Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike

Exclusive: The U.S. threat to launch a first-strike nuclear attack has little real strategic value – though it poses a real risk to human survival – but President Obama fears political criticism if he changes the policy, as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

Time is running short for President Obama to make good on his 2009 promise “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet as both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times recently reported, Obama’s advisers may have just nixed the single most important reform advocated by arms control advocates: a formal pledge that the United States will never again be the first country to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Ever since President Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, the United States has reserved the right to initiate nuclear war against an overwhelming conventional, chemical or biological attack on us or our allies. But peace advocates — and more than a few senior military officers — have long warned that resorting to nuclear weapons would ignite a global holocaust, killing hundreds of millions of people.

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

President Barack Obama uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize from Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (White House photo)

In a talk to the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association on June 6, Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes promised that President Obama would continue to review ways to achieve his grand vision of a nuclear-free world during his last months in office. Obama was reportedly considering a “series of executive actions” to that end, including a landmark shift to a “no first use” policy.

Two-thirds of adult Americans surveyed support such a policy. So do 10 U.S. senators who wrote President Obama in July, proposing a no-first-use declaration to “reduce the risk of accidental nuclear conflict” and seeking cut-backs in his trillion dollar plan for nuclear modernization over the next 30 years.

But Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (who oversees the nuclear stockpile), and Secretary of State John Kerry all warned during a National Security Council meeting in July that declaring a policy of “no first use” would alarm America’s allies, undercut U.S. credibility, and send a message of weakness to the Kremlin at a time of tense relations with Russia.

Yet until they took charge of giant bureaucracies whose funding depends on keeping the threat of nuclear war alive, both Carter and Moniz were on record supporting “a new strategy for reducing nuclear threats” and achieving security “at significantly lower levels of nuclear forces and with less reliance on nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

In a 2007 manifesto, Carter, Moniz, and other centrist Democratic foreign policy experts rejected the old claim that nuclear weapons are still needed to deter non-nuclear attacks.

“Nuclear weapons are much less credible in deterring conventional, biological, or chemical weapon attacks,” they wrote. “A more effective way of deterring and defending against such non-nuclear attacks – and giving the President a wider range of credible response options – would be to rely on a robust array of conventional strike capabilities and strong declaratory policies.”

They also gave strong implicit support to a no-first-use doctrine, stating that “nuclear weapons must be seen as a last resort, when no other options can ensure the security of the U.S. and its allies.”

Risk of Overreaction

Why does a no-first-use policy matter? In a New York Times column last month, Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of the United States Strategic Command, emphasized the folly of introducing nuclear weapons into any conflict.

A nuclear test detonation carried out in Nevada on April 18, 1953.

A nuclear test detonation carried out in Nevada on April 18, 1953.

“Using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation,” he and a colleague wrote. “Such use against North Korea would be likely to result in the blanketing of Japan and possibly South Korea with deadly radioactive fallout.”

A policy of no first use, backed up by a reconfiguration of U.S. nuclear forces to reduce their offensive capabilities, would lower the chance of a rival nuclear power rushing to launch early in a crisis and unleashing World War III. Today some nuclear powers like Russia have their forces on hair-trigger alert for fear of being wiped out by a U.S. surprise attack; as a result, the world is just one false alarm away from all-out nuclear war.

As two senior officials at the Arms Control Association observed recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Among other advantages, a clear US no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of Russian or Chinese nuclear miscalculation during a crisis by alleviating concerns about a devastating US nuclear first-strike.

“Such risks could grow in the future as Washington develops cyber offensive capabilities that can confuse nuclear command and control systems, as well as new strike capabilities and strategic ballistic missile interceptors that Russia and China believe may degrade their nuclear retaliatory potential.”

They also discounted the claim that U.S. allies such as Japan or Korea would rebel against such a change of policy: “They are highly likely to accept such a decision, since no first use will in no way weaken US military preparedness to confront non-nuclear threats to their security. . . Many US allies, including NATO members Germany and the Netherlands, support the adoption of no-first-use policies by all nuclear-armed states.”

Warnings by nuclear hawks that a common-sense doctrine of no-first-use would undercut U.S. “credibility” or project “weakness” are simply business-as-usual attempts by national security bureaucrats to inflate threats and keep the war machine in high gear. If they succeed in blocking reform, America and the rest of the world will remain at real risk of annihilation through accidental nuclear escalation.

