Tag: nuclear umbrella

The taboo

Political Scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received a lot of heat for their recent work about the power of the Israeli lobby inside the United States.

Mearsheimer and Walt raised issues that are rarely discussed in the United States. Indeed. some describe this topic as “the third rail” of US foreign policy debate.

Now that the power of “the Lobby” has been made part of the US public debate, Israel’s nuclear weapons program should also be scrutinized more publicly. Ordinarily, that subject is taboo.

Lew Butler (who used to chair the Ploughshares Fund) explained in an op-ed in the SF Chronicle, November 30, 2007:

Estimates are that there are probably as many as 200 [nuclear weapons] in the Israeli arsenal, including thermonuclear (hydrogen) ones.

What is surprising is that there is almost never any public discussion in the United States, and certainly none in the White House or the Congress, about these weapons.

…Clearly, the Bush administration is not going to talk publicly about our understanding, if any, with Israel about its nuclear weapons. And no member of Congress is rushing to get into a subject as politically delicate as this one. That leaves it to those of us in private life to begin the debate, for the sake of the United States and Israel.

Part of the reason nobody wants to talk about Israeli nuclear weapons is that any debate would quickly reveal American hypocrisy. How can the US put pressure on Iran or North Korea about their proliferation if it turns a blind eye to Israel?

The unspoken basis for U.S. policy about Israel’s nukes seems to be that we don’t want our enemies to have such weapons but we don’t worry as much if our friends, like Israel, Pakistan and India, have them.

However, the lack of debate about Israel’s arsenal occasionally causes US political leaders to make careless and immoral threats. Hillary Clinton’s recent warning that she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel led me to note the following in comments:

I don’t know why Israel’s nuclear force isn’t sufficient to deter Iran’s. Estimates suggest that it has 100s of deliverable weapons, some in the form of accurate cruise missiles on relatively invulnerable submarines.

Butler asks a set of related questions

Is there any understanding between Israel and the United States, its principal source of military aid, about their use? If so, does the understanding cover “no first use,” similar to the policy advocated in the United States at the height of the Cold War? What would the United States do if Israel were ever under an attack that might lead it to a nuclear response? Has the United States ever talked with Israel about its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? For Israel, are the weapons more of a danger to its security than a defense?

I see no reason to avoid public debate about these issues.

An honest discussion about Israel’s arsenal might lead the US to adopt policies that would reduce its hypocrisy. For example, achieving genuine nonproliferation in the Middle East might require Israel to abandon its reliance upon nuclear weapons. Alternatively, perhaps the US and the regional states could embrace some kind of mutual deterrence based on Iran maintaining a secure second strike force. Iran does not currently have a nuclear-armed ally willing to extend deterrence on its behalf.

How would the US respond if Russia announced that it would obliterate Israel if it used nuclear weapons against Iran?

Note: Cross-posted at my blog.

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Nuclear umbrella

Last week, in the much-maligned Democratic debate in Pennsylvania, Senator Hillary Clinton said that she would greatly expand the US nuclear umbrella in the Middle East:

Well, in fact, George [Stephanopoulos], I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region.

You know, we are at a very dangerous point with Iran. The Bush policy has failed. Iran has not been deterred. They continue to try to not only obtain the fissile material for nuclear weapons but they are intent upon and using their efforts to intimidate the region and to have their way when it comes to the support of terrorism in Lebanon and elsewhere.

…we’ve got to deter other countries from feeling that they have to acquire nuclear weapons. You can’t go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or UAE and others who have a legitimate concern about Iran and say: Well, don’t acquire these weapons to defend yourself unless you’re also willing to say we will provide a deterrent backup and we will let the Iranians know that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under this security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions.

I was very surprised to hear about this statement — and puzzled that it did not lead to a followup question.

Obama’s line on this was somewhat more ambiguous — but still remarkable:

I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them [Iran] from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons, and that would include any threats directed at Israel or any of our allies in the region.

The questioner and the candidates seem to have forgotten that the latest NIE (2007) says Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003.

Where’s the media frenzy about this topic? It is potentially a hell of a lot more important than some of the personal stuff and verbal gaffes that have dominated the campaign in recent weeks.

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