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Incoherence on Deterrence

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In response to questions about the Iranian nuclear threat, Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has recently adopted a dramatic stance. She has taken to talking about how, if she were President, she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacks our friends in the region with nuclear weapons.


When asked during her most recent debate with Barak Obama in Philadelphia whether an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would result in an American nuclear attack on Iran, Senator Clinton responded: “Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States.”

Senator Clinton subsequently went even further. During an interview last week with “Good Morning America,” she declared: “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran….In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

The former First Lady has even offered explicitly to extend the protection of America’s nuclear umbrella to new parts of the world. In the Philadelphia debate, she said: “We should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel….I would do the same with other countries in the region….You can’t go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or U.A.E. 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.”

We can only speculate as to the motivation for these pronouncements. Do they reflect a genuine concern that Tehran will shortly be able to act on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oft-stated threat to wipe Israel off the map? Are they little more than cynical posturing, animated by the perceived need to demonstrate toughness as a prospective Commander-in-Chief?


Or is Mrs. Clinton staking out a basis for opposing any effort the Bush Administration might make in its last days in office to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Is she espousing deterrence in the belief that that a nuclear-armed mullahocracy can be contained via the sort of “balance of terror” that operated during much of the Cold War?

Whatever the rationale, the Senator from New York has helpfully elevated a topic that should be featured prominently in the presidential election now approaching its end-game: Does the United States need a credible nuclear deterrent – for its own security and/or that of its friends and allies? If so, are the candidates espousing policies that will ensure we have such a deterrent?

Certainly, Hillary’s recent statements suggest a conviction that we must have – at least for “the next ten years” – a deterrent that is credible in order to protect ourselves and our allies from the nuclear ambitions of terror-sponsoring states like Iran. Presumably, she would agree that any such deterrent has to be safe, reliable and effective if it is to be able to dissuade successfully.

Yet, Sen. Clinton has long espoused policies with respect to our nuclear arsenal that are undermining our deterrent and rendering ever-more-incredible threats such as those she is now making.

In fairness, Hillary is not alone in her incoherence on nuclear weapons. Her husband’s administration deliberately pursued what Bill Clinton called “denucleari­zation.” At the time, the House Armed Services Committee characterized the Clinton program as “erosion by design” of our deterrent and the infrastructure required to assure its reliability, safety and effectiveness.


Concerns about the Clinton policies prompted a majority of the U.S. Senate to reject their cornerstone: the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This unverifiable treaty would have made it impossible for the United States to perform the sorts of underground nuclear tests that assure its weapons work when they are supposed to, and don’t when they are not.

Not content with perpetuating a seventeen-year-long, unilateral U.S. moratorium on testing – which has given rise to growing uncertainty on both of these scores, Senator Clinton announced in Foreign Affairs last winter that she “will seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 2009, the tenth anniversary of the Senate's initial rejection of the agreement.”

Mrs. Clinton has also staked out other positions dear to the denuclearizers. She told a March 2007 meeting of the National Education Association of New Hampshire: “I will certainly reduce our [nuclear] arsenal….I also am strongly against [the Bush administration’s] efforts to have a new generation of nuclear weapons….I voted against them several times, they want to create these new nuclear weapons, they want to modernize the existing weapons, they want to have a new nuclear weapons program in America, and I think that’s a terrible mistake.”

Sen. Clinton’s record in the Senate bears out these sentiments. For example, she has voted for a ban on low-yield nuclear weapons research and development and against R&D on a nuclear earth-penetrator (“bunker-buster”).


Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama and John McCain – and, for that matter, every other candidate for federal office – must address forthrightly their views on the need for U.S. nuclear deterrence. It is no longer acceptable to simply talk the talk. They must walk the walk, by espousing policies and activities that assure the future of our nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure that makes possible its safety, reliability and effectiveness, and therefore its credibility.


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