Remember when we used to chastise Bush for his blunt “bring ’em on” bravura? Yeah, so…what do we make of the Obama administration’s naked threat to nuke anyone who wants to develop nukes?

Mr. Obama’s new strategy makes just about every nonnuclear state immune from any threat of nuclear retaliation by the United States. But it carves out an exception for Iran and North Korea, labeled “outliers” rather than the Bush-era moniker of “rogue states.” The wording was chosen, Mr. Obama’s senior advisers said, to suggest they have a path back to international respectability — and to de-targeting by the United States.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made the choice explicit. “There is a message for Iran and North Korea here,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Nonnuclear states that abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would not be threatened with nuclear retaliation by the United States — even if they conducted conventional, biological or cyber attacks. But, he added, “if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”

Hey, pussy, I won’t beat the shit out of you if you stop looking at me funny.

Take note that this particular “nuclear posture” (a phrase that brings this to mind) is a continuation of policies held by the previous Bush administration, a threat that had little if any deterrence value.

The problem Mr. Obama faces is that the Bush administration used virtually identical language to warn North Korea soon after it conducted a nuclear test in 2006. The next year, however, North Korea was caught helping Syria build a nuclear reactor. Israel destroyed the site in a nighttime raid in 2007. But North Korea paid little price for what is widely regarded as its most audacious attempt at nuclear proliferation.

Well, what were we going to do? Nuke them? No blowback there.

I have said elsewhere that I favor the proposed reduction in nuclear stockpiles — anything to reduce our chances of self-annihilation is to be welcome — but have no realistic expectation that we will eliminate nukes from humanity’s quiver, as it were. Nor will we be able to realistically stop North Korea or Iran or anyone else from developing their own stockpiles should they have a mind to. And this is precisely why: there are no good options to punish them. A nuclear response is absurd, yet so is any other act of war, including the Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities that gets aired every six months.

If Israel also decides to attack the famous reactor in Bushehr, an ecological disaster and mass deaths will result. The contamination released into the air in the form of radionuclides would spread over a large area, and thousands of Iranians who live nearby would be killed immediately; in addition, possibly hundreds of thousands would subsequently die of cancer. Because northerly winds blow in the area throughout most of the year, the authors conclude that, “most definitely Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE will be heavily affected by the radionuclides.”

The study also analyzes the possible Iranian response to an Israeli strike. In all likelihood the result would be to spur Iranians to continue and even accelerate their nuclear program, to create reliable deterrence in the face of an aggressive Israel. Iran would also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which until now has enabled its nuclear program to be monitored, to a certain degree, through inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. An Israeli strike would immediately put a stop to the international community’s attempts to pressure Iran into suspending development of nuclear weapons.

An Israeli strike on Iran would also sow instability in the Middle East. The Iranians would make use of the Shi’ites in Iraq, support Taliban fighters and improve their combat capabilities in Afghanistan. They also might attack American interests in the region, especially in countries that host U.S. military forces, such as Qatar and Bahrain. The Iranians would probably also attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf region. Since the United States would be perceived as having given Israel a green light to attack Iran, American relations with allies in the Arab world could suffer greatly. Toukan and Cordesman believe, however, that Iran’s ally Syria would refrain from intervening if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.

So, yeah, no problems there. Face it: the nukes will always be with us. Thirty years ago I was a kid, yet I remember vividly the anti-nuke movement, the demonstrations and legislative action that pushed for the Cold War super powers to de-escalate their tensions and seek arms reductions. At the time both Three Mile Island and The Day After (holy shit, Steve Guttenberg was in that, too?!) haunted the popular imagination, so it seemed to my naive brain then that there was a chance I would grow into a nuclear-free world — provided we did not wind up in “mutie land” a la Mad Max or Judge Dredd. Admittedly, I am less shocked by the continued presence of nuclear weapons that we will never use than I am by the current drive by a Democratic President to revive nuclear power as a green source of alternative energy. That’s just dumb.

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