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Obama and Nuclear Deterrence

The Los Angeles Times ran an important story yesterday about the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, which evaluates U.S. policy towards the use of nuclear weapons. Apparently there's a debate inside the administration--one that is splitting the civilians from the generals--not just about the size of our nuclear stockpile but also how we conceive of possible first-strike and retaliatory policies.

A core issue under debate, officials said, is whether the United States should shed its long-standing ambiguity about whether it would use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, in hopes that greater specificity would give foreign governments more confidence to make their own decisions on nuclear arms.

Some in the U.S. argue that the administration should assure foreign governments that it won't use nuclear weapons in reaction to a biological, chemical or conventional attack, but only in a nuclear exchange. Others argue that the United States should promise that it would never use nuclear weapons first, but only in response to a nuclear attack.

As the story notes, some experts don't place much weight on how our publicly-stated doctrine emerges because they don't expect foreign nations to take it literally. And the reality is that any decisions about using nukes will certainly be case-by-case. But I'd still like to see some wider discussion of the underlying questions, which are among the most consequential that policymakers can consider. The questions are particularly vexing when it comes to terrorist groups and rogue states. Would we, for instance, actually nuke Pyongyang if it sold a weapon to terrorists who used it in America? That implied threat seems to exist, but I actually doubt that a President Obama--or any president, for that matter--would go through with it.