Tag Archives: President Obama

An extended thought on arms races

Reading over my previous post on nuclear deterrence and President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, I was immediately struck by the thought that it was incomplete. Part of the reason why I think nuclear weapons are becoming less important is because other technologies are becoming more important, or at least more relevant.

This world has already seen many arms races, and to-date the nuclear race has been the most important. But the arms race never stops. Nuclear weapons aren’t perfect weapons in the sense that they are relatively blunter and less precise than other technologies, or at least the promise of other technologies.

I suggest that while nuclear power will always be extremely relevant and nuclear weapons will remain the weapon of choice for ending the existence of all life on this planet, the true arms race has shifted to technologies that allow strategic micro-targeting. Predator drones represent but one facet of this direction; other directions include the military applications of sophisticated robotics, nano-technology, and bioengineering.

Perhaps one reason why America is willing to push for a nuclear-free world is because we are close to another game-changer, or because we already have one. In this world nuclear weapons don’t matter because other technologies provide effective countermeasures and the investment in nuclear weapons systems represent forgone opportunities to develop or build other technologies.

In any case, this is part of what I think the President’s Nuclear Posture Review signals.

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On the Nuclear Posture Review and deterrence

Some thoughts that I’ve been having on President Obama’s negotiations with Russia over the number and status of our collective nuclear stockpile:

America is currently negotiating from a position of strength. This is true partly because the assumptions that have to be true for the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to exert a sufficient deterrent effect are no longer true: America has nuclear primacy, which means that we possess the capability to unilaterally first strike without the prospect of retaliation.

The signal that we are willing to reduce our nuclear inventory (from a President who has spoken openly of a nuclear-free era) is not a signal of weakness. Rather, it is a signal of utter confidence, and America’s enemies will take it that way.

Consider, by way of why this is true, the Predator drone. Unmanned drones offer us overwhelming conventional superiority because they allow us total control over a battlefield. It is not just the Taliban or Al Quaeda that should be making calculations about how viable they are in a world where drones see everything, it is the Russian and Chinese and North Korean militaries (and really, every potential enemy). Consider when unmanned drones are vastly cheaper for the US and more sophisticated in terms of the armament they’re used to deploy. In this world, no nation can claim the ability to control its airspace; squadrons of drones can infiltrate any airspace and stay radar-neutral, providing a blanket of offensive might that can completely neutralize entire nations. In this world, the option value of having nuclear weapons is increasingly offset by the prospect that unmanned drones can be anywhere, anytime.

Also consider that the US now has a dominant technological edge in military development. The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded the collapse of its military-industrial complex, and now the Russian scientists that are left mostly ply their skills elsewhere, leaving China and India as the only countries with the infrastructure to attempt to compete in this arena. I discount India as a strategic threat to the United States and think it unlikely that the Chinese alone can reach comparable levels of technological sophistication without the benefit of at least another decade. One might even reasonably assume that the next game-changing technological breakthrough will also be American.

Additionally, a world free of nuclear weapons is not a world free of nuclear technology. In a disarmed world, the nuclear threat is represented mostly by the prospect of a race to re-arm, a race in which America holds a dominant edge; even a timeframe of 24 hours to 48 hours represents a timeframe in which American air superiority, both manned and unmanned, is completely dominant.

The President’s formal declaration of the conditions under which nuclear weapons will be used is also a powerful factor in this equation. Now American enemies cannot use the argument that American nuclear power threatens non-nuclear states to muster support; at the margin, this makes the spectre of American military superiority more palatable to other nations and decreases the perception of America as a nuclear bully.

By committing to limiting our use of nuclear weapons, we implicitly signal that America is committed to maintaining our overwhelmingly superior conventional deterrent. Those that argue that nuclear weapons prevent the escalation of regional wars and that a nuclear deterrent is critical to maintaining peace were correct in the immediate aftermath of World War II; their assumptions are no longer true today.

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2012 Meta

Have you been following the huge wins the US military has been having in Afghanistan?

Prediction: President Obama will be able to neutralize the right-wing trope that he’s weak on terrorism and national security with 3 years of clear, consistent victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think that conservatives will be able to find a solid challenger for the presidency, at least not collectively. With that issue out of play potential conservative candidates will be crowded into an increasingly narrow set of issues that they can differentiate on and gain political traction with. There is a strong chance that the GOP will not be able to maintain internal coherence and will face Tea Party competition from a well-known political figure acting at least partially out of opportunism if not zeal. There are other policy advocacies that the President is sure to be considering that will further strain GOP coherence, particularly in areas where libertarians are at odds with social conservatives.

In this sense I’m not concerned that the Glenn Beck-style crazies on the right have taken over the conservative dialogue from the sane. I think that Democrat losses at other levels will be more because of the idiosyncrasies of the races and candidates and this is where the far right is likely¬† to be more meaningful. I’m not concerned that Sarah Palin or a Glenn Beck-style thug will be within a heartbeat of the nuclear football.

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A Theory On Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

My theory on President Obama is that he views the military as a potentially dangerous place for his Presidency. The US military is a unique institution in America and one of the great successes of this democracy have been establishing fundamental parameters on the ability of the military to act that keep it firmly under civilian control. As Commander-in-Chief, he faces a difficult route to successfully utilizing the world’s most powerful force in the conflicts abroad, particularly in Afghanistan; as a Democratic President he faces a conservative faction of the population who is not convinced of his ability to successfully protect the homeland. Not to mention his workload, which is as impressively stacked as as the cords of firewood former President Bush cut on vacation.

The objection is utterly simple: Why can’t the President just sign an executive order circumventing DADT? I suspect that the answer is that the President manages through coalition-building; as a President elected during wartime he fears that signing an executive order directing the military to disregard DADT without directly engaging the chain of command would undermine his effectiveness as Commander-in-Chief and provide his political opponents with profoundly damaging political ammunition that’s amplified by poor outcomes in Afghanistan or Iraq. Better to step slowly and surely than risk aggravating relations with the military. The evidence for this is his very careful engagement of the military and especially his retention of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.

The endgame here is to make sure change permanent. It would be disastrous, for instance, if Sarah Palin or any number of potential other Republican presidential nominees won the 2012 elections and proceeded to re-institute DADT. The odds of that re-institution are vastly smaller with a 2012 Obama win; policies tend to be path-dependent in the sense that they create a culture invested in their own existence and the longer that a certain institutional culture has been in existence the the stronger it is. This argument allows us to flesh out the argument more fully: the President believes in transforming the institutional culture of the military with the permanent repeal of DADT as the endgame, not the catalyst.

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