Nuclear Talk: Leon Panetta’s Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace



Leon Panetta is an extraordinary public servant. He served in the House from 1977 to 1993, then as Director of the OMB from 1993 to 1994 and as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997. After founding the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, providing service on the thoughtful Iraq Study Group and teaching at his alma mater Santa Clara University, he re-entered public service in the Obama administration as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011 and as Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013.

Unfortunately, his memoir makes a number of missteps that do not reflect its full sweep. Leslie Gelb talks about the handful of pages that deal with Obama's Iraq and Syria policy and the uncharacteristic interviews that followed. The brief mentions of Korean issues are similarly disappointing, and also stirred unnecessary controversy; if you want a short overview, including North Korean reaction, the Newsweek coverage last month was excellent.

However, the problems are not simply Panetta’s; they are rooted in ambiguities in US nuclear strategy. The offending passage is worth quoting in full. While in Korea, Panetta was being briefed by General Skip Sharp on OPLAN 5027:

“If North Korea moved across the border, our war plans called for the senior American general on the peninsula to take command of all U.S. and South Korean forces and defend South Korea—including with nuclear weapons if necessary. Our forces maintained a readiness posture that allowed them to 'fight tonight.' I left our meeting with the powerful sense that war in that regions was neither hypothetical nor remote, but ever present and imminent. (emphasis in original)”

First, the idea that general war on the Korean peninsula is “imminent” is far-fetched, as I have argued in more detail in earlier posts (here and here). The problem is quite different: precisely because nuclear or large-scale conventional attack is soundly deterred, we have to worry about lower-level provocations that are much more difficult to prevent. This is the well-known “stability-instability” paradox: that as the stability of general deterrence increases, the potential for minor conflicts increases because of the decreased likelihood that they would escalate. North Korean provocations along the Northern Limit Line are perfect examples of this problem.

But the larger problem with Panetta’s brief comments on North Korea has to do with the claim that we might use nuclear weapons in the case of a (highly unlikely) large-scale conventional attack (“if the North Korea moved across the border…”). This is almost certainly untrue, and worse, it is not strategically useful.

The United States does not need nuclear weapons in order to deter either a large-scale conventional attack from North Korea nor even a nuclear one. Nonetheless, for decades we have used the loose language that our allies in Asia are protected by a “nuclear umbrella.” But there is no “nuclear umbrella,” either at the level of our alliance commitments nor at the level of the operational forces that are tasked with delivering such weapons. As Jeffrey Lewis has pointed out in our favorite commentary on this issue (at the Nautilus website here and here), the alliance commitments of the United States are to the defense of our partners, not to the use of any particular means for doing so.

So why the continual reference to the nuclear umbrella? The reasons are largely to assuage allies’ nervousness as tactical nuclear weapons were deployed outside of Northeast Asia—where none are now currently positioned—and Europe and as strategic nuclear arsenals were drawn down through agreements with the Soviet Union/Russia. Asserting the existence of a nuclear umbrella presumably shows resolve, while also keeping Japan and Korea from pursuing their own nuclear option.

The problem, however, is that this fiction means the US is still committed to the possibility that it might be the first-user of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review again postpones the idea that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States or its allies, allowing a continued role for them in deterring conventional attacks.

So what is wrong with waving the nuclear stick? The answers go back to stability during crises. Because the United States has such a variegated and powerful nuclear arsenal, uncertainty over nuclear weapons use could generate “use it or lose it” incentives on the part of adversaries. Michael Gerson outlines the logic clearly:

“Given U.S. quantitative and qualitative advantages in nuclear forces, and given that current and potential nuclear-armed adversaries are likely to have nuclear arsenals with varying degrees of size and survivability, in a future crisis an adversary may fear that the United States could attempt a disarming nuclear first strike. Even if the United States has no intention of striking first, the mere possibility of such a strike left open by a policy of not ruling one out could cause suboptimal decisionmaking in the heat of an intense crisis and increase the chances that nuclear weapons are used.”

The conclusion: the US would be better off moving toward a no-first use policy. On the Korean peninsula, this would have an additional diplomatic advantage: taking off the table the ongoing North Korean trope that their own nuclear arsenal is necessary because of vulnerability to US nuclear attack. In a classic catalogue for Le Monde Diplomatique, Bruce Cumings outlined the nuclear threats the US deployed during the Korean War; these are part of the North Koreans’ historical memory.

But Panetta’s language and recent policy statements continue to feed into this narrative, including the carve out in the Nuclear Posture Review. The NPR states that “the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing ‘negative security assurance’ by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The implication: North Korea and Iran do not enjoy such a no-first use pledge. Again, is this strategically useful if our objective is denuclearization of the Korean peninsula?

Other memoirs we have covered:

George W. Bush Decision Points

Donald Rumsfeld Known and Unknown and related papers: review by Noland; review by Haggard.

John Bolton Surrender is Not an Option; plus a debate with Josh Stanton on Bolton and the neo-cons.

Cheney, In My Time, Part 1; Part 2.

Condoleeza Rice, No Higher Honor, the first Bush administration; the second Bush administration.

Jeffrey Bader Obama and China's Rise.

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