I think it was a major blunder.
Kerry raised the issue during his discussion of the greatest threat facing the United States:
LEHRER: …If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?(Des Moines Register transcript .) It may be worth noting that the Kerry campaign website (well, he did tell us to look at it) states: “The greatest threat facing America in the 21st Century is the possibility of an attack by terrorists armed with a nuclear weapon.”)
KERRY: Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. There's some 600-plus tons of unsecured material still in the former Soviet Union and Russia. At the rate that the president is currently securing it, it'll take 13 years to get it. I did a lot of work on this. I wrote a book about it several years ago -- six, seven years ago -- called "The New War," which saw the difficulties of this international criminal network. And back then, we intercepted a suitcase in a Middle Eastern country with nuclear materials in it. And the black market sale price was about $250 million. Now, there are terrorists trying to get their hands on that stuff today. And this president, I regret to say, has secured less nuclear material in the last two years since 9/11 than we did in the two years preceding 9/11.
We have to do this job. And to do the job, you can't cut the money for it. The president actually cut the money for it. You have to put the money into it and the funding and the leadership. And part of that leadership is sending the right message to places like North Korea.
Right now the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons. The United States is pursuing a new set of nuclear weapons. It doesn't make sense.
You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, "You can't have nuclear weapons," but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using.
Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation. And we're going to get the job of containing all of that nuclear material in Russia done in four years. And we're going to build the strongest international network to prevent nuclear proliferation. This is the scale of what President Kennedy set out to do with the nuclear test ban treaty. It's our generation's equivalent. And I intend to get it done.
It seems to me that the part of the answer dealing with the ”bunker-busting nuclear weapons” was a completely unnecessary addition to what should have been a short answer to the question posed.
It does, however, give us some hair-raising insight into the Kerry thought process. It seems that, in his view, the United States of America is equivalent to a rogue state like North Korea. Somehow our possession of nuclear weapons makes us unworthy to seek to stop the development of such weapons by nations who do not now possess them, even for states that have long flouted international law and agreements.
Kerry apparently believes international relationships are governed by sending the right “messages” to miscreant nations. I assume the ultimate “right message” about weapons would be to completely lay down our arms to indicate that we are not a threat to anyone. It is this mindset that concludes that possession of a weapon that “we might even contemplate using” is particularly awful. I guess the only “good” weapon is one you do not contemplate needing to use. No wonder he was opposed to so many of the weapons systems developed over the past 20 years, he was afraid we might use them. Zell Miller had it right: spitballs might have been all that was available if Kerry had prevailed.
Presumably Mr. Kerry also believes that if we send the “right” message, all the bad guys in the world will also disarm and peace will break out. I think we tried something like this in the past when between World War I and II the US maintained an exceptionally weak military even as Nazi Germany and Japan began to violate the various arms agreements signed in the wake of the first “war to end all wars.” History does not prove that peace is derived from weakness but rather quite the opposite. From my own Navy days, I recall a poster that was a take off on the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, “ it read, “though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, because I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.”
Obviously, this sort of “meanest SOB” deterrence is not part of the Kerry political calculus. As a result, he is willing to give away, without getting anything in return, a weapon system that might deter bad guys from burrowing deep into the earth to set up places to do bad things that could hurt this country and/or our allies. Under the current program, such bad people might question the value of digging deeper, for no matter how deep they dig, we might still be able to get them. Without such a weapon system they can mine away with a relative degree of confidence we won’t be able to trouble them.
Further, Kerry’s eagerness to give such a potentially valuable tool away without any form of reciprocity is either another example of his lack of negotiating skills* or a sign that he doesn’t understand how the modern world is shaping up, or both. If it is a lack of negotiating skill then this is something that should give Americans pause as they contemplate electing a man who has promised to enter into so many negotiations to resolve issues of Iraq and other important matters. If he lacks a realistic world view, then his election would be a tragic mistake in a very dangerous time.
Finally, as is clear from the transcript, Kerry seems to have muddled together two different problems involving the dangers of nuclear proliferation and by mixing the problems, muddles how he would respond.
The first problem is how to get control over nuclear material that might be acquired by extranational terrorists, such as Al Qeda, who pose e a threat to many nation-states, including the US. The second problem is how to get control of the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons by sovereign nations that are recognized by the international community, such as North Korea. Obviously, different solutions are required for each problem.
Terrorists might be an “international criminal network” as Mr. Kerry suggests. However, I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest that any act by the U.S. to give up one of its weapons systems will change one tiny bit of terrorist behavior in attempting to gather the materials needed make weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, the Bush doctrine contemplates that nation-states that aid and abet such groups also are acting outside the bounds of international law and, like those who harbor pirates, can be fairly attacked, as we dealt with the Barbary pirates in 1805 by attacking their havens. This approach, which seems perfectly legal under whatever passes for international law, should be an incentive for terrorist sponsoring states to change their evil ways.
But the equation changes significantly when it is a nation-state itself that is acquiring such weapons. I don’t pretend to understand State Department diplomacy, but as far as I know, there is no international agreement for the proposition that just because a nation has developed a weapon of mass destruction that it “might even contemplate using,” that the offending nation has become fair game for attack by another nation that feels it might be attacked. Instead, the support of the international community must be sought to make it apparent to the bad-actor nation that it is far less dangerous to be a good neighbor than a bad one. Sanctions, alliances, treaties, arms talks and the whole range of diplomacy can be invoked. What must be made clear, though, is that threatening behavior will not be tolerated. Of course, you have to have the will to back it up. And that may include weapons that you are willing and able to use.
In sum, Kerry’s answer is a disaster. It appears he does not think through his statements for the effect they might have (as with his earlier gratuitous insults of our allies in Iraq and the Iraqi Prime Minister). Here he announces he will give away a weapon system that might deter actions that could prove detrimental to the United States. He gets nothing in return. By doing so, he reveals that he is an awful negotiator who believes in the power of symbolic “messages” instead of in actual strength (and the apparent willingness to use that strength). He reveals that he may have view of the world in which the U.S. is a rogue nation and on a par with North Korea and even terrorists. At best this view is naïve and, at worst, so wrong-headed as to be dangerous to our national security.
However, there may not be much impact on his campaign. So much of his support is driven by anti-Bush feelings that there is almost no hope of having these Bush-haters change their minds by pointing out Kerry’s manifest and manifold flaws. Too bad.
*Beldar discussed Kerry's apparent lack of negotiating skills here.
Update: fixed link to Kerry campaign website