Shadow Government

The shifting U.S.-China nuclear balance

I read Jeffrey Lewis' FP blog post with interest because he highlights the nuclear balance between the United States and China, a topic that deserves greater attention than it has gotten.

Recent years have seen growing attention to China's fielding of so-called anti-access/area denial systems, including an increasing number of accurate conventional ballistic missiles to strike airbases and other facilities in the Western Pacific and anti-ship ballistic missiles to target mobile power projection forces like carrier strike groups. To date, however, the nuclear dimension of Chinese military modernization has received less attention. Still, in recent months, China's military has reportedly tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-41, which is reportedly equipped with multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, as well as its new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). China's nuclear buildup remains unconstrained by strategic arms limitation agreements, such as the Russo-American New START Treaty, as well as arms control affecting ballistic and cruise missiles, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

In Lewis' view, the path to stability is predicated on the United States and China accepting mutual nuclear vulnerability. Indeed, his discussion of the Sino-American nuclear balance takes mutual vulnerability as its starting point. He goes on to argue that "Our refusal to recognize that vulnerability is simply a fact of life essentially blocks a productive dialogue with Chinese leaders."

There is, however, plenty of room to question whether Chinese political or military leaders share our perspective. Indeed, official publications of the People's Liberation Army such as the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns show that the Chinese military views nuclear weapons much differently than American strategic thinkers. Other books, such as Coercive Deterrence Warfare, portray launching missiles in close proximity to enemy forces as a form of deterrence.  In other words, official literature espouses some very different -- and potentially very dangerous -- notions.

Writing in the latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I edit) Tom Christensen of Princeton University argues that Chinese leaders believe that they are only now acquiring a secure second-strike capability. As a result, he raises the possibility that China will become bolder as the quantity and quality of its nuclear force increases. China's nuclear modernization program may thus have greater consequences for China's behavior than is commonly believed.

On the other side, as Dana Priest recently described in the Washington Post, the United States has an aging nuclear arsenal. The newest weapon in the U.S. nuclear force was designed and deployed in 1991. U.S. nuclear weapons, all of which are at least 20 years old, were designed for an expected operational life of 10-15 years. You can count the number of U.S. weapons laboratory employees who have actually designed a nuclear weapon on one hand -- and the number will only get smaller over time.

The Obama administration is committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons and has reportedly been conducting internal studies envisioning massive cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A number of policy makers with whom I've spoken in recent weeks tell me that if Obama is re-elected, he will seek to slash unilaterally the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Such a move could grant China nuclear parity with the United States, or at least put it in reach. Such a move would give China greater nuclear leverage not through an expensive buildup on their side, but through disarmament on ours.

Although there is much in Jeffrey Lewis' piece with which I disagree, I do believe that the United States and China should enter into more serious discussions about nuclear weapons. Indeed, I believe that the United States should refuse to enter into future nuclear arms limitation talks without the participation of the Chinese. A failure to do so could jeopardize the nuclear balance that has underpinned American and allied security since the end of World War II.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Don't blame Obama for playing politics on Benghazi, blame the press for letting him get away with it for so long

After giving the Obama team a pass for the first couple weeks on the likely al Qaeda 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi, the media is finally asking tough questions. And what they are finding raises troubling questions about what the Obama administration did before, during, and after the al Qaeda anniversary attacks.

Republicans risk over-reacting to this evolving storyline, particularly with the "Obama lied, Ambassador died" meme that is rising in certain sectors of the pundit world.

We may find evidence that Obama or his spokespeople lied -- that is, said things that they knew at the time were not true --  but I haven't seen convincing evidence of that yet.  And, frankly, I would be surprised if that were the case. Most often, what partisans call "lies" are actually something far less sinister: inferential errors and wishful thinking. Since Democrats have peddled for years their own Big Myth about the Bush Administration "lying" about Iraqi WMD, the desire to pin that same tale/tail on the donkey is understandable. But Republicans should hold themselves to the higher standard they wish Democrats would meet rather than sink down to the level of their partisan attackers.

Based on what is presently known, the following 5-step scenario seems far more plausible to me:

  1. Initial reports were confusing (initial reports are always confusing) and left open myriad possibilities, ranging from the fairly benign (Youtube-inspired hooligans got out of control) to the most malignant (Zawahiri exacted his revenge).
  2. Romney's initial messaging on the 9/11 anniversary attacks went over poorly and the media outrage, partly real and partly manufactured, eclipsed coverage of the underlying attacks. 
  3. The Obama team did everything they could to keep the media focus on Romney's stumbles. Partly this involved tut-tutting about what Romney said, but mostly this required not feeding an alternate storyline that indicated the attacks might have been linked to a resurgent Al Qaeda. They could accomplish the latter simply by repeating what was known -- there was a lot of Youtube-inspired hooliganism -- and keeping quiet about anything that might simply be suspected, even as those suspicions grow stronger and stronger.
  4. The Obama team also responded in typical campaign mode: They protected the candidate and did not say anything that would raise doubts about Obama's foreign policy and national security prowess until the facts accumulated to the point where some concession was necessary. At that point, they conceded the minimum and insisted on waiting until the outcome of a (hopefully lengthy) investigation that (again hopefully) will not report out until well past election day.
  5. The Obama team was bolstered in steps 3 and 4 by one further factor: wishful thinking. As David Ignatius spells out so clearly: "The administration has a lot invested in the public impression that al-Qaeda was vanquished when Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. Obama would lose some of that luster if the public examined whether al Qaeda is adopting a new, Zawahiri-led strategy of interweaving its operations with the unrest sweeping the Arab world." In the language of political science, the Obama team had a strong motivated bias that colored the way they interpreted ambiguous data. They were receptive to information that reinforced what they wanted to believe and viewed with suspicion and skepticism information that challenged this view.

Given that 5-step scenario, the only tricky thing for the administration was navigating the evolving messaging, which they accomplished in three moves:

Initial message: A rowdy crowd was enraged by video, not a resurgent Al Qaeda.

Interim message: Anytime a ambassador is killed by armed thugs that is self-evidently a kind of terrorism.

Eventual message: We have long called the murderous attacks terrorism and we are learning more about the degree to which networks of violent extremists, some of them inspired by AQ, but not tactically controlled by AQ central, helped in those attacks.

This is all very understandable, and I just don't have much patience for the view that pretends to be genuinely shocked that the Obama team has been playing politics with national security at this stage in the campaign.

Perhaps we also shouldn't be shocked that the media let them get away with it for so long. The political game of footsie I outline above was only viable if the media played along, which they were willing to do for a while but no longer. The media was willing to play along because they are biased, even when they do not want to be. They find it easier to understand people like themselves, Democrats, and have to work harder to understand people not like themselves, Republicans. They are as prone to reading events through pre-established filters -- for instance, the filter that says Romney is gaffe-prone on national security and Obama has a strong record on terrorism -- as everyone else. And they must work in the hostile environment of the White House's "Chicago rules," which punishes reporters who challenge the administration. The better reporters overcome this, and we can see the fruits of their labors in the new scrutiny and skepticism of recent stories.

Campaigns should certainly point out and push back against biased media coverage, but campaigns should also understand that media bias is a given, rather like the Electoral College, and strategize accordingly. 

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages