Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The MADness of Sarah Palin

When I first joined the military, we didn’t have a lot of options when it came to force.

For the most part, there was either deadly force or there was no force.

And not a lot of options in between.

Allow me to explain:  You have a gun.  Someone with a knife of a club or their fists violently demonstrates that they intend to do you harm. You order them to stop, they don’t.  You’ve only got two options, shoot or don’t.  There is very little in between no force and deadly force.  Sure, there are exceptions, if you’re the star of a Chuck Norris movie you can kick the gun out of your adversary’s hand, pound him to a pulp with fists like mallets, mumble a simple minded platitude on the virtues of America, and then glower at the camera in a bearded and manly fashion. But in the real world, you either shoot, or you don’t (also, in the real world, Smith & Wesson trumps Kung-fu pretty much always, trust me on this).

When I first joined the Navy, this situation generally applied at all levels.

Let me give you a real world example, one from my own experience:  A US Navy warship is chasing a drug smuggling boat at high speed across the ocean.  The Navy issues a radio call to the fleeing vessel and orders it to halt.  It doesn’t. Now what? That Navy Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser was designed to fight Soviet warships on the high seas and defend the Carrier from air attack, she can sink entire fleets and destroy squadrons of deadly aircraft and lay waste to continents – but when it comes to stopping a fleeing Columbian go-fast loaded with cocaine, she doesn’t have a lot of options.  She can either shoot, in this case using the main battery – weapons designed to sink Soviet battle cruisers, try to imagine what that does to a 30 foot cigarette boat – or not.  There just aren’t a lot of options in between. You can either use no force, or you can induce obliteration and go in afterward with a broom and dustpan to pick up what little remains.

And this situation led directly to a number of fairly terrible incidents.  Over the years there were a number of “peace keeping” missions where soldiers, faced with imminent threat or what they perceived to be imminent threat, shot first and asked questions later. Because they had no choice, they didn’t have any non-lethal, or less-than-lethal, options. It was either no force or deadly force.  The converse was also true, the Marines didn’t always default to deadly force, even when they should have, and as such a large number ended up dead. Same with Navy ships. Same with, well, hell, a lot of situations – I’m sure you can think of plenty if you try, from Kent State to Beirut to the Port of Aden to Iraq.

This situation is also common, if not even more so, in civil law enforcement.  Up until very recently, law enforcement was often caught between  the rock of no force and the hard place of deadly force – with nothing in between.

However, in recent years, the state of the art has advanced dramatically.  Nowadays those bent to the business of force application, both on and off the battlefield, often have a variety of options – from the physical technology of non-lethal or scalable-lethality tools to those that are far more esoteric, such as Information Warfare and aggressive psychological operations.

Take a cop for example.  Not so long ago, a small town cop would have carried three basic tools, a flashlight, handcuffs, and his .38 (or 9mm or .357 depending his locality).  Now? Now he or she is a walking hardware store – CS gas and taser and stungun have been added to the utility belt. Real-time camera and voice recorder, smartphone, bean bag guns, flashbang, a variety of restraints, body armor and more tools arriving every day. In the sky, UAV’s and information heavy manned vehicles extend the cop’s visual and awareness horizon and extend his information gathering ability.  Networks and databases provide almost instantaneous realtime intelligence and support at any level of granularity. In the trunk of his cruiser, a cop might carry a shogun with a dozen specialized rounds – everything from blowing the lock out of a door to illumination flares. More than that, many cops are now highly trained in the psychology of criminals and victims and their tools have extended into the use of verbal and a non-verbal management to alter the outcome of certain types of encounters - without the use of force at all.  Much of this technology and many of these skills have crossed over to military applications, giving soldiers in the battlespace options they never had before.

It takes training, and skill, and experience to use these tools correctly. To know when and how and where to apply these options. It takes training and experience to know how and when to apply the escalation of force, up to and including deadly force if necessary.  But it is a naïve and foolish cop (or soldier) who believes that today there are only two options, no force and deadly force, when it comes to the profession of peace keeping or war. 

And again, this is also true on a larger scale.  Navy vessels now often have a variety of methods and tools they can use short of blowing a target out of the water or out of the sky with the main battery.  Forgive me if I don’t specify what some of those methods are.  But an example can be found in the use of high-intensity sound and light devices now being effectively employed against pirates in the Indian Ocean by commercial cargo vessels and passenger liners.

And this is also true on an even larger scale. 

Consider: for three nights, 13-15 February, in 1945, over a thousand heavy bombers of the US and British air forces dropped nearly 4000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the German city of Dresden.  The result was a holocaust the likes of which would compare only to the dawning of the Atomic Age over Japan in August of that same year.  The Dresden firestorm incinerated nearly 20,000 people and turned twenty square miles of beautiful old cityscape into hell on earth. You might have heard of it, the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut was caught in the middle of the bombardment as a prisoner of war and many years later wrote Slaughterhouse 5 based on his experience.  The morality of that military action has been debated for decades. Moral or not, Dresden was the heart of German Saxony and the location of hundreds of factories and numerous legitimate military targets and the only way to reduce those targets and gut the Nazi war making machine (and thereby force an end to the war) was massive area bombardment – because that was the only tool available to the Allies at the time.

Nowadays? Nowadays we have other options. The precision and range of our weapons allows us to make surgical strikes into the heart of cities with relatively little collateral damage (The key word being relatively.  We get better at this all of the time, but war is never clean nor without collateral damage and unintended death – if you can’t understand that, then don’t engage in it).  One hundred and ten Tomahawk cruise missiles could have destroyed Dresden’s one hundred and ten factories without killing 20,000 German civilians.  Better, smart laser guided bombs and precision strikes could have taken out power stations and electrical grids, rendering the factories inoperative and leaving them intact for reconstruction after the war was over. Stealth bombers could have taken out transportation hubs, preventing those factories from receiving raw materials or shipping out finished machine parts.  A handful of B-2 Spirit bombers could nowadays do in an hour what it once took thirteen hundred Flying Fortresses and Lancasters three terror filled nights to do – and they could do it precisely and with minimal loss of life and destruction.

