Scott Sagan argues very convincingly in the pages of Survival that the United States should adopt a declaratory policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons (Scott D. Sagan, “The Case for No First Use,” Survival 51:3, June–July 2009, pp. 163–182).
Particularly compelling, to me, is his demolition of “calculated ambiguity” using a case study from the Bush Administration. Whatever the appeal in theory, in real life “calculated ambiguity” degenerates into the clumsy brandishing of nuclear weapons.
I had been mulling a similar case study in a memo using the almost comical efforts to maintain “calculated ambiguity” regarding a possible nuclear strike against the Libyan facility at Tarhuna. The Clinton Administration looked like the Keystone Cops armed with nuclear weapons, which says something when you manage to upstage Muammar al-Gaddafi in a black comedy.
No need to, now. Scott executes a much cleaner demonstration of why “calculated ambiguity” is, to my mind, more trouble than it is worth:
Options on the table
A US no-first-use declaration would also enhance US non-proliferation objectives by increasing international diplomatic support for tougher diplomatic measures against potential proliferators. Recent attempts to use coercive diplomacy against Iran illustrate the point. Bush and Cheney repeatedly hinted in 2006 and 2007, by noting that ‘all options are on the table’, at US plans to use military force to attack Iran’s nuclear programme if diplomatic efforts and UN sanctions failed to persuade Tehran to give up its uranium enrichment and other facilities. In April 2006, journalist Seymour Hersh sparked an international controversy by reporting that the US contingency attack plans that had been sent to the White House included the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iranian underground facilities.
At a press conference on 18 April 2006, Bush pointedly left open the possibility that his statements were meant to include the option of a preventive first strike with nuclear weapons:
Q: Sir, when you talk about Iran, and you talk about how you have diplomatic efforts, you also say all options are on the table. Does that include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something that your administration will plan for?
THE PRESIDENT: All options are on the table.
It is not clear whether Bush was engaging in coercive diplomacy, following the ‘calculated ambiguity’ nuclear doctrine, or whether he was simply following the script laid out in his notes. In response to this press conference comment, however, Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, immediately protested, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, against what he called ‘a tacit confirmation of the shocking news on the administration’s possible contemplation of nuclear strikes against certain targets in Iran’. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw also joined the debate, answering ‘yes’ when a BBC reporter asked him if the UK government would ‘unequivocally say we want nothing to do with this’ if the United States attacked Iran, and adding that ‘the idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts’.
The point is not that potential veiled US nuclear threats were in any way the cause of Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme, which began long before the Bush administration took office. But US nuclear threats, intentional or not, both play into the hands of domestic forces in Iran that favour developing nuclear weapons and reduce international diplomatic support for coercive diplomatic efforts to pressure Iran to end its defiance of UN Security Council resolutions requiring suspension of its enrichment programme. If the United States were to adopt a no-first-use doctrine, the temptation for US politicians to resort to veiled nuclear threats as part of coercive diplomacy against Iran or other potential proliferators would be reduced, as would the ability of Tehran to claim it faces nuclear threats.
The very fact that the UK Foreign Secretary feels compelled to characterize the US position as “completely nuts” — to me — is a sign of a declaratory policy FAIL.