The Wrong Way to Argue Against Nuclear Disarmament

Last Monday, the blog for the Weekly Standard offered an argument against President Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda so filled with factually errors and serial inaccuracies it is amazing the magazine’s editors allowed it to run.  The post, by Mark Davis, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, makes three claims in particular need of challenge:  uncritically repeating the flawed findings of a Georgetown University team about the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, misstating the conclusions of the IAEA’s most recent report on Iran, and flat-out lying about President Obama’s stated timeframe for achieving the goal of nuclear disarmament.

The Georgetown University report Davis alludes to is the one compiled by Philip Karber and a group of students that postulates it is possible that China actually possesses 3,000 nuclear warheads instead of the 200-400 it is currently estimated to have.  The report generated quite a bit of controversy even before it was released and was previously discussed on this blog here.  The main thrust of the argument is that China has constructed a series of tunnels three thousand mile in the lengths—an “Underground Great Wall”—that would be suitable for storing large numbers of nuclear warheads.  The report was met with immediate push back from many in the arms control community—including James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment, Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the blog Arms Control Wonk, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, and Gregory Kulacki from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Many, though not all, of these critiques centered on China’s lack of available fissile material and how that would preclude the type of arsenal Karber’s report asserts.  Even Karber admits that he “doesn’t have the slightest idea how many [nuclear weapons] China really has,” but added his belief that neither do the arms control advocates who criticized him.  China’s nuclear arsenal may be larger than was previously believed, but the report in question provides no actual evidence that Beijing ever possessed the fissile material for the number of warheads it hypotheses are in the Chinese arsenal.

Davis goes on to say that the IAEA report (PDF) on Iran’s nuclear program that was released in November “confirms” the Islamic Republic is producing a nuclear weapon.  Actually, no, it doesn’t.  The report’s findings provide credible evidence that Tehran is seeking the ability to develop nuclear weapons at some point, but it offers no evidence whatsoever that Iran is developing a weapon or has made a decision to develop a weapon.  The report states that Iran has attempted to procure certain “dual use” technologies, “develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material,” and has possibly acquired design information for building and testing a nuclear weapon.  But, the report also notes, “[S]ome of these activities have civilian as well as military applications,” and that they do not seem to be taken place under a “structured” program as they did prior to 2003.  While the IAEA rightly has concerns about any possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, it continues, “to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material” at Iran’s declared nuclear facilities.  This assessment is in line with that of the  2007 National Intelligence Estimate (PDF) on Iran’s nuclear program and recent testimony (PDF) from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that stated:

We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.

It is understandable that many are troubled by the possibility Iran could possess the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon, but the evidence that they have obtained that knowledge—or that such construction has begun—simply does not exist at this point and to assert otherwise is dishonest.

Davis overreaches most when he asserts that President Obama “seems to conceive this goal of a nuclear free world, which many experts believed was at best the work of decades, as something that could be close to finalized in his second term.  Once again, no, he doesn’t’.  In his April 5, 2009 speech from Prague, where he first articulated his desire to abolish nuclear weapons, the president stated, “I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.”  If that’s not enough, just look at the section on nuclear weapons in the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance (PDF):  “As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal.”  Now, obviously the administration is looking to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal—as they have stated many times over—but reductions and disarmament are two completely different things.  It is perhaps possible that Davis knows of some secret plan the administration is withholding from the public, but it is more likely that Davis is twisting the facts to fit with his preconceived notion—or worse, lying.

Challenging Mr. Davis’ statements should not be taken as an argument favor nuclear abolition—total nuclear disarmament, like that proposed by President Obama, is likely a naïve goal at best and, possibly, a dangerous one at worst.  And Davis does raise a valid point—one tucked away among his various distortions—when he asks whether the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” that provides security for numerous American allies can remain credible at far lower numbers.  Nuclear weapons are a powerful deterrent and maintaining a limited number of them should be a priority for the United States going forward.  But there are honest arguments to be made about the size and role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and then there are those made by Mark Davis.

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