Barack Obama (Probably) Won’t Rule Out Initiating a Nuclear War

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Obummer.Photo: Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the largest pro–Hillary Clinton super-pac released a terrifying new ad, entitled “I Love War.” The 30-second spot layers Donald Trump’s most belligerent sound bites over images of dead soldiers and mushroom clouds, warning voters that the GOP nominee is far too comfortable with the use of atomic weapons.

“I love war in a certain way … Including with nukes. Nuclear is just, the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump says at various points in the ad.

But while voters might worry that the mogul’s volatile temperament could make him overeager to deploy weapons of mass destruction, some American allies appear to worry about the exact opposite.

In recent weeks, President Obama had been mulling the idea of committing the United States to a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons — which is to say, making an official promise that the U.S. will only launch such weapons in response to their use by an adversary.

But the president’s advisers proved nearly unanimous in their objections to such a move, and Obama seems to have yielded to their judgment. Per the New York Times:

But in the end, Mr. Obama seems to have sided with his current advisers, who warned in meetings culminating this summer that a no-first-use declaration would rattle allies like Japan and South Korea. Those nations are concerned about discussion of an American pullback from Asia prompted by comments made by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.

In other words, America’s allies are spooked by the idea that Donald Trump would be too reluctant to deploy America’s weapons — nuclear or otherwise — in their defense. Thus, to reassure our security partners, Obama must not suggest that the United States is officially opposed to starting nuclear wars.

From one angle, the anxiety surrounding the no-first-use position looks curious — after all, it’s been America’s unspoken policy for decades.

But if that policy were made official, it could give momentum to more concrete changes, like putting our nuclear arsenal into a lower state of readiness. For proponents of no first use, this is one of the policy’s essential benefits: “De-alerting” nuclear missiles would make an accidental atomic war less likely.

The policy’s critics, however, dispute that conclusion. According to the Times, Obama’s advisers believe that, should the U.S. need to “re-alert” its arsenal amid a crisis with another nuclear-weapons state, that very action would risk escalating that crisis, increasing the risk of a hot war.

More fundamentally, opponents of no first use suggest that there may be circumstances in which a first strike is justified. In The Week, Kyle Mizokami sketches one such scenario:

A North Korean nuclear missile, buried in a silo deep underground, is being prepared for launch. The silo is too well protected by concrete and steel to guarantee a conventional bomb — or hail of bombs — would destroy the missile. On the other hand, the newly updated B61-12 ground-penetrating nuclear bomb might very well do the trick.

There are many reasons to worry about Donald Trump commanding America’s nuclear arsenal, his proud ignorance of geopolitics and emotional volatility being two of the most prominent.

But it’s worth noting that the GOP candidate’s stated position on the use of nuclear weapons is roughly identical to that of the sitting president.

Trump has declared nuclear proliferation the “biggest problem” in the world, while vowing to “have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody.”

Still, even as Trump has expressed his deep personal aversion to the weapons, he has refused to rule out their use.

“I will be the last to use nuclear weapons. It’s a horror to use nuclear weapons,” Trump told the Today show in April. “I will not be a happy trigger like some people might be … But I will never, ever rule it out.”

The Obama administration, officially, agrees.