

Outside experts doubted that the NPR’s suggested shift toward a reliance on missile defense would provide any deterrence for most types of chemical and biological attacks or the use of a nuclear device by a terrorist.

“If they deliver them by missile, fine, but that’s not likely to be the case,” said Peter Huessy, president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm. “If our biggest threat is terrorists using nukes, then of course deterrence doesn’t apply and missile defense doesn’t apply either.”

Huessy also commented on Obama’s embrace of missile defense in the NPR, which seems out of line with the criticism he leveled when running for president in 2008.

“I certainly see a pivot in the sense of what people expected,” he said. “Missile defense is now front and center in America’s security policy. That’s’ certainly a shift from Obama’s campaign rhetoric.”

If there’s one lesson that 9/11 could have taught us in — oh, let’s say a few seconds — it should have been that in an age of asymmetric warfare, missile defense is a giant waste of money. Yet the only lesson we can draw almost a decade later is that when it comes to the flagrant misuse of tax dollars, so long as it’s done in the name of that holiest of holies, defense, American taxpayers will remain blithely indifferent.

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