Syrian Response Highlights Trump’s Nonproliferation through Strength Approach

By Richard Weitz

According to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the Syrian government aborted a planned chemical strike following the administration’s threats at the beginning of the week to preempt or punish another attack.

The White House warning to the Syrian government that it would “pay a heavy price” came after the Pentagon detected preparations for chemical weapons use at the same Shayrat Airfield that the U.S. military attacked with dozens of cruise missiles in April, following its use in a Sarin gas that killed almost one hundred civilians.

Last month, U.S. forces shot down a Syrian Air Force fighter-bomber that was attacking U.S.-backed fighters near Raqqa as well as some Iranian drones threatening these forces.

These recent events give credence to the statements administration officials made in recent weeks describing their strategy and tactics to avert WMD use and proliferation.

Though the details await completion of several interagency reviews, the new approach essentially consists of ensuring nonproliferation through a combination of firmness and strength.

This January, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff launched a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the fourth in U.S. history. Its goal is “to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.

The Trump administration is also conducting a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Review “to identify ways of strengthening missile-defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas.”

Meanwhile, other reviews will analyze regional proliferation challenges and whether universal nuclear nonproliferation and global nuclear disarmament are realistic goals.

The main National Security Council official overseeing nuclear nonproliferation issues, Christopher Ford, formerly at Hudson Institute and now a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation, offered a revealing though understudied presentation on these issues at last month’s annual meeting of the Arms Control Association.

Explicitly seeking to dissipate misconceptions about the administration’s approach through misinterpretations of Trump’s various remarks and tweets, Ford explained that Trump opposes the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terming it “the single biggest problem” for international security. “So strong are his feelings about the unacceptability of WMD use against innocent civilians,” Ford observed, “that he went through the trouble of blowing up a Syrian airfield.”

However, Trump believes that a prerequisite for reducing proliferation incentives was to restore the strength and credibility of U.S. military threats that had eroded in recent years.

In Ford’s words, Trump holds that “the maintenance and wise application of U.S. strength and resolve is not inimical to international peace and security, but rather essential to it.”

For example, Trump believes that a resurgence in the perceived U.S. ability and will to employ military power would make China and North Korea think twice about making nuclear threats to U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan. Seoul and Tokyo would also have less incentive to pursue their own nuclear deterrents the more confident they were in U.S. military security guarantees.

“Characteristically,” Ford observed, “the president has made these points in ways that are perhaps more blunt and direct than it is usual to hear in traditional inside-the-beltway discourse. But at their core …  these comments rest upon a good deal of common sense… and arguments that we have heard from nonproliferation experts for years.”

Specifically, “that the credibility and capabilities inherent in U.S. extended deterrence relationships are essential to assuring allies of the solidity of our alliance guarantees…. [and for] reducing proliferation incentives in regions of the world in which U.S. allies confront the specter of aggression by a rogue state or by a large neighbor with territorial ambitions.”

In his comments, Ford affirmed that the administration was also fighting nuclear proliferation with the traditional means: “including supporting international nonproliferation regimes, securing or eliminating vulnerable nuclear material worldwide, preventing the spread of dual use and other enabling technologies and capabilities, ensuring effective safeguards on peaceful nuclear activities, and interdicting proliferation shipments, and otherwise doing all they can to slow the development of threat programs.”

Ford also affirmed that the administration was striving to ensure U.S. and foreign compliance with the New START Treaty limitations and the Iranian nuclear deal, and did not see a need to resume testing nuclear weapons anytime soon, even as the White House was reviewing options for dealing with Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, strategic arms control beyond New START, the possible need for new nuclear weapons, and how to keep Iran and North Korea from becoming nuclear weapons states.

In developing these options, Ford insisted that the administration was striving to ensure that the various interagency strategic reviews, including those dealing with Korea and Iran, were considering “a gazillion different options” by addressing a comprehensive range of political-military issues associated with the issue rather than narrow nuclear considerations alone.

Nonetheless, Ford did suggest that the Trump administration would not follow what it saw as the last Nuclear Posture Review’s “explicitly prioritize[ing] reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy over maintaining strategic deterrence and stability, over strengthening regional deterrence and reassuring U.S. allies, and over sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.”

For example, Trump thought that the proliferation of nuclear weapons had proceeded too far to attain the strict preconditions to realize universal nuclear disarmament anytime soon.

In line with this logic, at an April session of the UN Disarmament Commission, the U.S. delegate criticized proposals to ban nuclear weapons immediately without verification as an “ill-conceived endeavour” that would harm the existing NPT regime “without securing the elimination of a single nuclear warhead or improving the security of any state” since the ban effort was proceeding without the support of the existing nuclear weapons states and ignore the concerns of many countries that rely on U.S. extended nuclear security guarantees.

Therefore, the immediate task was to discourage further horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation by other states through sustaining U.S. nuclear superiority over any potential adversary.

In Ford’s words, “it is precisely our willingness to engage in such competition if we are forced to that he hopes will persuade potential adversaries… that path is a losing game.”

According to the State Department, the U.S. experts engaged in the NPR were considering how to strengthen execution of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by addressing cases of NPT noncompliance or withdrawal, growing nuclear arsenals, the challenging international security environment, and how to allow peaceful nuclear energy development without facilitating nuclear weapons programs.

Furthermore, Ford said that Trump would not deny the United States the option of first using nuclear weapons to augment deterrence through “a degree of strategic ambiguity.” in strengthening the NPT and Iran nuclear deal, the administration considered it better to have no negotiated agreements than bad ones.

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