In point of fact, events such as Dresden – and more pointedly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki –  have spurred the development of just such weapons and options for the last seventy years.

And that takes us to the point of this article.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’m not interested in the morality of it – that is a useless exercise. The events happened. The bombs were dropped, the cities were destroyed. The outcome was both horrific and profound. 

In seconds, two cities ceased to exist for all practical purposes, a thousand years of history gone in a flash.  In less than a minute, hundreds of thousands were killed or horribly maimed, vaporized, burned alive, parboiled in their own skin, charred by gamma rays and bombarded with lethal dosages of neutrons. Hundreds of thousands more died in the aftermath, of burns, of radiation poisoning, of shock and blast, sieved or crushed by debris flying at sonic speeds, trauma in a thousand varieties. Thousands were blinded and deafened and scarred forever.  The horror of it can not be described and they say the stench of death lingered for years, burned into the very earth. The shadows of those mushroom clouds remain to this day. If you don’t believe me, visit the Hiroshima memorial.

And yet, those bombs ended the war.  A war so vast, so far reaching that it killed millions and profoundly changed the very course of human history (the vastness of that conflict staggers my mind, it is too large to imagine properly. I’ve sailed around the world, across the oceans where great fleets once steamed, and beneath which many today lay entombed, and I’ve walked the battlefields on the soil of Asia and Europe and the Aleutians  and even I can hardly visualize the sheer impossible scale of the thing). The bombs, the sacrifice of those cities, ended the war – and most likely saved the lives of millions, both Japanese and American – but at a terrible, terrible cost.

That toll wasn’t just in lives – that cost was also in what followed World War II.  And we are still paying it.

I was born barely six months before the Cuban Missile Crisis and I am just barely old enough to remember duck and cover drills in elementary school.  I’m more than old enough to remember living with the specter of nuclear war.  I remember when every public building had a trefoil on the door jam, indicating the location of a basement fallout shelter. Hell, I remember when people used to have personal fallout shelters in their backyards. When I was fourteen I travelled across country from Michigan to New Mexico with my dad on a bus full of boy scouts on a trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch.  We stayed at military bases along the way, one was Ouffit Air Force Base where we got a tour and lectures on mutually assured destruction and Strategic Air Command.   The memory of those B-52’s idling on the runway at full alert, armed with nuclear bombs and ready at any moment in the event of a Soviet attack, stayed with me for many years. I grew up reading the science fiction of that time, Andre Norton’s Daybreak 2250 AD (Starman’s Son) and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Mordecai Roshwald’s utterly terrifying and nightmarish Level 7.  But it was a decade later, as a Sailor onboard USS Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Sidra that I lived through an event many of us truly believed (at the time, in the moment) was the beginning of that final war for real.  In that moment, when the enemy missiles were roaring skyward and the best information we had said they were submarine-launched nukes and we thought we were looking at our own death and the death of everything, when we thought the crazy bastards on the other side had finally done it, that’s when nuclear war became very real to me indeed and I’ve never been as terrified before or since – though I have been in far, far worse situations.

But, you see, there was a time when Mutually Assured Destruction, when the threat of ultimate violence and ultimate suicide, was our only option.  When the threat of nuclear Armageddon was the only thing that kept the superpowers from falling on each other’s throats.  There was a time when the technology of war, and the politics of the age, and the primitive communications, and the lack of real-time information from satellites and a global information grid simply gave us no other options. If was either no force, or the ultimate force. 

Oh sure, there were wars in there – of course there were.  Proxy wars fought in Korea and Vietnam and South American and the Middle East. And there were times when the world teetered on the brink – and just how close we came on more than one occasion is pretty damned sobering (and if you think it’s sobering from the viewpoint of history, try it ringside sometime).  To quote one of my favorite movie lines, “It’s terrifying to think that we’re depending on the Russians being less crazy than we are…when they are clearly crazy*.”  I think that line sums up the Cold War perfectly.

Again, I’m not interested in debating the morality of Mutually Assured Destruction.  You can argue the morality of MAD and the Cold War all you like, but in the end it kept us alive long enough to develop better options.

And that’s the point.

We have better tools. We have options that do not require us to vaporize entire cities.

Understand something here, war has been my profession for over two decades. I helped to design some of those new weapons and I pioneered their use in combat.  We have options. Non-nuclear options.  And for the first time since the start of the Cold War we have the beginning of a real, sane nuclear weapons policy.  Carter and Brezhnev started it with SALT II, but Reagan and Gorbachev really set the ball rolling with START and the CTBT.  And last week President Obama took the next steps forward on that path.  If the treaty is ratified here and in Russia, then the number of nuclear weapons worldwide will be reduced by nearly one third – that is literally thousands of nuclear weapons that will be taken out of commission and destroyed. Thousands.

Of course, predictably, without fail, conservative pundits immediately seized on this agreement as evidence of liberal treason. Sarah Palin opined:

"It's kind of 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 to with me.’”

Go ahead, punch me in the face?

This is how people like Palin and Newt Gingrich see the world. As a playground. It doesn’t occur to Palin to be the adult in the room, to behave in a rational manner, to not to fight in the first place. They’re like angry petulant children who can only respond in simple absolutes.  To Palin, reducing our nuclear arsenal means “punch me in the face, I’m not going to retaliate.”  It’s a simple worldview, the worldview of a cheerleader, a beauty queen, a spoiled shallow pretty popular girl who never actually had to work for a damned thing in her life or educate herself.  It’s part of a set piece, it’s the absolute immutable worldview of a creationist: My viewpoint is holy and righteous, everybody else is evil – even if they are saying the same thing as my prophet, Ronald Reagan and the other revered Conservatives.

