War Stories

Talk About Posturing

Palin and Gingrich are wrong about Obama’s nuclear strategy.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

Long ago, during one of President Lyndon Johnson’s informal Oval Office press gaggles, a reporter put forth a particularly trivial question. LBJ gave him a hard look and said, “You’re talkin’ to the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, and you ask a chickenshit question like that?”

Barack Obama must have longed for those days last week when, sitting for an exclusive interview on ABC News, he was asked by host George Stephanopoulos to comment on Sarah Palin’s critique of his Nuclear Posture Review.

Obama might have considered three options in replying. He could have gone LBJ on Stephanopoulos (no longer a real option); he could have dealt with her attack seriously; or he could have dismissed the question’s premise.

He chose the last option. “Last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues,” Obama said, adding, “If the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I’m probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.”

In retrospect, that turned out to be the right approach. The next day, at a convention of Southern Republicans, Palin scratched back, poking fun at Obama for “all the vast experience that he acquired as a community organizer.”

If there were any doubts that Sarah Palin is a total idiot, she settled them with that single statement.

Was the former half-term governor of Alaska really claiming that the president of the United States has no more experience on nuclear matters than she does? For starters, he has been the president of the United States for the past 15 months, making momentous decisions about war and peace, getting the briefing on the nuclear war plan, and chairing a dozen meetings at which top generals and other advisers deliberated over the Nuclear Posture Review (which, it’s worth noting, is a document signed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was also a top adviser or Cabinet officer to both President Bushes).

Tip to Sarah Palin: Obama may have some vulnerabilities, and you may have some strengths, but command of the issues doesn’t fall in either category.

What set this off was a comment that Palin made while discussing the president’s just-published Nuclear Posture Review with Sean Hannity on Fox News:

It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today. It’s kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, “Go ahead, punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want with me.”

It’s clear that she hadn’t read the document. It’s a good bet that she hadn’t read any serious book or article about the general subject of nuclear strategy in her entire life.

Obama’s perhaps-too-flip dismissal of Stephanopoulos’ question may have stemmed from a broader frustration over why this once-serious political commentator was citing Sarah Palin on this sort of issue in the first place.

As for Palin’s dig, here’s the substantive rebuttal, should you need one: Obama’s policy does not say we won’t retaliate if someone hits us. Rather, it says we won’t retaliate with nuclear weapons if the attacker has no nuclear weapons and is not in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In other words, to state the policy in the terms of Palin’s analogy: If some unarmed kid on a playground punches me in the face, I’m not going to blow his head off with a .44 Magnum. (But I will beat the crap out of him every other way.)

The policy has several purposes. First, it states what should now be the obvious. (Does anybody really believe that the United States is going to fire nuclear weapons at a country that has none of its own?) Second, it provides one more incentive for a non-nuclear country to stay that way. Third, it further isolates countries that have crossed the nuclear line.

If Stephanopoulos had wanted to get a serious answer from Obama, he could have cited another Republican critic, Newt Gingrich, who at least is a serious student of military affairs (when he’s not waiting for God to tell him whether to run for president). Denouncing Obama’s policy, on (again) Sean Hannity’s show, the former House speaker said, “If there was a biological attack, which killed over a million Americans, is this president really saying we would not retaliate” with nuclear weapons? “That’s what he said.”

No, that’s not what he said.

The Nuclear Posture Review (an unclassified document, freely available on the Pentagon’s Web site) does say that we would respond with a “devastating conventional military” blow if a non-nuclear, non-NPT-violating country attacked us with biological or chemical weapons. However, there is also this key caveat:

Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat.

In other words, if some country ever did develop the ability to inflict catastrophic damage on the United States, and if it actually launched such an attack, we would reserve the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons, even if that country had no nukes of its own.

There’s some finessing going on here, and legitimate (if somewhat hypothetical) questions could be raised about where the line should be drawn between a nuclear response and a “devastating conventional” response. But Gingrich’s blunt claim is simply false.

Anyone who has read the 49-page Nuclear Posture Review (and Gingrich should have, even if Palin and Hannity haven’t) knows that none of it poses any threat to U.S. security. The same can be said of the New START arms-reduction treaty that Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed last week in Prague.

What’s really going on is this: The Republicans are looking for any excuse to lambaste anything that this president says or does. You’d think matters of national security might be exempt from this election strategy, but apparently you’d be wrong.

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