Four candidates (Representative Hunter, Mayor Giuliani, Governor Gilmore, and Governor Romney) affirmed their willingness to use nuclear weapons against Iran’s nuclear program “if necessary.”
First up was Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) (who, as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee until 2006, generally has not met a nuclear weapon he does not like):
MR. BLITZER: "If it came down to a preemptive U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear facility, if necessary would you authorize as president the use of tactical nuclear weapons?"
REP. HUNTER: "I would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons if there was no other way to preempt those particular centrifuges."
He added “I don’t think it’s going to take tactical nukes,” but didn’t offer a hint of protest at the premise or the path by which “it came down to” the use of force.
Mayor Giuliani also claimed that a nuclear weapons option needed to remain on the table to prevent Iran from having not just nuclear weapons but also nuclear power:
MAYOR GIULIANI: "Part of the premise of talking to Iran has to be that they have to know very clearly that it is unacceptable to the United States that they have nuclear power. I think it could be done with conventional weapons, but you can’t rule out anything and you shouldn’t take any option off the table."
In response to the same question of whether they would use tactical nuclear weapons to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, former Governor Gilmore and Governor Romney followed suit, asserting that all options are on the table.
So, the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 200,000 people would be justified even against a power generation program?
The Republican candidates seem to have lost track of the important difference between capability and intent – an extremely dangerous lapse of judgment when dealing with nuclear weapons that can kill hundreds of thousands in an instant.
First, while there is a real danger that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, intent is not a valid target for U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of capability. International law supports the use of military force only when an attack is imminent and the force used is proportional to what is necessary to stop the attack. But responding to or preventing a nuclear attack was not even at issue when these four candidates discussed using tactical nuclear weapons. The candidates’ threshold was much lower, and the casual tone with which they said they would use a tactical nuclear bomb was chilling.
Second, terrorists must be stopped – and it is a national security imperative that terrorists be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons. But nuclear weapons are extremely poorly suited to fighting terrorism. Using nuclear weapons would tell the world that the United States is indifferent to indiscriminate destruction and massive overkill. It would play directly into the plans of the terrorists and countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, increasing their supporters and encouraging the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Later in the debate, only Representative Paul had the clarity to offer a strong challenge to the premise:
MR. BLITZER: "Congressman Paul, what’s the most pressing moral issue in the United States right now?"
REP. PAUL: "I think it is the acceptance just recently that we now promote preemptive war. I do not believe that’s part of the American tradition. We in the past have always declared war in the defense of our liberties or go to aid somebody, but now we have accepted the principle of preemptive war. We have rejected the just- war theory of Christianity. And now, tonight, we hear that we’re not even willing to remove from the table a preemptive nuclear strike against a country that has done no harm to us directly and is no threat to our national security!"
He continued:REP. PAUL: "I mean, we have to come to our senses about this issue of war and preemption and go back to traditions and our Constitution and defend our liberties and defend our rights, but not to think that we can change the world by force of arms and to start wars." (Applause.)
At that moment, Senator Brownback was chomping at the bit to comment on his moral commitment to human life:
SEN. BROWNBACK: "I think it’s a life issue clearly, and I am pro-life and I’m whole life. And one of the things I’m the most, the proudest about our party about is that we’ve stood for life."
Apparently, senseless and indiscriminate threats to massive numbers of civilians don’t count.
The next President of the United States should not threaten to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and shatter the global non-proliferation regime on a hypothetical basis, and should instead measure his/her words very carefully when it comes to threatening the use of weapons that can kill and maim several hundred thousand lives.
Our next leader must be aware that our badly under-resourced cooperative threat reduction efforts to secure fissile material worldwide, which do not get the political priority that they deserve, are our best defense against terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, and that stopping Iran’s uranium enrichment program requires that diplomatic options be tried first, and tried in good faith, including direct talks with Iran on this issue.
Casual posturing about using nuclear weapons neither enhances US leadership in the world or nor effectively addresses the threats to US security.