The question now is whether President Obama will listen to the fear-mongers in his cabinet, or remember what he said in May at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial: “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

19 comments for “Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike

  1. Bob Loblaw
    September 11, 2016 at 10:46

    How effective would a nuclear attack be via EMP disabling the power grid? Satellite communications too, America may face the loss of power and communications without one firestorm and blast wave incinerating millions.
    How much of our infrastructure is shielded for an EMP blast? Old school nuclear attacks may not be inevitable.
    A dark America, armed and hostile, will destroy herself. Famine and violence will spur UN intervention and the US will be a third rate former empire, a non radioactive land ready for China to exploit.

  2. Lawrence Fitton
    September 9, 2016 at 10:51

    the world will never know an end to nuclear weapons, at least, not in the foreseeable future. in fact, small countries should want nuclear weapons to deter attacks from large ones – most especially the united states, the most bellicose nation on earth.
    but the biggest threat may come from a software glitch. one in which an attack in progress is signaled, and nuclear missiles are launched in response to a non-existent aggression.
    in fact, twice(i think) in the past the system failed in the u.s. and an attack was signaled. fortunately, jets were scrambled instead of a button pushed.
    the world would be a better place without nukes, or armies, or wars. death & destruction is no way to run a planet.
    but, peace on earth, goodwill toward men seems a utopian dream.

  3. elmerfudzie
    September 9, 2016 at 10:33

    Nihilism can assume many different shapes and sizes. In the prevailing political and moral environment, nihilism acquires the proverbial sheep s clothing while disguising the wolf. The wolf says, I will not strike out unless attacked! All the while doing everything it can to patrol (encircle), to provoke (with ABM missiles), induce fear (the Russians are coming), and cause trepidation (Russian stealth has penetrated key US politicians and NATO internet security) towards potential adversaries. The dis ingenuousness of Obama has reached a new height. Obama wishes to layer his hands with Teflon, once the blood of half the world’s population is spilled for the next world war. It won’t matter much to future generations (if any) that the NATO alliance, was both militarily and morally restrained from using force. To refresh our collective memory and restore a long forgotten parlance, mutual assured destruction (MAD) has yet to return to the English lexicon. So, Putin has made every effort to frame the final conflict, into a game not unlike Japanese baseball. The Russian mentality, and surely Zbig Brzezinski would agree, has the logical foundations of a chessboard, where Putin can see ten moves ahead. He’s trying to tell Obama this: in three more moves, I’ll have to checkmate you!-I wish to spare you embarrassment of defeat (back to that Japanese way of winning a baseball game) or again, I-see-you-coming! This writer must somehow awaken our citizenry at large from their deep slumber…To paraphrase Albert Einstein; I don’t know for sure what weapons will be used during WW III but I know that WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

  4. TellTheTruth-2
    September 9, 2016 at 10:00

    Obama’s advisers = Ziocon war mongers. What do you expect a weak suck like Obama to do? They groomed him at the University of Chicago. They made him President. They own him!

  5. Al Drinkwine
    September 9, 2016 at 07:54

    President Obama please sign the “No First Use Policy” and stop living in fear.

  6. John
    September 8, 2016 at 21:01

    Today was a day of recognizing all the absolutely wonderful events of life…..the beauty of nature….so much to experience and love…..Where do we live today folks ? Who has decided for us ?

  7. J'hon Doe II
    September 8, 2016 at 18:13

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  8. Bill Bodden
    September 8, 2016 at 17:36

    Overkill has been part of the American war strategy for some time and could be a sign of fear-inspired paranoia. People with a lot to lose are prone to magnifying threats. Obama’s recent remarks referring to the insane bombing of Laos that was an example of Nixon’s madness brought reminders of this lunacy. “Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.” – http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/ – That was probably more than a dozen cluster bombs for each Laotian – man, woman and child. In addition to suggesting this was insanity on the part of the Nixon-Kissinger administration it probably also indicates gross incompetence or a lack of moral courage on the part of the leadership in the Air Force.