But it’s more than that. It’s the astounding, clueless hypocrisy. It’s the morality of it all.

Now, I said I wasn’t interested in debating the morality of the atomic weapons that ended WWII and I’m not interested in debating the morality of MAD – but I am, very much, interested in the morality of this question:  You are a cop and someone with a weapon, a knife, a stick, fists, violently demonstrates that they intend to do you harm. You order them to stop, they don’t.  You have many options, from use of physical intimidation to pepper spray to the taser and stun gun to finally your .9mm.  If you can stop the attacker with a non-lethal option, would it be moral to just shoot him down anyway? And his family, and all his friends, and all his neighbors, and the whole goddamned city he lives in? Would it be moral to announce that this is your intention, that you always reserve the right not to just defend yourself but to annihilate those who threaten the public, and not just annihilate them but all they hold dear – and that you reserve this right in every single case even if other options exist to resolve the situation. Period. Would that be a moral position?

Well, would it?

You know we did that once, or at least the moral equivalent of it, in places like Dresden, because we had to.

But we don’t have to any more.

We have better options, we’ve spent decades and trillions of dollars developing those options.

And knowing that we have those options, is it moral not to reduce the inventory of nuclear weapons? If we can achieve the same objective without the threat of their use? If we can fly a cruise missile through an airshaft from a thousand miles away with the utmost precision and destroy the factory without destroying the city, is it moral to pretend that our only option is and remains the incineration of millions? If we can reduce the number of weapons pointed at us, at our children, at our nation – and we don’t, is that moral? If we have the chance, and we don’t take it, and we leave it for our kids – is that moral?

If the advance of technology give us hope for the future, hope that our descendents will not have to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation as we did, and we don’t take it – is that moral?

If we can change, if we can move away from the brink, if we can increase the odds of survival not just for ourselves but for the entire human race, and we don’t – is that moral?

Or is it cowardice writ large?

It astounds me that the party and people who consistently and passionately and vehemently claim the moral high ground at every turn, from marriage to patriotism to the right to life, are outraged at the thought of no longer being allowed to consider the incineration of entire civilian populations, of millions of human beings, of the human race as a viable or desirable military option. 

No, strike that, I am not astounded.

I am appalled.

I am disgusted.

I am fucking revolted.

There is no single greater indicator of Sarah Palin’s staggering unfitness to lead this country than her position in this matter.   A woman who who claims to revere life at all costs, who claims to be a Christian** and who lays claim with such unctuous self-righteousness to moral superiority over us liberals, moderates, and progressives, this woman speaks with a staggering hypocrisy that beggers the imagination.  In Palin’s myopic and oh so morally superior vision, it is perfectly moral to force women to bear unwanted pregnancies to term because her God so wills it and yet consider the incineration of entire populations at the hand of man an acceptable foreign policy option.

Those who think this vacuous hypocrite is fit to lead the United States of America, those who think this insane and spite filled beauty queen should have her finger anywhere near The Button, are mad.

Tell you what, I’ll take my hope and change, you can keep the Palin.



* 2010, Victor Milson.

** I’m having a hard time visualizing Jesus advocating for the use of nuclear weapons. Call me silly.


  1. God bless you, Jim. God bless your use of the talent so obviously bestowed on you. Thank you for your Navy service and for the service your writing *still* provides this country.

  2. "President Narmanov walked away for a moment, thinking of history, thinking of Nikolay II. 'If we stand our forces down ...?'

    'Then they can strike us, and our ability to retaliate is cut in half!'

    'Is half enough?' Narmanov asked, seeing the escape hatch, leaning toward it, praying for the opening to be real. 'Is half enough to destroy them?'

    'Well ...' Defense nodded. 'Certainly, we have more than double the amount needed to destroy them. We call it 'overkill.''"

    -- Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears

  3. Speechless. You are all too wise and continue write like a dream. This may be one of your best pieces yet. Where's that damn Digg button?

  4. It shouldn't be mischaracterized, or mistakenly interpreted, Ronnie Reagan advocated for the complete abolishment of all nuclear weapons.

    Despite Newt Gingrich attempting to revise history and claim Reagan was a sabre rattling proponent of nuclear weapons use, Reagan was, during his time, ridiculed by the war hawks for advocating the abolishment of all nuclear weapons.

    Palin and Gingrich, and other's of their ilk think history is nothing more than a malleable medium they can manipulate to conform to supporting their fictional constructs.

  5. "To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself -- that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.

    The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth."

    George Orwell
    Nineteen Eighty-Four
    Part 1, Chapter 3

  6. Auauughhhhh there's so many Palinites on another site I frequent called CafeMom. 500 million conservative Palin freaks who go "Well, she makes a lot of good points and she's certainly better than that loser OBUMMER, LOLOLOLOL"

    It makes me want to scream and puke at the same time. But then I might aspirate and die, so I can't do that.

  7. Excellent post from a slant that hadn't really registered with me before. A couple of other thoughts occur to me.

    1. Palin is, ipso facto, demanding that more nuclear weapons should remain under the sole control of a man she believes is unfit for office. That's a really responsible position.

    2. Obama's declaration stating who we won't use nuclear weapons against is a clear threat directed at Iran and North Korea, stated elegantly.

    There's nothing about his position that makes us a whit less safe. Any thinking person has to come to the opposite conclusion; it makes us geometrically more safe.

  8. Anonymous, you're right.

    I take that manipulation of history as just another symptom of the creationist worldview. Once you buy into creationism, the rewriting or denial of the recent past is easy.

  9. Thank you so much for this perspective.

    I've been to Nagasaki, I've seen the museum there, including the photos and descriptions of the aftermath of that choice.

    I can't imagine any educated and aware person thinking THAT is a desirable outcome.

    Have I mentioned how very afraid the far right makes me?

