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How Smart Do You Have to Be?

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 10, 2010 02:31 PM

To me, the most revealing comment made about the recent revision in American nuclear policy came from President Obama himself, as quoted by the Associated Press yesterday. "Asked about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's criticisms about his nuclear defense policy, the president responded: ‘I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues.’" Ouch! Take that, Sarah! But in fact he does have a response, and it’s the same response he gives to so many other questions — namely, "Trust me, I’m smarter than you are." In this case he, or his "experts," are said to be smarter than Sarah Palin, but it is essentially the same line he took during the election, when he claimed that John McCain "just doesn’t get it" or during the health care "summit" in February when he so mercilessly patronized his critics as "Professor Obama."

But how smart can he really be if he has not yet learned the most basic lesson of leadership, which is the limited value that mere intelligence and the "experts" who wield it have in real-world political and diplomatic situations? The new nuclear policy itself provides a perfect example. His administration’s experts are supposed to have concluded that America will send a reassuring message to potential enemies that we will not retaliate against them with nuclear weapons if they only launch chemical or biological attacks on us and if they are, at the time of the attack, signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and not held to be in violation of it. Only a lawyer — and a lawyer whose experience was more in the classroom than the courtroom — could believe in the efficacy of such a frankly unbelievable promise in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

The New York Times reporters, David E. Sanger and Peter Baker describe the change in policy by saying that it "eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war." Yet they seem to be remarkably incurious about why that ambiguity was deliberate and why, therefore, it might still serve some purpose. Well, I think I can enlighten them. The reason for the deliberate ambiguity is that nuclear weapons are of no use in their primary form but only as a deterrent, and that deterrent effect is maximized when potential enemies are left guessing as to what we might or might not regard as a sufficient provocation to their use. By the same token, the efficacy of the deterrent is minimized as you remove the ambiguities, along with the number of provocations you are prepared to regard as potentially justifying a nuclear response.

The authors regard this as a "conservative" view which will only make President Obama’s decision "controversial."

Mr. Obama was asked whether the American failure to make North Korea pay a heavy price for the aid to Syria undercut Washington’s credibility. "I don’t think countries around the world are interested in testing our credibility when it comes to these issues," he said. He said such activity would leave a country vulnerable to a nuclear strike, and added, "We take that very seriously because we think that set of threats present the most serious security challenge to the United States."

See? That’s the problem with having a brainiac for a leader. He seems to regard "credibility" as something optional and therefore as unlikely to concern other countries about him as it concerns him about other countries. But credibility — which another age would have called national honor and which a Machiavellian would describe as the ability to make others fear you — is the common currency of international diplomacy, like it or not, and something that all countries and particularly those who are our enemies and potential enemies are always intensely interested in because, when it declines, momentous and often catastrophic consequences may be expected to follow. Somehow, I think that Sarah Palin would be at least smart enough to know that.

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