  9. Zachary Smith
    September 8, 2016 at 16:45

    I’m going to say all this is “Much Ado About Nothing”. As the author says, individuals have flip-flopped on the issue, and when the USSR disintegrated and when Russia discovered it no longer had overwhelmingly superior land forces – it flipped too.

    What any nation says doesn’t mean a thing when the wolf is actually at the door. Consider Mexico, one of our two next-door neighbors. It has a 2016 population very nearly the same as the US in 1941, meaning that it could in theory rather easily raise 100 divisions. Does anybody seriously suppose the US would bring back the draft and re-fight WW2 just to avoid using nuclear weapons if somebody tried an invasion?

    Or what if some unfriendly nation starts sinking our Navy. Or is caught sending in anthrax, smallpox, ebola, and the rest of the bio-war agents. Any no-first-use policy would instantly be out the door.

    Even declaring – as we do now – to use the nukes only in defense is meaningless. Just because we changed the name of the War Department to “Defense Department” doesn’t mean we (and everybody else) can’t fake a justification for a desired war. Happens all the time. Lately with the rise of the “humanitarian wars” the US and NATO doesn’t even bother.

    Maybe there is some sort of propaganda advantage to a pious declaration, but it would be otherwise quite devoid of meaning.

    Edit: I was unable to see any of the other posts when I made mine.

  10. M.
    September 8, 2016 at 16:32

    Nuclear war preparedness and the use of nuclear weapons have already affected so many and will continue to do so. Nuclear waste disposal alone is a huge problem. Since a nuclear war, limited or otherwise, will affect the entire world one way or another, it would seem that all nations should be brought together to have S.A.L.T.- like talks, not just the current nuclear powers, but the presumed and potential nuclear powers, as well as those nations who will in all likelihood never have them. Everyone on the planet has a stake in this. It could lead to great reductions in other kinds of weapons, and possibly, to the most important discussion of all – how to have and maintain real peace in the world. It isn’t too late for President Obama to remember what he said in Hiroshima, as Mr. Marshall stated, and not too late for him to be a true leader and to act on those words.

  11. F. G. Sanford
    September 8, 2016 at 16:09

    Before considering the relative merits of a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons, it would first be necessary to consider whether words like “policy” actually mean anything relative to the U.S. history of the last seventy years. I don’t even have to mention “conspiracy theories” in order to illustrate the point. Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Phoenix, MK Ultra, Bay of Pigs, Operation Northwoods, subversion of the Paris Peace Talks, Watergate, October Surprise, Iran Contra, the Church Committee findings, The House Select Committee on Assassinations, Cointelpro, numerous regime changes and illegal wars – including the falsified case for invasion of Iraq – all highlight the complete lawlessness of the U.S.A.

    According to international law, The Constitution, numerous treaties and United States public law, there should be no first use of CONVENTIONAL WEAPONS. Their “first use” constitutes war of aggression, “The Supreme International Crime” according to Chief Nuremberg Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson. What has been missing in the United States for the last seventy years is simply SPECIFICATION OF CHARGES. All seven of the (known) countries in which we are currently conducting hostile military operations constitute examples of illegal wars based on our own Constitution and International Law. Retaliation against the United States for conducting these wars, should some country be willing or able, WOULD NOT BE ILLEGAL. Keep in mind, we haven’t “won” a war since WWII unless you count Grenada. Even then, you’d have to ignore the fact that the Russians practically, if not politically, won WWII.

    I realize the good intentions of the author, and I respect his credentials, but this analysis represents the typical tendency in the U.S. to devolve discourse into specks of sand while drowning in quicksand. It contributes to official propaganda without realization or intent. SPECIFICATION OF CHARGES is the topic no journalist seems willing to tackle. Let me give an example. When the 2000 Florida vote recount was underway, Jeb Bush got on the phone to the five biggest law firms in the state and told them not to represent Al Gore. THAT IS A FELONY. But, rather than discuss SPECIFICATION OF CHARGES, American journalists were content to stand by and watch an unindicted felon run for the highest office in the land. After finding out that his brother lied to us, they abrogated their duty and stood by while he was reelected…by another statistically impossible election result.

