The Obama administration took the unique decision this week to release the exact number of American nuclear weapons as part of its effort o be transparent and to encourage other countries to do the same. That, combined with some other recent national security moves, has commentator Ed Timperlake, author and principal director for mobilization, planning and requirements in the Reagan administration, arguing that the administration's "confusion, political posturing and muddled launch" do not serve the nation well. Read on.
The Obama administration's decision to make public exactly how many nuclear weapons we possess in our arsenal, combined with several other recent moves, leaves us with a horribly confusing mess of what was a previously solid deterrence formula that has kept the US safe since the end of World War II.
One of the arguments advanced for the announcement is that such a bold move will push the Peoples Republic of China to become more transparent, which is a stupid argument based on the history of the PRC. My personal observation is that releasing U.S. inventory numbers may also have directed increased pressure on very sensitive life and death issues for Israel.
Each recent administration action starting with the NPR roll-out taken to redefine US strategic deterrence weapon launch responses may sound good individually.
The administration's confusion, political posturing and muddled launch has potentially far more serious consequences than just the media looking at movement of a percentage point or two in a poll about who is up and who is down as the 2010 election looms.
One of the basic rules of a dust-up in the media is “the side that is explaining is usually losing.” Therefore when the NPR was announced with great fanfare almost immediately both the Secretary’s of State and Defense were making the rounds on the heavy weight talk show circuit trying to explain the real US deterrence posture on when we would engage with nuclear retaliation.
It became a public farce like the Seinfeld episode on when to “pull the plug”— when do we respond? Who will we attack? What type of weapon? What will be the response time?
Depending on a complex discussion of who attacked us with what--everything connected with NPR is now confusing and murky. Strategic ambiguity on deterrence posture and targeting is one thing but public bungling is another.
Accusing individuals of bungling their fundamental responsibilities in defending America is serious. So the case has to be made using public statements and that is what happened at the height of the first wave of the NPR roll-out.
Someone leaked a memo from Secretary Gates as reported in the open press as “a wake up call” to the White House on Iran---
April 17, 2010 --“The New York Times reported in its Sunday editions that Mr. Gates had warned in a secret three-page memo that the United States did not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability.”
Quoted in the same NYT story, JCS Chairman Mike Mullen tried to clarify—
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, weighed in on the debate Sunday by saying that while extensive effort had been spent on developing Iran strategy, it remained a complicated and vexing national security challenge.
“It has been worked and it continues to be worked,” Admiral Mullen said during a forum at Columbia University in New York. “If there was an easy answer, we would've picked it off the shelf."
Thus, while the entire historically validated national security equations for nuclear deterrence that stopped an attack for over half of a century are being changed by the president's NPR, the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff cannot articulate stopping a single county -- Iran.
The strategic challenges to America are far more complex then just Iran, and we have had several years to get the basics right on Iran. Consequently, what confidence is there the Pentagon can get the rest right. Strategic surprise is just that, so the military --especially the National Command authority -- has to be both ready and coherent.
One can recognizes the political and foreign policy dimensions of the Iranian problem as being complicated but for DoD there should be no doubt that a protracted American air campaign can stop their quest for a nuclear weapon.
Essentially the signal sent at the height of the current NPR debate by the “wake-up call memo” is the Defense Department does not have the political will to at least tell the truth on our world respected ability to unleash a successful military campaign against Iran.
There are no certainties in combat, but American air and sea power would probably not just delay Iran but totally destroy its ability to develop a weapon. Both the Secretary and Chairman know that.
Why the Gates memo leaked and can be linked to the NPR is important because others who wish us ill are always watching and calibrating their use of force. The Peoples Liberation Army and their relentless military posturing over Taiwan comes to mind. There should be concerns if Russia and China rapidly re-supplying Iran should the Israeli Air Force attempt a raid. A loose nuke coming out of Pakistan is always a worry. Finally, North Korea is armed and crazy and they just sank a South Korean Naval vessel — traditionally considered an act of war.
Candidate Clinton's campaign commercial about the "3 a.m. Phone Call" is a very real possibility, as the vice president told us. However, the phone ringing should not have been a "wake-up call" from the Secretary of Defense to the President on Iran.
So, if Secretary Gates wanted to leave a “wake-up call” for posterity he did not serve his Commander in Chief well.
The country is far less safe with his “wake-up call" memo leaked in the middle of the confusion with the NPR. If we can't handle Iran we are truly in a “hurt locker”.
Until the entire muddied mess is clarified it is “worse then a mistake; it is a blunder.”
Ed Timperlake was principal director for mobilization, planning and requirements at the Pentagon in the Reagan administration and assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Veterans Administration in the Bush administration.