Defense Games, Arms Races: Not What You Think

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

Defense Games, Arms Races: Not What You Think


Byline: Kim R. Holmes, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's an alluring idea: If the United States disarms or restrains its military forces, other countries would do the same. The notion is gaining ground in the Obama administration; it needs very careful scrutiny.

The president's thinking about nuclear disarmament is grounded in this idea. In laying out his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world, Mr. Obama asserted that as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor [to rid the world of nuclear weapons] alone, but we can lead it.

Let's ignore the question of whether a nuclear-free world is achievable. The president clearly sees America's nuclear arsenal as a central part of the problem. He puts America squarely in the nuclear disarmament dock and offers unilateral restraint as a measure of leadership. Clearly, he believes that unilateral restraint is necessary to get the ball rolling toward universal nuclear disarmament. Put simply, by disarming ourselves, we remove at least one reason for others to have them in the first place.

Those holding this worldview are usually, at the very least, ambivalent about America's military superiority. Mr. Obama doesn't say so, but many of his more liberal followers think our huge lead in weapons technology forces others to try to catch up by acquiring more weapons. Thus, the logic goes, if we want others to disarm, we must do so ourselves.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates certainly is no fan of this kind of disarmament thinking, and yet he has a strange ambivalence about aspects of our military superiority. Some critics have charged that his most recent defense budget will erode our military superiority in vital areas.

In justifying his budget, Mr. Gates has said that "every defense dollar spent to .. run up the score in a capability where the United States is already dominant is a dollar not available to take care of our people, reset

the force, win the wars we are i "The assumption seems to be that we can afford to narrow the overall defense gap without adverse consequences, because we have"run up the score" and there is supposedly no inherent benefit from a large degree of military superiority over our adversaries.

But Mr. Gates and Mr. Obama misunderstand the real-world dynamics of U.S. military superiority. America's military strength and determination to excel more often than not have discouraged aggression and - in cases like Libya - actually encouraged disarmament. Moreover, other countries don't always mirror our restraint. In fact, seeing the military gap closing can entice them to work harder to catch up, and this could happen faster than Mr. Gates imagines.

A recent nuclear arms race game conducted by my colleague, Baker Spring, shows how simplistic arms race ideas can be wrong. …

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