    Americans may be oblivious to all this, but the rest of the world certainly isn’t. They don’t believe a damn thing we say. That will only worsen with the election of a bona fide war monger in November. NOBODY overseas believes ANY of our “official” narratives. We’ve stirred up trouble in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Now, we’re working on the Asian Pacific. Europe is overrun by a refugee crisis we created. Does any rational person not see the risk posed by these unfettered abuses? Since they cannot match us conventionally, and they see no end to the onslaught of disastrous U.S. foreign intervention, at least two countries are likely to view a nuclear “first strike” as their only hope to salvage some semblance of national sovereignty. If anyone has read this far, thanks for listening. I’m at the point of giving up on further commentary; it all looks pretty hopeless at this point.

    • Bill Bodden
      September 8, 2016 at 17:22

      Excellent points.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 9, 2016 at 00:11

      F.G. We all get fed up and frustrated with our country’s sad performances it displays on our world’s stage, but whatever you do don’t quit posting commentaries. This evening I was going over archived articles on this site from the past, and you were one of the commenters going back to around 2011 or maybe it was 2012, but no matter you were there. What I do like about this site, is it is an oasis in a desert when it comes to the commenters, and you are one of them I totally enjoy. Oh, and the articles are priceless.

      Now, what gets me going of late, isn’t just how treaties mean nothing to our American government, but how things come and go,,and then disappear down a black news hold. For instance, back in 2014 the torture files were brought up in our news media. The Panetta Review, and all that kind of garbage was finally being exposed. That was until the whole thing vanished like it never existed. Kind of like going to war to find WMD’s, and then when we find there are none, well we just up and go on about our way, as if nothing ever happened.

      The U.S. doesn’t respect treaties, and there is never anyone to hold to accountability. We are the nation who creates the reality. As you have heard, we are the nation who is indispensable and exceptional. Your either with us, or against us. Another nations sovereignty doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to waging war, if we are right well then we are right. There are no questions to be answered. What law is there, what legal system can enforce any law national or international, when it comes to what America does?

      To all the commenters on this site, I can’t say how much it means to me, to not only comment here, but more importantly what a pleasure it is to read all your comments and take in the knowledge I get by reading what you all have to say. Even the comments I don’t agree with often leave food for thought…so yes I’m thanking everyone.

      Oh yeah, ban the bomb!

    • September 9, 2016 at 20:43

      We need more not less of the unblinkered and sober assessments like this one you have educated and enlightened us with here.

      Now is not a good time to allow Dr. Feelgood to run amok especially with faux concern governing the passing contests and ego driven games that endanger not only people, but every living creature on the planet, except perhaps cock roaches… the only ones who will benefit from an unfettered nuclear policy of when in doubt go nuclear……

    • Abe
      September 10, 2016 at 22:27

      The US has embarked on a military adventure, “a long war”, which threatens the future of humanity. US-NATO weapons of mass destruction are portrayed as instruments of peace. Mini-nukes are said to be “harmless to the surrounding civilian population”. Pre-emptive nuclear war is portrayed as a “humanitarian undertaking”.

      The Danger of Nuclear War
      By Michel Chossudovsky (VIDEO)

    • Stephen Sivonda
      September 11, 2016 at 22:13

      Thank you….the piece about Jeb Bush near the end was, something that I didn’t know. The paragraph about the “Specifications of charges” was another aspect of which I’ve never seen mentioned. I really enjoy well written posts where I can keep filling in bits of the big picture ,as I call it.

  12. exiled off mainstreet
    September 8, 2016 at 13:10

    Unfortunately, nuclear blackmail is central to the yankee imperium maintaining its claim on total power. It is Lord Acton’s absolute power on steroids. The demonisation of Putin on behalf the harpy’s campaign by many whom at one time themselves showed scepticism of the power structure reveals the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of exponents of the yankee regime.

  13. Nancy
    September 8, 2016 at 12:35

    I’m no longer holding my breath waiting for Obama to come through.

  14. wobblie
    September 8, 2016 at 08:40

    I almost forgot about the “Obama gets a Nobel Prize” joke.

    Why would anyone believe the US would strike first with nukes, pledge or no pledge? This country has lied so much. Nobody cares anymore. To Americans there are worse things in the world than slaughtering millions of people in war by “mistake”, and that’s the prospect of not looking tough.

    We’re along way from Paradise on Earth.


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