Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has announced the firing of two top Air Force officials for failure to adequately secure the nation's nuclear weapons, citing a report that found a "problem...not effectively addressed for over a decade." The individuals fired were the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. That's fine, as far as it goes. But why stop there?
The firing of these two men suggests that the problem is the adequate safeguarding of nuclear weapons and materials in the US arsenal. That is a serious problem, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if we could assure the security of all US nuclear weapons, we would not have dealt with the larger problem of assuring the security of US citizens from nuclear weapons. It is not only our own nuclear weapons we must worry about, but those of all other nuclear weapon states as well.
What most Americans don't realize is that nuclear weapons do not and cannot protect us. They are not a defensive shield. All we can do with nuclear weapons is threaten their use against a country that would attack us and then hope that our threat is adequately communicated and believed, and that the leadership on the other side behaves rationally. In other words, deterrence (threat of retaliation) is a theory about how people may behave, and not a means of defense. We are staking the future of our country and the world on deterrence working under all circumstances. Whoever came up with this concept should be fired immediately.
In fact, some of the strongest proponents of deterrence during the Cold War are now calling for US leadership for a nuclear weapons-free world, precisely because they have concerns about the capacity of deterrence to provide for US security. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have joined with former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn in pressing for a new approach to US nuclear policy. They wrote in a January 2007 Wall Street Journal article, "We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal."
Working to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons will require far more than firing two air force officials. In the current administration, it would require firing the president. He has failed to pursue US obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; threatened preemptive use of nuclear weapons; kept US nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert status; sought to develop new nuclear weapons; failed to support US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue missile defenses (or, more accurately, missile offenses); and has blocked proposals by Russia and China to ban the weaponization of space. The one nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that the president achieved, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), does not go as low in the number of weapons as the Russians proposed, has no provisions for verification, requires no dismantling of weapons taken off deployed status, and ends on December 31, 2012.
Both major party presidential candidates have said in general terms that they support the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. McCain stated that he shares Ronald Reagan's dream "to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth." However, he characterizes that dream as "a distant and difficult goal."
Barack Obama has stated, "A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America's interest and the world's interest. It is our responsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality. That's what I've done as a Senator and a candidate, and that's what I'll do as President."
Both candidates are short on details of how they intend to move forward. It is the responsibility of the American people to assure that the next president they elect have a solid plan for getting from where we are now to a world free of nuclear weapons and that he be ready to begin the process on his first day in office. It is certain that without determined US leadership a nuclear weapons-free world will remain a distant goal and the security of the American people will continue to be endangered by the threat of nuclear war, by design or accident, and by nuclear terrorism; and further, that our current arsenal of some 10,000 nuclear weapons will provide us with no protection.