Little Nuclear Bombs

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Since the debate, the right-leaning blogs (e.g. Tacitus) have latched on to Kerry's "error" of saying: "You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, "You can't have nuclear weapons," but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation."

They make it clear that they think this is both a political blunder (i.e. most Americans watching the debate will disagree with him), and a substantial blunder (i.e. Kerry is just plain wrong on this issue).

I have no idea if what Kerry said was a political blunder as I have no idea what most American's think about the US developing "Bunker Buster" nukes, but I do have to say that the right-leaning blogs are wrong on their second point; Kerry is dead right when it comes to the susbtance of the issue.

[Note: edited to correct spelling mistakes.]

First off, the point he was trying to make was about hypocricy. Namely, he was pointing out that prohibiting other countries from developing new nuclear weapons while at the same time developing new nuclear weapons ourselves is flat-out hypocricy. So Kerry is sending a "ending nuclear proliferation starts at home" kind of message. Though you can certainly argue that there are good reasons why one country should be able to develop new neclear weapons while others can't, Kerry's position is hardly a bad one and is certainly not wrong in any sort of obvious way.

Secondly, by making this statement he shows that he knows the history of the development of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, war strategists and weapons researchers alike quickly recognized that any "limited" use of nuclear weapons would quickly escalate into all-out nuclear war and Mutual Assured Destruction. There would never just be a nuclear battle. There could only be full-on nuclear war and MAD. So the strategists and researchers came to a tacit agreement: make the bombs as big and as destructive as possible. Never make a little bomb. Make them so big that you have to recognize that using even one of them means the End of the World.

This was a conscious decision. If a leader thought that he might be able to make a small nuclear strike without ending the world, he might do so and escalation would ensure MAD. So everyone agreed to remove that option. There would be no starting a nuclear engagement thinking that you could back out or stop. There would be no stages, no steps where you could say "that's enough", because realistically, the enemy would never let that happen. As a leader, you had to know that if you launched even a single nuclear weapon, you were ending the world.

So the design philosophy behind building bombs has always been to make them so big that you would never contemplate using them. No litte bombs. Nothing so small where you might think "the Russians might not end the world over such a tiny bomb", because realistically, the Russians would never think such a thing. Only big, giant the-Russians will-retaliate-with-everything-they've-got bombs would do--ones so big that using even one would ensure MAD. Only by raising the stakes so high could we hope to keep the uneasy peace.

Make them so big that you would never contemplate using them. Kerry appears to know his history.

"So what?" you might ask, "The Cold War is over." Indeed it is, but you never know when the next one might start. It's not like Russia still doesn't have more missles than it knows what to do with. But anyway point taken--the Cold War is over and we need to deal with the new reality of Terrorism and asymmetric attacks. So...

Finally back to the original comment in its original context, even in new post-9/11 envoronment he is correct: we must not use, or even contemplate using, "Bunker Buster" nuclear weapons. There is one very simple reason why: the day we use nuclear weapons in a conventional war is the day we legitimize nuclear weapons as conventional weapons. No longer will nuclear weapons be classified strictly as WMD; they will also be classified as conventional weapons. Can we keep other countries from pursuing conventional weapons? Can we even hope to prevent nuclear proliferation when nuclear weapons become a standard part of the conventional arsenal?

Tacitus says that "as commander in chief one d*** well better contemplate using every single nuclear weapon in our arsenal. Most importantly, you NEVER say you won't." While that is generally a sound negotiating policy regarding most weapons, there are exceptions. I see no foolishness in forswearing the use of illegal or immoral weapons, nor in forswearing the use of stupid or non-advantageous tactics. In our current world, the use of Bunker Busters will always fall into one of those four categories.

In both a Cold War environment and in a post-9/11 environment, Kerry's policy is completely sound. Building little nukes that "we might even contemplate using" is just a horribly unwise policy.

4 Comments

Though you can certainly argue that there are good reasons why one country should be able to develop new neclear weapons while others can't, Kerry's position is hardly a bad one and is certainly not wrong in any sort of obvious way.

Kerry's message is that it's hypocrisy. Yet if there are good reasons why one country should be able to do this while others can't, then it's not hypocrisy. Therefore Kerry's message is wrong.

He might be able to argue that we need to set the example, the same way pacifists in general will argue that it's crucial for the powerful to set the example and never use violence even to protect others, but that's basically going to put him in the pacifist camp, which is politically unpopular at least and I think morally cruel.

I don't know anything about bunker busters, and I don't know anything about how they're defending having them. As far as I know they haven't defended using them (I mean the government -- obviuously Tacitus has defended using them). Therefore, I can't comment on most of what you say.

