We Still Don’t Know

It is almost a week, and we have no reliable information about the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Trump and Putin spent two and a half hours together in Helsinki with no note-takers, no expert advice, only their interpreters. We have no record of what happened during those two and a half hours, no record of what either man said or may have promised.

The standard practice to have note-takers in such a meeting is because the president is not representing himself, but rather the country. It’s important to have notes because memories of a meeting may be inaccurate or the other party may dispute them.

Engagement in serious discussion precludes note-taking or even forming a coherent memory of all the things said and done. A competent interlocutor pays attention to what the other party is saying and thinks about what s/he will say, informed by recall of materials studied before the meeting. Read More

How Long Would It Take To *Cough* End North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program?

Observe how gracefully I avoided the unclear word denuclearization by saying what I mean. Another area of disagreement is in how long it would take to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and eliminate or repurpose the facilities that develop and build them. And we don’t know what North Korea thinks about that.

John Bolton estimated that it would take a year. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates 30 months. A study by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin, and Elliot Serbin at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates as long as 15 years.

Why the big differences? Read More

The Opposition To The Iran Deal Is Intellectually and Morally Bankrupt

Reuel Marc Gerecht has an article titled “The Iran Deal Is Strategically and Morally Absurd” at the Atlantic website. It is a good example of the repetitive and tendentious tripe that the opponents consistently offer up.

I am not fond of the bloggy format of dissecting a piece of writing sentence by sentence by sentence, although Gerecht’s piece could easily provoke such a response. Each sentence presents a misrepresenation or other ugliness that it seems wrong to allow to pass. But I’d like to make my response more succinct.

Since the title begins with “The Iran Deal,” one might expect that that would be the subject of the article. But few words are expended on the substance of the deal compared to, for example vituperation against Barack Obama. The personalization of Gerecht’s argument is typical of criticism by opponents on Twitter and elsewhere. Read More

This Is What You Do When You Don’t Have A Real Argument

Two of the key people in the Obama administration for the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), were investigated by an Israeli private intelligence agency trying to find dirt on them, The Guardian reported today.

The agency talked to reporters in order to find whether Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, advisors to President Obama, had shared sensitive information. Presumably they found nothing, or we would have heard about it.

This has been the modus operandi of the JCPOA opponents all along. On Twitter, they indulge in ad hominems and personal attacks rather than present a coherent argument. They set up straw men with views that misrepresent the case for the agreement. They all seem to have the same talking points and slogans (“sunset clauses,” “give Iran nuclear weapons”) in what I might have called an echo chamber if they hadn’t seized on that Read More

Deterring Regime Change

Nuclear weapons programs come with costs: financial, reputational, and the potential for being made a target by other nuclear powers. There is also an opportunity cost in diverting smart scientists, engineers, and managers from work that might produce improvement to people’s daily lives and the economy.

Leaders understand that there are costs. In starting his nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan declared “’We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get [a nuclear weapon] of our own.”

The Iranian documents presented by Benjamin Netanyahu yielded one new piece of information: That Iran planned an arsenal of only five rather small (10 kiloton yield) warheads. Likewise, Kim Jong Un has declared his arsenal complete after what seems a rather sketchy set of tests. Read More

Links – March 4, 2018

National Security Pros, It’s Time to Talk About Right-Wing Extremism.

Russia cancels talks with US. This just after Vladimir Putin displays his, um, nukes. Twelve-year-old boys are in charge of at least three nations’ nuclear arsenals.

Reactions to Putin’s “state of the nation” speech. More about the weapons mentioned in that speech. Yet more from Jeffrey Lewis. I take Putin’s claims with a grain of salt. Russia has claimed weapons that never went into production. I suspect significant exaggeration in his claims of testing. But we have to keep open the possibility that the weapons are real, if not yet ready for use. Read More

Making Sense Of That Nuclear Deal With Saudi Arabia

The United States is trying to develop a nuclear cooperation agreement (123 agreement) with Saudi Arabia. The stories (another) focus on whether such an agreement would limit Saudi Arabia’s access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, two technologies that can produce materials for nuclear weapons.

Let’s look at two other factors. 1) Although Saudi Arabia has had big ambitions for nuclear power, starting from sixteen reactors and now down to two, it is not clear that they can afford those reactors and have no administrative support for them. 2) Westinghouse, the company being pushed by the United States, is in no position to build those reactors. Read More

Stephen Walt Agrees With Me

On the Nuclear Posture Review. He goes on about more aspects of it than I did yesterday, but his conclusions in that area are very similar to mine.

Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.

I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!

Read More

Levels of Deterrence

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More