President Obama appears to be poised to embroil the United States in a new war in Syria in response to the recent, murderous use of chemical weapons there. Ill-advised as this step is, it is but a harbinger of what is to come as reckless U.S. national security policies and postures meet the hard reality of determined adversaries emboldened by our perceived weakness.
The focus at the moment is on what tactical response the president will make to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his alleged violation of Mr. Obama's glibly declared "red line" barring the use of such weapons of mass destruction. There seems to be little serious thought given at the moment to what happens next: What steps Mr. Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, may take against us, our interests and allies; what the repercussions will be of the United States further helping the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda forces who make up the bulk of Mr. Assad's domestic opposition; and the prospects for a far wider war as a result of the answers to both of these questions.
Even more wanting is some serious reflection about decisions made long before Mr. Obama came to office — but that are consonant with his own deeply flawed predilections about deterrence. More than two decades ago, President George H.W. Bush decided he would "rid the world of chemical weapons." The United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention has had the predictable result that the United States has eliminated all such arms in its arsenal, leaving only bad guys like Mr. Assad with stockpiles of Sarin nerve gas and other toxic chemical weapons.
No one can say for sure whether the threat of retaliation in kind would have affected recent calculations about the use of such weapons in Syria. What we do know is that they have been used, evidently repeatedly, in the absence of such a deterrent.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama seems determined to repeat this dangerous experiment with America's nuclear forces. He has made it national policy to rid the world of these weapons. As with our chemical stockpile, Mr. Obama seems determined to set an example in the hope that others will follow.
This policy has set in motion a series of actions whose full dimensions are not generally appreciated. All planned steps to modernize our nuclear arsenal have either been canceled or deferred off into the future, which probably amounts to the same thing. Consequently, we will, at best, have to rely indefinitely on a deterrent made up of very old weapons. Virtually all of them are many years beyond their designed service life, and most are deployed aboard ground-based missiles, submarines and bombers that are also approaching or in that status as well.
Another symptom of the deteriorating condition of our nuclear arsenal is the fact that the Air Force has taken disciplinary action for the second time in the past few months against some of those responsible for the operations of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. There are surely specific grounds for these punishments. We are kidding ourselves, though, if we fail to consider the devastating impact on the morale and readiness of such personnel when they are told, at least implicitly, by the commander in chief that their mission is not only unimportant — it is one he wishes to terminate as soon as practicable.
Does this seem far-fetched? Recall that eliminating outright our land-based missile force is something Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel personally endorsed prior to taking office. That may be the result if the president succeeds in reducing our nuclear forces to just 1,000 deployed weapons. As of now, it is unclear whether he intends to take that step only if the Russians agree or will do so unilaterally if they don't. Another uncertainty is whether Congress will go along with such rash cuts.
What is clear is that with no more serious debate than has been applied to the implications of becoming embroiled in another war in the Middle East — this time with a country armed with chemical weapons against which we can threaten no in-kind retaliation — the United States has been launched on a trajectory toward a minimal nuclear deterrent.
Fortunately, a group of the nation's pre-eminent nuclear strategists and practitioners under the leadership of the National Institute for Public Policy has just published a powerful indictment of this misbegotten policy initiative titled "Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence." It lays bare the faulty assumptions that underpin the Obama denuclearization agenda — not least the fact that the other nuclear powers, including all the threatening ones, are not following the president's lead.
Some say America can no longer afford a strong and effective deterrent. We may be about to test that proposition in Syria. Heaven help us if we compound the error there by continuing our slide toward a minimum nuclear deterrent posture, en route to a world rid only of our nuclear weapons.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program "Secure Freedom Radio."
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