  10. Jim,

    Grab a paper bag...you're hyperventilating.

    Trust me when I say that I do not relish the chance to defend Sarah Palin, but when you join the "let's make fun of the retarded kid" bandwagon, you should probably have your facts straight.

    Palin's "punch me in the face" comment--the entire basis for your evisceration of her--was not made about the new START treaty, contrary to what you've posted. Indeed, to my knowledge she has not specifically commented on the new treaty. Her comments were about the Obama Administration's release of an updated policy on employment of nuclear weapons that, for the first time, publicly states that the United States has taken the nuclear option off the table in the event the U.S. has been attacked by non-nuclear means. What this means is that if a country launches a coordinated cyber, chemical, biological, and conventional attack on us, the policy of the U.S. is to say we will categorically not respond with nuclear weapons, a clear reversal of decades of bipartisan defense policy. You say you don't want to debate the morality of MAD (the effectiveness of which you acknowledge). Fine. I'll go one step further and say I don't want to debate the morality of responding to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons...I think that question is complex, and would depend on the totality of the circumstances at the time. For now, let's just debate the wisdom of telling potential attackers that they needn't fear the greatest consequences should they pull the trigger on us. I think that's just plain stupid, and undermines our security (at least marginally) by removing one part of the deterrant against such attacks. That's what Sarah Palin was saying. There's fair room for debate on the question, but if you have a bone to pick with her on this, then address that question instead of setting up some straw man.

    By the way, I find it amusing that you ridicule Palin for using a simplistic metaphor on a complex moral question. Because being able to bring clarity to a discussion (by, for example, relating it to a home invasion, or perhaps "a cop and someone with a weapon") is just so unhelpful.

    With respect to potential Republican opposition to the new treaty being boneheaded and contrary to Saint Ronald's views, I again think you're aiming at a convenient target that just isn't there. To the extent such opposition exists, it is not related to the underlying aim of the treaty (reducing nuclear stockpiles) but at the linkage the Russians seem to be making between compliance with the treaty and non-deployment by the U.S. of missile defense systems. President Obama has rightly stated that the United States reserves the right to defend itself, but some GOP senators have expressed reservations about language in the preamble of the treaty that could be interpreted as limiting our missile defense capabilities. Given the logic of your post, one would have to assume that you agree that we should deploy defenses against nuclear weapons, so why the vitriol at those who are concerned about it?

    To be fair, if you're not digging very deep into the news reports about Sarah Palin you might not have known that her comments were about the new nuclear weapons policy and not the new START treaty, as you are not alone among commentators in conflating the two. It's apparently just too easy and too much fun digging at Palin for her opponents to bother getting it right. But, knowing your engineer-like penchant for detail, I'm surprised this is a distinction you missed. You're not getting soft in your old age, are you? ;-)


  11. Steve,

    Long time!

    Let's go in reverse order.

    if you're not digging very deep into the news reports about Sarah Palin you might not have known that her comments were about the new nuclear weapons policy and not the new START treaty,

    Steve, I live about 8 miles from her, here the bastion of Palinville central. I'm up to my ass in Palin. I've been in same room with her more than once, and sat through more than one of her damned speeches, and there was a time she called me a war hero to my face. I can't get away from Palin and her tea party idiot supporters and I'm more than well aware of what she said and in what context. It's a pattern, Steve, part of a set piece of ignorance and shallow patriotism and kneejerk opposition to anything the President says or does.

    Seriously here, if the President demanded the end to abortion, Palin would suddenly demand the right to choose for all woman. Her entire message and popularity is based solely on opposition to Obama. She suck vampire like on the under current of racism and resentment and ignorance. I find it astounding that you, of all people, would defend this woman. You're highly educated and a lawyer, fuck, Steve, you're the elitist she and her friends and her party condemn every day.

    knowing your engineer-like penchant for detail, I'm surprised this is a distinction you missed.

    Hey now, no need to get personal ;)

    Seriously, Steve, I didn't miss it. But again, it's part of a set piece, a creationist way of thinking. It's part of this shallow rabble-rousing pandering to the lowest common denominator ultra-right wing nonsense perpetuated by the likes of Palin, and Beck, and Limbaugh, and the rest of their ilk.

    Palin's "punch me in the face" comment was not my entire reason for eviscerating her skanky ass. My reason for going after her is an evolving process. You're new here, read back over some of the Palin posts - all the way back to when she first emerged on the national stage as McCain's running mate - and you'll see that while I had no intention of voting for her or McCain, I did vote for her in Alaska. It took a lot to change my perception of her. The icon who exists now, is not the small town mayor we elected to the state executive. She is almost diametrically opposed to that person.

    I used the quote I did because it represents a worldview, Palin's worldview and the worldview of kneejerk patriots who grow ever more inflamed and irrational every day.


    Break break. Are you in New York now? I see you logging from your law offices. It's funny you should show up here, I just saw Jake a week or so ago. Drop me a message on FB or via email sometime, I'd love to shoot the shit with you.

  12. Something I should point out here:

    Ma Bell (Steve) and I are old Navy shipmates. Steve is one of the most intelligent people I know. If all conservatives were like him, I'd still be a republican.

    He's also right - in as much as I knew the context of the Palin quote I used, i.e. the change in US nuclear weapons policy vis a vis retaliatory strikes and had it in my head when I wrote the article but managed to not make that connection clear in the text. Especially to somebody who doesn't read me on a regular basis.

    I may update the post later to clarify the issues Steve pointed out in his comment (or I might just delete his comment, revise history, and pretend it never happened ;)

  13. One of the guys in my dorm freshman year was from Omaha. He said that when he was a kid, that when the alert sirens blared at SAC, he and his buddies would ride their bikes to the end of the fence and lie on their backs and watch the B-52s launch, roaring overhead trailing their water assisted thick black exhausts from eight engines each.

    As an adult in college, he was confronted by what that really meant -- and was horrified that it was so much "fun" at the time.