I do think the first two points I've made are correct. Kerry's argument here seems parallel to the pacifist argument that using violence, or even the threat of violence, to prevent violence is wrong even when it means standing by and watching your kid get brutally beaten. That will be politically unpopular, even if it's consistent to be a pacifist about nukes but not about anything else. Kerry's argument also is that it's always wrong to do something you're preventing others from doing, and the fact that we have a history of not using nuclear weapons and a good track record of self-defense, while the nations we're fearing getting nukes have shown good reason to think they might use them, it's therefore not hypocrisy, which means he's wrong.

Kerry's message is that it's hypocrisy. Yet if there are good reasons why one country should be able to do this while others can't, then it's not hypocrisy.

While I did not point this out in my post, I should have: points 2 and 3 of my post show that there aren't good reasons for the US to develop these weapons. Basically, it is a bad for anyone to develop them. If it is bad for anyone to do so, then it is hypocrisy for us to do so them while demanding that others do not.

the fact that we have a history of not using nuclear weapons and a good track record of self-defense

Every nation on earth has a history of not using nuclear weapons. And when it comes to atomic weapons, we're the only nation that has any history of using them in battle. And our record of self-defense now includes a war where the enemy did not attack us first. You can argue that this war was still in self-defense, but our record certainly looked better a few years ago.

I understand where you are going with this. Most of the right-leaning blogs that have commented on this issue take umbrage at Kerry's statement for this reason: they feel that Kerry is saying that the US cannot be trusted with these weapons. They charge him with "moral equivalence", saying that he thinks that weapons in our hands is as bad as weapons in the hands of Saddam, or bin Laden. They also charge him with thinking that the US is the greatest threat to the world. (And the really out there ones somehow come to the conclusion that Kerry thinks that the US will sell these Bunker Busters to the terrorists so that they can use them against us. Don't ask me how they got there from here.)

The problem with all of that is that Kerry is saying no such thing. At no point is Kerry saying that we cannot be trusted with them. Nor does he in any way say that our possesion of nuclear weapons is equivalent to a rouge state possesing them. If he meant either of those things, he would have advocated that we dispose of our entire nuclear arsenal. His statement is about us developing little nuclear bombs, not about us possesing nuclear bombs in general. What he is saying is that we should not be developing nuclear weapons that we would contemplate using (in conventional warfare).

Again, I think that this shows that he knows his history. The motto of nuclear weapons designers became "make them so big that they won't contemplate using them". That Kerry uses the same language is I think deliberate and shows that he familiar with the issues involved in nuclear weapon design and knows the stakes involved.

He might be able to argue that we need to set the example, the same way pacifists in general will argue that it's crucial for the powerful to set the example and never use violence even to protect others, but that's basically going to put him in the pacifist camp,

I think that he is indeed making a "set the example" type of argument. I'm not sure that it maps to the pacifist argument though. I think that a better analogy would be adherence to the Geneva Convention. By our doing so, we are saying that "we renounce certain practices during wartime, even though they might conceivably give us some sort of advantage, because they are a bad idea." So consider it akin to, say, forswearing torture (via the Geneva Convention) as opposed to forswearing violence. After all, Kerry is not forswearing our entire nuclear arsenal, just the development of little nukes.

It's not hypocrisy to do something that's bad while demanding others do not. It's hypocrisy to do something one considers bad while demanding others not. It's not clear to me that that's going on here.

Kerry's language did sound to me as if he wanted us to get rid of all our nuclear weapons over time. That may not have been what he meant, but talking about nuclear proliferation in general, including our own, as a threat greater than what Bush said in his response -- nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists -- is an indication that what he said and the way he said it will be politically damaging.

I agree that the "set the example" argument doesn't entail pacifism, but that's the most common pacifist argument that isn't religiously based, and that's the first thing I thought of when he started talking that way. The general response to such arguments is that we can set the example by only using force if necessary, and the same will be said here by those defending the nukes. That's why I expect people will associate that argument with pacifism, which most Americans consider morally offensive in not being willing to do the hard but necessary thing.

Kerry's language did sound to me as if he wanted us to get rid of all our nuclear weapons over time.

That sounds more like post-debate spin than actual debate analysis. Kerry never mentioned the rest of our nuclear arsenal.

... an indication that what he said and the way he said it will be politically damaging

Yeah, it could well be so. As I said at the beginning of the post, I have no idea how this will play out among the average listener of the debate and I have no idea therefore if it was a political blunder or not. I was just trying to address the policy issue: is developing little nukes a strategically wise move. I'd still have to say no and thus agree with Kerry.

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