WASHINGTON -- Nuclear doctrine consists of thinking the unthinkable. It involves making threats and promising retaliation that is cruel and destructive beyond imagining. But it has its purpose: to prevent war in the first place.
During the Cold War, we let the Russians know that if they dared use their huge conventional military advantage and invaded Western Europe, they risked massive U.S. nuclear retaliation. Goodbye Moscow.
Was this credible? Would we have done it? Who knows? No one's ever been there. A nuclear posture is just that -- a declaratory policy designed to make the other guy think twice.
Our policies did. The result was called deterrence. For half a century, it held. The Soviets never invaded. We never used nukes. That's why nuclear doctrine is important.
The Obama administration has just issued a new one that "includes significant changes to the U.S. nuclear posture," said Defense Secretary Bob Gates. First among these involves the U.S. response to being attacked with biological or chemical weapons.
Under the old doctrine, supported by every president of both parties for decades, any aggressor ran the risk of a cataclysmic U.S. nuclear response that would leave the attacking nation a cinder and a memory.
Again: Credible? Doable? No one knows. But the threat was very effective.
Under President Obama's new policy, however, if the state that has just attacked us with biological or chemical weapons is "in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)," explained Gates, then "the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it."
Imagine the scenario: Hundreds of thousands are lying dead in the streets of Boston after a massive anthrax or nerve gas attack. The president immediately calls in the lawyers to determine whether the attacking state is in compliance with the NPT. If it turns out that the attacker is up-to-date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation. (Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.)
However, if the lawyers tell the president that the attacking state is NPT noncompliant, we are free to blow the bastards to nuclear kingdom come.
This is quite insane. It's like saying that if a terrorist deliberately uses his car to mow down a hundred people waiting at a bus stop, the decision as to whether he gets (a) hanged or (b) 100 hours of community service hinges entirely on whether his car had passed emissions inspections.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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