    MAD. Necessary? Possibly. The amusement of small children? Apparently. Still the source of giggles and snorts of some small children masquerading as responsible adults? Definitely.

    Well written, Jim. Well written.

    Dr. Phil

  14. Steve, I was speaking specifically about the policy statement and Palin's irrational response to it. I apologize for this long excerpt, but let's look at what the White House actually said.

    "The Nuclear Posture Review, led by the Department of Defense, recognizes that the greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states. Moreover, it recognizes that our national security and that of our allies and partners can be increasingly defended by America’s unsurpassed conventional military capabilities and strong missile defenses.

    As a result, we are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people.

    First, and for the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America’s nuclear agenda, which affirms the central importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have aligned our policies and proposed major funding increases for programs to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Our nuclear security summit next week will be an opportunity for 47 nations to commit to specific steps to pursue the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years. And next month in New York, we will work with the wider world to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime to ensure that all nations uphold their responsibilities.

    Second, we are further emphasizing the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations through our declaratory policy. The United States is declaring that we will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. This enables us to sustain our nuclear deterrent for the narrower range of contingencies in which these weapons may still play a role, while providing an additional incentive for nations to meet their NPT obligations. Those nations that fail to meet their obligations will therefore find themselves more isolated, and will recognize that the pursuit of nuclear weapons will not make them more secure."

    The part that I've printed in bold 1.) makes it clear that this is a policy toward "Non-nuclear" countries (i.e. we can still blow up the Ruskies if they get uppity, and 2) You don't have to read between too many lines to know that this is a plain-spoken threat to Iran and North Korea.

    It takes nothing off the table as regards responding to states currently in possession of nuclear weapons and says to the states that don't currently have nuclear weapons, "Don't build them."

    Palin's response is knee-jerk, moronic and nothing but her normal scare tactics.

  15. "It's kind of 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 to with me.’”

    **wry grin** Correct me if i am wrong, but isn't this a sort of modern reinterpretation of the whole "turn the other cheek" thing supposedly said by Jesus Christ?

    Sarah Palin, a particularly toxic version of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, is paraphrasing her supposed Lord as an example of idiocy.

    Yup, yet another example of the differences between Christ and those who claim to be he biggest fans.

  16. Nathan,

    This shift of nuclear policy is not that big of a deal to me, but to the extent it matters, I agree with Palin that it's a mistake. The White House's statement reveals that the shift is aimed at providing additional incentives for countries that have not signed the NPT to do so. For this to work as an incentive, though, the bad guys have to be convinced that this piece of paper will serve as a meaningful constraint on the current or future president. The reason I share most conservatives' discomfort with the shift is that if (God help us) we were ever in a situation in which the use of nuclear weapons was arguably called for, the Nuclear Posture Review suddenly becomes worth less than the paper it's printed on; it simply will not change the calculus for a president to launch nukes if he/she thought it was necessary for the country's defense. I think any rational actor on the world stage knows that. Hence, the only incentive it represents is for diplomatic goodwill for entering the NPT, but that sort of incentive has been around for decades...this posturing doesn't do anything to enhance it.

    The policy shift, then, is all about optics. The Obama Administration wanted to walk into this week's conference on nuclear security (which ruined my commute, by the way) with some sort of spin to enhance the image and prestige of the United States in such a forum. It may have worked...the assembled dignitarties in Washington may have gotten all dewy and doe-eyed at Obama for this noble deed, but on a practical level, it does squat. The optics that count are not the ones that make the diplomatic corps swoon, but the ones that cause our enemies to reassess the costs vs. benefits of attacking us. On that score, there is no other way for our enemies to interpret this is than as a weakening of our country's strength and resolve, at least while Obama remains president. Teddy Roosevelt said, "speak softly but carry a big stick." This policy seems to suggest Obama is saying, "speak softly and carry a smaller stick that we promise not to swing too hard."

    Again, unlike certain spokesmen of the conservative side of things, I don't think this move is a huge thing, as it will not tend to fundamentally alter the security equation for any of the relevant players. However, to the extent it does, it is counterproductive. And, to borrow from the Chief's earlier response to me, it is of a piece with and part of a larger pattern of demonstrating weakness and obeisance to our enemies, and inattention and short shrift to our allies that has highlghted the President's approach to foreign policy. So, while this particular issue is not that troubling standing by itself, I am somewhat concerned with the larger picture emerging from the White House. Jim will probably drop a brick when he reads this, but I am grateful that at least we have Hillary Clinton as SecState. She, like her husband did, seems to have a firmer grasp on what serves our national interest than Obama, who in turn seems more interested in serving Old Left pieties.


    It has been a long time! Hope all is well. I'm actually in DC (my firm's servers are in NYC). You are too kind with your praise...I only look smart when compared to the other jackasses we served with at the det (just kidding...that was the best group I ever served with). I'll catch up via email soon.


  17. I always remember a discussion with a Lt. or Capt. who was a briefing person for nuclear weapons. He could, from memory, recite casually statistics for the most commonly held beliefs of how we would end up in a nuclear exchange with Russia or China (and he probably had India down as well). And he could deliver his numbers of the massive death (instantly, within hours, days, weeks, months, years) and economic destruction with a coolness I couldn't grasp at the time. During the break I asked him how he could do that (as well as memorize all the statistics to do those briefings, which, at the time, seemed beyond human), give those numbers so professionally (ie, "In a limited theater exchange with the Soviets in response to their crossing the Rhein with tanks would include the use of (approximate number) of warheads with a total effective yield of (mega tonages) resulting in the immediate death of (millions), (10 million) within four days do to sever radiation exposure..."

    His response was he had a young boy (2 or 3 I think). And he never wanted his son to have to know such numbers or do his job.

    Wish I remembered his name.

