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Obama’s changes to nuclear policy aren’t epochal

Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke and a former National Security Council member under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, presents a careful analysis of President Obama’s new policy on the use of nuclear weapons, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, in today’s New York Times.

In a nutshell, the new policy states that the US will not retaliate using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear attack if the attacker is in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This shift has been heralded by liberals and scorned by conservatives. But Feaver argues:

The administration claims this new declaration will create strong incentives for states to eschew nuclear weapons. Critics, many of them my fellow Republicans, claim it substantially weakens America’s deterrence against attacks with non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. My view is that the new policy buys a trivial new incentive at the cost of a modest loss in deterrence. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether the bargain was worth it, but it is a bargain on the margins.

In summary, “the changes in terms of doctrine aren’t nearly as epochal as the White House would have us believe or its critics would have us fear.” This conclusion got my attention, because it is similar to my thoughts about another Obama policy – healthcare reform (for my take on the health bill’s passing, go here). Liberals and conservatives were vehemently for or against the health bill, and both agreed it was history-making. Yet any sober assessment would find that the health changes are actually modest. Perhaps there is a pattern emerging, with both parties over-stating the extent of change in various fields.

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