Conservatives on nuclear policy: is president a traitor, or just foolish?

Sarah Palin says the president is inviting attack, and if things go as usual, she'll be able to convince her party

Published April 12, 2010 12:13PM (EDT)

When someone turns to a playground analogy to describe some aspect of foreign policy, it's usually safe to write them off. The playground analogy is the way a high-school debate team argues, when members don’t want to bother with thinking through real problems.

So it was, naturally, Sarah Palin who employed just such an analogy last week, discussing nuclear policy during a live taping with Michele Bachmann and Sean Hannity in Minnesota. Said Palin,

It's unbelievable. Unbelievable. No administration in America's history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today. It's kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, "Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me."

What Palin was referring to was the recent nuclear posture review, which narrows the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, largely limiting them to nuclear counterstrikes only. Her argument more or less states that, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. will not rain down nuclear weapons on North Korea or Iran, those countries are now likely to weaponize smallpox and ship it over here. And Obama is going to sit back and simply accept it.

It is, of course, nothing like that. As the president pointed out himself, the military brass are comfortable with the move, so is he. Rather more the point, the U.S. remains fully capable of flattening Pyongyang or Tehran without nuclear weapons, if that's what Palin is really worried about -- a fact that Kim Jong-Il is fully aware of. The point of deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, is to make the costs of an attack obvious and unavoidable. That's one of the advantages of being specific about which consequences will follow which actions: potential enemies are likelier to believe specific policies than they are some angry shouting about how nuclear weapons could be on the table in all circumstances. Like many things Palin says, that idea probably elicits a, "For real?"

Palin's stunt here is insidious because it's just her way of calling the president something approaching a traitor. Although she can't do that much harm barking away with Hannity and Bachmann, the question, as always, is how much this idea is taking hold among mainstream conservatives. With the recently-signed START agreement with Russia now set to go before the dysfunctional Senate for approval, the president can't afford to have too many Republicans thinking that he's handing the nuclear codes over to Russia.

So far, the usual critics of the president from the right haven't quite figured out what line they're going to take yet. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has threatened to vote against the treaty unless the administration will "commit to modernize our nuclear stockpile." This is, as Think Progress points out, a common complaint from conservatives, and a ridiculous one. We are constantly retrofitting and modernizing our nuclear weapons. What Lieberman appears to mean is that he wants the U.S. to infuriate the world by building new warheads and call it "modernization."

There’s also been some grousing from conservative pundits about how the treaty is, as the National Review puts it, "hardly onerous for Russia," which more or less takes us back toward the playground. Both signatories of the treaty will have enough weapons to vaporize everyone on earth. Is asking for which side the treaty sucks more really a useful method of analysis?

We're still in the early stages of this thing and can’t be sure how it will shake out. Most likely, the president will find enough Republican votes to get it through the Senate. It helps that Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., a foreign policy wise man in the GOP, is apparently on board. Still, don't be too surprised if it's become a widespread Republican talking point in a year or two that the president laid down American weapons and sold out national security.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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