    I don't think the people who chastise the President to "making us weak" understand that even if we reduce the number of warheads to the amount specified in the treaty, the US alone will still have the capacity of covering the globe (the entire thing), in Zone 2 exposure (death within a week IIRC), twice over (with a little extra). Removing the Oceans (the majority of surface), the density dramatically improves.

    This is the equivalent of being in that school yard fist-fight and telling the opponent, "Go ahead and hit me, I'll only use both barrels of the shotgun, instead of the minigun."

    These people need to read their Herodotus.

  18. Oh, and for me it was being on an Early Warning, Over the Horizon Radar base in NJ during an alert. The football field split open and a Nike Missile Platform rose up as we watched from outside the radar dome (that we had just toured and were quickly escorted out of).

    The Cold War got a little chilly that day.

  19. Steve (The Ma Bell one),

    I honestly don't see where you see any weakening of our posture. Here's how I see the breakdown:

    -Nuclear states who are (or are not – are there any?) party to NPT – no change in posture.
    -Non-nuclear states who are party to NPT and live up to their treaty obligations – we won’t nuke you.
    -Non-nuclear states who are party to NPT and fail to live up to their treaty obligations – all cards are on the table.
    -Non-nuclear states who are not party to NPT - all cards are on the table.

    I think the stick is still plenty big enough.

  20. Jim: I meant to comment earlier--great post.

    "Ma Bell" Steve (as opposed to the usual Steve): I'm not sure I understand your discomfort. If the Nuclear Posture Review doesn't have a substantial effect on a President's ability to use nuclear weapons, then what's been lost by the changes? Conversely if the changes generate goodwill and put non-NPT states at a diplomatic disadvantage in various ways, and encourage adherence/enforcement/ratification, there's a possibility of gaining something (however small).

    You say it's just optics, but the fact is a substantial part of diplomacy is nothing more. Your comment that "The optics that count are not the ones that make the diplomatic corps swoon, but the ones that cause our enemies to reassess the costs vs. benefits of attacking us" is actually facile and inaccurate to the point of being wrong: the optics that count are the ones that achieve results, whether it's by causing our enemies to reassess the costs of attacking us or by causing our enemies' friends to reassess the costs of supporting our enemies, or by denying our enemies political cover, or whatever. As but one possible future: should the change in American policy deny the North Koreans the political cover of pretending their nuclear aspirations are to protect themselves against us, it might become embarrassing for the Chinese and Russians to offer economic and political support to the North Koreans, which in turn could effect policy changes in North Korea--and if that fails to happen, how do you not concede we lost nothing by taking the slight gamble, when Obama or any future president could still choose to nuke North Korea if it seemed to be necessary to national defense?

    Except--and this is Jim's original point--no President would ever decide to nuke North Korea under any conceivable set of circumstances when conventional weapons are sufficient to revert North Korea to the Stone Age. In any scenario short of global nuclear war, no rational President would inflict such indiscriminate damage and cause irreparable harm to American interests when more precise and effective munitions are available.

    Frankly, one of the problems with many contemporary American conservatives' take on foreign policy is that the only thing of Teddy Roosevelt's they seem enamored of is the "big stick" quote, which they take to mean "carry and use an enormous blunt object" at the expense of the "speak softly" part of the expression. They seem to ignore that TR liked to sound like a pugilist in public pronouncements but knew how to exercise the finesse that makes real diplomacy a bit more of a fencing match than a brawl (see, for instance, Roosevelt's clever insertion of himself into the Russo-Japanese war, with the incidental benefit of raising American prestige with pure "optics" since America had no direct interest in the conflict). Optics matter. Goodwill matters.


  21. (CONT.)

    Giving countries ways to save face matters, as does giving them cover to do things they might want to do anyway but couldn't do if it looked like you were the one suggesting it. To dismiss "optics" and "goodwill" and "appearances" and only focus on a pseudo-military doctrine of "does the enemy think he can attack us" is to cripple our ability to act in a civilized world (and, perversely, our actual military ability if you agree with Clausewitz that war is merely a form of diplomacy).

    I'll admit, though, it's been a while since I was a serious student of diplomacy--some sixteen years ago my life took a left turn at Albuquerque and serious interests became dilettantish hobbies. But here we come to Obama's response when asked about Palin's comments: this is not a decision he's made in a vacuum, but one made with the professional advice of the Pentagon (and certainly, though he left them out of his response, State). If the current and steady pros are on board, that is not dispositive but it sure means a helluva lot, no?

  22. (Jim, sorry about the length, but Google kept counting the post as more than 4,096 characters even after I clipped it down to well under and couldn't see anything else to clip unless I skipped the whole thing. Which I didn't wanna.)

  23. No worries, Eric. Once the number of lawyers in the room surpassed three I figured the conversation would become long winded ;)

    Steve (Ma Bell) you are in a room with some extremely intelligent people, most of them are further to the left than you are, but not all. I suspect you'll find good company here.

    Welcome to Liberty Hall, you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard.

  24. Excellent post Jim.

    I am old enough, just barely, to remember the '60's, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of the Cold War era. Although at the time we had no idea what it meant, it was on the news every night - Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntly, David Brinkley.

    I well remember the duck & cover drills...either under the desks or out in the halls with our heads to the wall and our asses up in the air. Even in grade school we'd all seen the film reels, and wondered what good was that position going to do if we got hit with a nuke and the town was scoured off the face of the earth?

    One grey afternoon, dark clouds brooding overhead, I distinctly remember AF bombers flying low and slow over our town for several hours. I watched them circle from my bedroom window for a bit before I went to tell my mom. I remember the sound of it, the low rumble from the planes. I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 at the time. Actually, must have been closer to 7 as JFK was shot the week after my 8th birthday.

    There was a missile base about 40 miles away in the Niagara Falls area, Dr. Phil may remember we went on a base tour with the scout troops once. We had been warned the tour could get cancelled without notice depending on readiness conditions. At that age I think I was more impressed with the guard dog training areas.

