The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Gates’ 2008 Nuke Speech vs. 2010 Nuclear Posture Review

At noon in the Pentagon briefing room, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary

Dexter Cooke
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Apr 06, 2010

At noon in the Pentagon briefing room, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will unveil a Nuclear Posture Review that rejects U.S. nuclear retaliation for a non-nuclear strike. It’s a consensus administration document. Which means Gates may have to explain whether or how his thinking changed from an October 2008 speech he gave to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about what he called “realistic” nuclear policy.

Gates gave the speech back when he figured he was retiring from government service and felt that he should outline a series of policy measures his successors might find fruitful. In a couple of months, of course, he’d be asked to join an administration that saw eye to eye with him on most issues and valued his insights in areas of disagreement. Nuclear strategy falls into the latter category.

For instance, here’s Gates on the value nuclear weapons pose in deterring a chemical or biological attack:

As long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons – and potentially can threaten us, our allies, and friends – then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena – or with other weapons of mass destruction – could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response. …

Our nuclear arsenal also helps deter enemies from using chemical and biological weapons. In the first Gulf War, we made it very clear that if Saddam used chemical or biological weapons, then the United States would keep all options on the table. We later learned that this veiled threat had the intended deterrent effect as Iraq considered its options.

He also urged policymakers to consider the changing parameters of attacks that might prompt a nuclear reprisal. While not giving an answer, Gates pointed to the emerging threat of cyberattack as something to consider. “Similarly, future administrations will have to consider new declaratory policies about what level of cyber-attack might be considered an act of war – and what type of military response is appropriate,” he said. The Obama administration has now given its answer, and it’s that a non-nuclear response will be appropriate.

A good chunk of the speech is about the virtues of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a program that others in the Obama administration view as skirting too close to building new nukes. Josh Rogin reports that the NPR will “thread the needle” on modernizing the nuclear stockpile (which is how Gates views the RRW) without committing to the program.

It’s no secret that Gates is on the rightward edge of the nuclear strategy debate in the administration. But there are areas in Gates’ 2008 speech where disagreement with the 2010 NPR is really just a matter of emphasis. Gates’ defense of conventional forces from 2008, for instance, will be largely codified by today’s document:

A conventional strike force means that more targets are vulnerable without our having to resort to nuclear weapons. And missile defenses reinforce deterrence and minimize the benefits of rogue nations investing heavily in ballistic missiles:  They won’t know if their missiles will be effective, thus other nations will feel less threatened. And let’s not forget the deterrent value of other parts of our conventional military forces.

Gates speaks at noon. It’ll be instructive to hear how he describes his current thinking on nuclear strategy, and whether he addresses his older comments about it.

Dexter Cooke | He is an orthopedic surgeon who insists that a physician's first priority should be patient care. He specializes in minimally invasive complete knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures that reduce pain and recovery time. He graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina with a medical degree and a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine.

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