John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, laid out a vision of what his administration’s policy toward nuclear weapons and deterrence would be on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it amounted to more of a straddle than the “straight talk” we have been encouraged to expect from Sen. McCain.
Much of the Arizona Republican’s address at the University of Denver was devoted to what has become the standard fare of such speeches: alarm about the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology; concern about the dangers posed by such proliferation by rogue states like North Korea and Iran in particular; and exhortations to greater American leadership to counter these threats — to lead by example in bringing about a world in which there is less to reason to fear Armageddon.
The straddle arises from the GOP candidate’s desire on the one hand to embrace a litany of de-nuclearization initiatives advanced in recent months by several eminent figures, notably former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Clinton Secretary of Defense and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn.
These range from commitments to reduce dramatically and unilaterally the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, enter into new arms control negotiations with the Russians, adopt a cut-off of fissile material production, reconsider ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, abandon development of a new nuclear penetrator warhead, and resuscitate the collapsing Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
On the other hand, McCain, to his credit, stopped short of joining the elder statesmen in calling for a nuclear-free world. To be sure, like them, he associated himself with President Reagan’s dream of a day “when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.” The Senator quickly observed, however, that such a dream “is a distant and difficult goal,” one “we must proceed toward . . . prudently and pragmatically, and with a focused concern for our security and the security of allies who depend on us.” The implication, at least, is that de-nuclearization is not in the cards under a McCain administration.
In fact, the senator tucked in the speech several statements suggesting he appreciates the abiding need for a credible and effective U.S. nuclear deterrent. He declared that, “We must continue to deploy a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent, robust missile defenses and superior conventional forces that are capable of defending the United States and our allies.” He noted that American nuclear arms are “still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies” (although in the next breath he denounced them as “the most abhorrent and indiscriminate form of warfare known to man.”)
At one point in his speech, Sen. McCain promised, if elected, to charge “the Joint Chiefs of Staff to engage in a comprehensive review of all aspects of our nuclear strategy and policy.” As it happens, at congressional direction such a review is just getting underway, albeit by a blue-ribbon Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture, rather than the JCS.
The Commission is chaired by one of the aforementioned de-nuclearizers, Bill Perry, who doubtless intends to use his position to advance that agenda. The vice chairman, however, is the single most knowledgeable man in America on nuclear matters — former Secretary of Defense and Energy, former CIA director, and former head of the Atomic Energy Commission James Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s participation and that of a number of other knowledgeable, experienced, and robust commissioners offer hope that a real review of our deterrent requirements and capabilities will be undertaken.
At the very least, the Strategic Posture Commission — and assuredly the next president — is going to have to wrestle with a problem that cannot be effectively addressed by straddling, let alone by wholly wrong-headed thinking to the effect that the world will become nuclear free if only the United States would de-nuclearize. As a “New Deterrent Working Group” convened by the Center for Security Policy put it in a paper prepared for the Commission:
To an extent largely unknown to the American people and even to many U.S. policy-makers, the nuclear deterrent that has been the backbone of our defense posture for fifty years is becoming obsolete, unreliable and potentially ineffective. This is the direct and predictable result of the practice of essentially “freezing” our nuclear weapons strategy and stockpile over the past seventeen years since the end of the Cold War.
This reality means that, unless something is done to reverse present trends, the U.S. will inexorably be de-nuclearized, effectively going out of the nuclear weapons “business” at the very moment that — as Senator McCain and others have pointed out — many other nations, including virtually all the most dangerous ones, are getting into it.