    Seems like a strange way to grow up, but that was normal.

    Ah, nothing like a little topical dicussion to make me pull out the age card...

  25. This is my new favorite thread.

    And I'll stir the pot just a little by asking where the Hell Steve Ma Bell (and other well-spoken, intelligent conservatives) have been in the public sphere? I knew they were out there, but frankly, I couldn't hear them over the Palinistas.

    This is the loyal opposition, baby - not the screechy monkeys who have no ability to analyze or defend their position. (*cough*leanright*cough*)

    I may not agree with Steve Ma Bell, being the liberal that I am, but I can sure respect his discourse. Where have you been all my life?

  26. Sort of related: Foreign Policy has a feature relating back to Rahm Emmanuel's recent comparison of Obama to G.H.W. Bush in the foreign policy sphere, with a succession of experts chiming in to agree or disagree here. Some of the experts are critical, some supportive, some neutral, and several discuss the NPR favorably or unfavorably. The various viewpoints are worth a look.

  27. Nathan, Eric, et al,

    Eric is right of course, when he suggests that it is extremely unlikely that there are circumstances in which a president would feel compelled to respond with nuclear weapons. That's not the point, though. What I am saying is that there is deterrence value in maximizing doubt about our intentions, and as far as I can tell, the reduction in that doubt isn't worth whatever gain has been sought by introducing the new policy. (Though I will quibble with Eric's example: if North Korea launched a nuclear strike on Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, and we had reason to believe they retained the ability to do it again, the pressure on the president to wipe the country off the map immediately would be extreme. No matter how good our conventional weapons, there are not enough of them close enough to N. Korea to guarantee that the personnel and/or facilties necessary for a second strike could be eliminated...nukes would definitely remain on the table, particularly knowing that people in Pakistan and Iran would be evaluating our response with keen interest).

    Like I said, I don't think the NPR changes much on a practical level, both for the reasons Nathan lists and because it is nearly useless for the stated purpose of encouraging additional signatories to NPT. My point is that the balance of the equities (benefits vs. costs) weighs against adopting the policy. Without getting bogged down in semantics, yes, of course diplomacy and policy are all about optics...I never suggested looking good was useless, only that in matters of deterrance, looking strong is better. Hardly "facile and inaccurate to the point of being wrong," Eric. My opposition is rooted in the sense that marginal reductions in our historically tough posture on the use of force in self defense are too costly for the ephemeral benefits of the change in policy. Again, I don't think this is a huge thing, despite the amount of oxygen being consumed on the topic here.


  28. Con't from previous comment (same character limit issue):

    I get Eric's criticism a lot whenever TR comes up: that conservatives selectively invoke TR's "big stick" without paying heed to the "speak softly" part, much less the rest of what TR stood for. And it's true...I reject a good portion of the progressive agenda TR pushed, and some conservatives do indeed miss TR's point that carrying a big stick means you don't have to rattle sabers or make threats. But I remind everyone that the attitude of strength and vigor Roosevelt conveyed had a lot to do with his ability to be successful as a diplomat. Be it his pugilistic rhetoric or his sending of the Great White Fleet around the world, Roosevelt ensured no one would regard the U.S. as anything less than an extremely tenacious foe. Those "optics" paid off for our country, and though we have at various times done things to advance or harm those impressions, they continue to serve us well, particularly when backed by the peaceful but visible manifestations of hard power (e.g., the 7th fleet). I respect the fact that the Pentagon signed off on this new policy, but I suspect a sizeable contingent of the decision makers there had the same sense that I do: if the policy doesn't really change much (as both Nathan and Eric argue), then what's the point, especially if it has a tendency (albeit small) to telegraph irresolve on our willingness to deliver swift and painful retaliation for an attack?

    Eric, on the Foreign Policy article you linked to, I am firmly in agreement with Philip Zelikow, though most of the contributors had good points. I think this realist vs. idealist debate is mostly nonsense, at least with respect to U.S. presidents, because the president is always responding in one degree or another to the American electorate, which can be counted on to be neither consistently cold-blooded nor idealistic. Further, as I think can be demonstrated in every presidency since the first Roosevelt's, some measure of the advancement of American ideals (classical liberalism) will always serve the coldly calculated realist interests of America. Nye's soft-hard power continuum theory covers this best.


  29. Janiece: Thanks for the warm welcome! Much obliged! I likewise enjoy a real discussion of the issues, instead of simply trading of insults. (Don't get me wrong, Jim...insults are fun, too!)

    There are a lot more people like me...we just don't get the headlines or grab the ratings that some of our more strident neighbors on the right do. I could say the same thing about y'all. With certain amusing and highly entertaining exceptions of course ("bugshit, barking at the moon, lead paint swilling, self mutilating, piss drinking, dirt eating, kidnapped by space aliens, playing with invisible friends, gibbering in the land of de Nile, born again, shut in the closet and covered in your own shit, screaming wackaloon of mental disorders" comes to mind).

  30. I'm particularly proud of that line, Steve, within the context it was written - the key word of that entire sentence being the word "if" at the beginning.

    FYI, Janiece is a former Senior Chief.

    As to insults, well, you know, you stick to what you're good at ;)

  31. Steve (Ma Bell): I'll start by saying that your overall take on the FP piece seems to have been very similar to mine--that Zelikow's right, though others make good points. (Though I suspect we may differ on who had the good points. :) )

    The original version of the N. Korea line, before it was cut for length, included the caveat "short of an all-out nuclear war." But I'm not sure the absence of that caveat changes anything. First, the scenario you suggest isn't that conceivable at the present time. Aside from present limitations on NK's ability to build and deliver a single warhead (much less two), the scenario you suggest requires NK to be unconcerned about our retaliation and the loss of foreign support; i.e. either a scenario in which they are behaving so irrationally that they simply don't care what the NPR says or one in which they are so confident of continued foreign support that we must necessarily be on the brink of full-blown war with China (in which case to hell with nuclear policy--we're finally on the brink of WWIII and everybody is pretty much fucked).

