US Nuclear Forces' interest in appearing irrational

Rohit Khare (
Mon, 17 May 1999 14:20:48 -0700

[Appropriately enough, I found this in an online game theory
-- RK]

Pentagon study: 'Irrational' nuclear policy a deterrent

March 1, 1998
Web posted at: 8:35 p.m. EST (0135 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States should maintain the threat of
nuclear retaliation with an "irrational and vindictive" streak to
intimidate would-be attackers such as Iraq, according to an internal
military study made public Sunday.

The study, "Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence," was written by
the Defense Department's Strategic Command, a multiservice
organization responsible for the nation's strategic nuclear arsenal.
It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by an arms
control group and published Sunday in a report on U.S. strategies for
deterring attacks by antagonistic nations using chemical, biological
or nuclear weapons.

"Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S.
may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out,
it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed,"
the 1995 Strategic Command study says.

The British-American Security Information Council, a London-based
think tank, cited the STRATCOM document in its report as an example
of the Pentagon's push to maintain a mission for its nuclear arsenal
long after the Soviet threat disappeared.

The report portrays the command as fighting and winning an internal
bureaucratic battle against liberal Clinton administration officials
who lean in favor of dramatic nuclear weapons reductions.

Citing a range of formerly classified documents obtained through the
Freedom of Information Act, the report shows how the United States
shifted its nuclear deterrent strategy from the defunct Soviet Union
to so-called rogue states: Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and the

Idea dates back to early 1960s

In its study, the Strategic Command uses Cold War language in
defending the relevance of nuclear weapons in deterring such
potential adversaries.

"The fact that some elements (of the U.S. government) may appear to
be potentially 'out of control' can be beneficial to creating and
reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary's
decision makers," its report said. "That the U.S. may become
irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should
be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."

The idea of projecting an aura of irrationality was not original to
STRATCOM. It dates at least as far back as the early 1960s, when
Harvard professor Thomas Schelling was writing his ground-breaking
works on game theory and nuclear bargaining.

"It is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be
inalienably and manifestly rational in decision and motivation,"
Schelling wrote. These were ideas later adopted by Henry Kissinger
and President Nixon in using coercive air strikes on North Vietnam as
a way of forcing Hanoi to the bargaining table in the latter stages
of the Vietnam War.

In 1997, two years after STRATCOM advanced its latter-day version of
this theory, President Clinton approved a directive on U.S. nuclear
policy that upheld the "negative security assurance" that the United
States will refrain from first-use of nuclear weapons against
signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a list that
includes Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Effects on Non-Proliferation Treaty

The policy, however, includes exceptions that presidential adviser
Robert Bell said have been "refined" in recent years. They would
allow responding with nuclear weapons to attacks by nuclear-capable
states, countries that are not in good standing under the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty or states allied with nuclear powers.

Iraq, which the United States regards as violating international
atomic weapons restrictions, could be one such exception.

Arms control advocates are concerned that signatories to the
Non-Proliferation Treaty who possess no nuclear weapons will abandon
the pact if they see the existing nuclear powers preserving their
nuclear arsenals and finding missions for their weapons --
particularly if those missions include scenarios that involve attacks
on them.

Bell, President Clinton's senior adviser on nuclear weapons and arms
control matters, disputed that argument in an interview Friday.

"I don't think there's a disconnect in principle between some level
of general planning at STRATCOM and the negative security assurance
and our goals relative to the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Bell said.

Treaty signatories are more worried about their neighbors than the
United States, Bell said, and they support the nuclear weapons
reductions the treaty imposes on nuclear-armed states.

Of the 1995 Strategic Command document, Bell said, "That sounds like
an internal STRATCOM paper which certainly does not rise to the level
of national policy."

Strategic Command worried about its role

Navy Lt. Laurel Tingley, spokeswoman for the Omaha, Nebraska-based
command, said she could not comment on the council's report until it
could be reviewed in detail. She restated the command's basic policy
guidance that deterrence of attacks involving nuclear, chemical or
biological weapons is "the fundamental purpose of U.S. nuclear

Worried that the Clinton administration wanted to end the command's
role, an internal memo referred in 1993 to then-Assistant Secretary
of Defense Ashton Carter, who was in charge of proliferation and arms
control issues, as having "negative feelings" toward nuclear weapons.

Background information on Carter, the command document said,
indicated "a less than favorable long-term outlook for nuclear
weapons" and long-term visions of "complete denuclearization."

Carter, now at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said
in a telephone interview the Strategic Command saw its influence
within the Pentagon waning as budgets for nuclear weapons were
slashed after the Cold War.

At the Pentagon, Carter was trying to develop nonnuclear options for
retaliating against rogue attackers who used weapons of mass
destruction, he said, "because any president would surely prefer to
have nonnuclear options."

"It doesn't surprise me at all that those who were responsible for
nuclear weapons budgets would find that threatening," Carter said.
But at the time, he said, the real threat to the Strategic Command's
mission came not from civilian Pentagon officials but from within the
uniformed military.