    As for "looking strong"--this is not a bipolar scenario where we choose between projecting an image of strength or one of reasonableness. Indeed, the most dangerous countries in the world are ones that project weakness and irrationality (we were just talking about NK, matter of fact). I don't think there's anything in the NPR that projects weakness or detracts from our ability to project conventional strength (or, for the time being nonconventional strength--even after new treaty reductions, we'll retain the nukes to wipe out much of civilization; Obama has stated the unrealistic goal of eliminating all nukes--I don't see this happening, but if it did, it wouldn't change our conventional strength).

    Two main thoughts, here. First, that strength alone is of limited utility. You can destroy everything, of course, which may be your goal--that was certainly the general goal of the firebombing of Japan or Germany during WWII, though I think that was as much the limitations of the available tools as anything. (Or that it really did that much good even then: (1) we ended up paying for everything we broke; (2) the effectiveness of the German bombing campaign has remained contentious ever since Albert Speer claimed, shortly after the war, that the sustained bombing campaign did little more than cause relatively minor production delays--Speer was both the most-informed individual in the world on Nazi production capacity and an inveterate liar and self-promoter even as he did his dance of repentance; complicating things further, Allied analysts and historians have frequently had their own axes to grind when dealing with the subject).

    Second, that taking your logic to an extreme would suggest an endorsement of Nixon's "madman strategy," possibly the worst deterrence idea ever seriously suggested in the history of ever. I mean, what can project more strength than telling the world you've gone off your rocker and will use everything in the box, yessir, just look at you funny and BOOM! you just try it. Among the myriad problems, of course, is that you have to periodically demonstrate your craziness to make it work and the fact you ultimately lose all credibility as a rational actor. One can project an image of so much strength and willingness to use it that everybody assumes you're just a gorilla to be avoided until you have to be put down--which is very, very bad if you're actually seriousness about your place in the world.

    Hope this was coherent. Thanks for the responses--I've enjoyed the exchange.

  32. Oh--I'll have you know that the aliens brought me back and I immediately took a bath. Also, someone told me it was lemonade and I only drank half of it.

  33. Steve,

    "I likewise enjoy a real discussion of the issues, instead of simply trading of insults."

    Oh yeah? Well Fuck You Too!


  34. Nathan, be nice. Steve is a fellow Navy vet. Don't make me break out the cleaver.

    Eric, pass the lemonade.

  35. Steve (Ma Bell), when you complain about Jim not having his facts straight, it would have more effect if you had your facts straight. You corrected Jim's use of the Palin quote as actually to be in response to the updated policy on employment of nuclear weapons, but then you ignore what that updated policy says. You say that if a country launches a non-nuclear attack on us, we won't respond with nuclear weapons, but the policy only says that for countries that are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as Nathan points out. You later compound your error when you respond to Eric's saying, "Obama or any future president could still choose to nuke North Korea..." by creating a scenario where North Korea nukes several American cities, and then trying to use that as an argument against the updated policy. That scenario wouldn't be covered by the updated policy, so how can you use it to argue against the update policy? Even if North Korea were to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and keep up it's responsibilities according to that treaty, a nuclear attack isn't covered. Your argument seems to be invalid.

    You state that because Palin's "punch me in the face" comment wasn't about the START treaty, Jim's "evisceration of her" is invalid, but since she did make the comment in response to the updated policy, it does represent her attitude toward use of nuclear weapons, and that's what Jim was so eloquently ranting about. And then, because you think "responding to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons," is a complex question, you put yourself right in there with Sarah Palin. Do you seriously think it's a good thing for the US to once again be the only country to ever use nuclear weapons against another country, for the third time? Did you not understand Jim's so-graphic descriptions of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? This is what the entire post was about. Nuclear response to anything less than nuclear aggression? Why?

    You talk about Teddy Roosevelt and his "big stick," and say that the stick won't be big enough because of the updated policy. How big a stick do you need? Do you want to put yourself (as representing the US) in the position of the bully in Palin's schoolyard? "Don't even come close, little country! I'm gonna pound the shit out of you!" The US without nuclear weapons is still an awfully big stick, as, once again Nathan points out. You don't seem to think that's enough. I do. But the point isn't to be able to have a big enough stick to take out other nations. If we get to where we need nucs to take out other nations, the world has lost. The point is to make sure NO ONE uses nuclear weapons in anger. Surely we all profit by taking steps, even small ones, in service of this idea. Small steps now, bigger steps later, who knows, your children and grandchildren might have a world to grow up in.

    You say you don't think the updated policy changes much, but that it makes the US a slight bit weaker. And yet you argue vehemently against it. I say the change in attitude is quite a lot, and the slight bit of "weakness" (which I don't see as weakness) is more than offset by the potential gains in sanity for the entire world. After all that's been said, I fail to see why you are so dead set against something that costs us nothing, and has a chance to enhance peace, stability, and sanity in the entire world.

  36. For the first time, the Nuclear Posture Review is a declassified document.

    About the review.

    The Nuclear Posture Review has been led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff, in consultation with the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of State.

    Primary responsibility has resided with the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Cartwright.

    The process has embraced a ‘whole of government’ approach, meaning that the Department of Defense has consulted with other government departments and agencies, Congressional committees, and even nuclear scholars from think tanks, advocacy organizations, and academia.

    The results of the review will guide nuclear policy across the entire U.S. foreign policy making apparatus.

    And before we get too far along thinking accountability for this revision can be laid solely at the feet of Obama....


    The Nuclear Posture Review’s recommendations echo the many different voices that contributed to the review process.

    The 2010 NPR does attempt to please all of its many authors, it is not just Obama’s vision.

    Link to declassified report:




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