On that viral video from Baghdad

According to the New York Times, that viral video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking a group of people in a Baghdad suburb -- an attack that killed two Reuters reporters -- has now been viewed at least two million times on YouTube. I was one of those two million viewers, and it's pretty horrifying, especially when you know as you watch that the targets were in fact innocent victims.

But you should watch it anyway, if you want to understand why many Iraqis now want us out of their country and why the United States is less popular than its citizens and leaders think it ought to be. For me, the most remarkable thing about the video is the business-as-usual dialogue between the pilots and crew of the Apache and the ground controllers that are guiding their actions. Although they clearly perceive this as a combat situation -- and there were insurgents operating in their vicinity -- nothing in their exchange suggests that the situation is unusual or that they were in imminent danger themselves. The tone is calm, with occasional moments of frustration at not having a clear shot and elation after the targets are hit.

It is the "banality of combat." The crew followed normal procedures, obtained authorization to shoot before firing, maneuvered to get a clean line of fire, and then unleashed a devastating fusillade. (If you're unfamiliar with the firepower of modern weaponry, the video is graphic and revealing). The self-congratulatory banter and occasional laughter following the attack -- after the violent death of fellow human beings -- is downright chilling.

This tells me that this incident wasn't unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.

Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper "rules of engagement," or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.

One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don't like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won't understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our "values." Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.

It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, "covert" actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won't be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won't be as likely to misinterpret it.

And that means that organizations like Wikileaks are performing a public service, by exposing incidents and activities that the government would rather you didn't know about. The administration and the Pentagon are very good at telling us about the positive things that they do (and don't get me wrong, there are plenty of them), but an intelligent republic needs independent, tough-minded journalists (and bloggers) to tell us the rest. Because it is more difficult for entrenched interests to control or manipulate, the Internet and the blogosphere is a major asset in the fight for greater public awareness. For more on this latter point, I find Glenn Greenwald convincing.


Stephen M. Walt

Nuclear Posture Review (or Nuclear Public Relations?)

The Obama administration is now rolling out the results of its "Nuclear Posture Review," and presenting it as a significant if not quite revolutionary rethinking of U.S. nuclear strategy. I haven't seen the full text of the document and have only excerpts and press reports to go by, but the basic idea is to narrow the range of scenarios in which the United States would threaten a nuclear response. 

To be a bit more specific, instead of reserving the option of nuclear strikes in response to a nuclear attack, an attack by other forms of WMD (such as biological weapons) or even a large-scale conventional invasion, the review declares that the "fundamental role" of the U.S. arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S., its allies, or partners." Accordingly, as a matter of declaratory policy, the Review declares that "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."

The exceptions to this narrower focus would be non-nuclear attacks by any nuclear-armed state, or states that the United States deems to be in violation of the NPT. Translation: We still reserve the option of first nuclear use against Iran and North Korea.

Lots of ink will no doubt be spilled analyzing this shift in declaratory policy, and nuclear theologians will spend time at conferences and workshops parsing the fine-grained implications of the change. And stay tuned for assorted hawkish windbags and right-wing think-tankers declaring that this new language has somehow imperiled U.S. security, even though we still have thousands of nuclear weaspons in our arsenal and the strongest conventional forces in the world.   

I'll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value -- i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama's commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.

Here's why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn't going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?  

Of course you wouldn't, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You'd worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn't matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you'd also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways -- what Thomas Schelling famously termed the "threat that leaves something to chance -- and thereby ruin your whole day.

To the extent that nuclear weapons deter -- and I happen to think they do -- it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them.  In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.

Furthermore, the decision to exclude nuclear weapons states, non-signatories of the NPT, or states we deem in violation of it (e.g., Iran) strikes me as both too clever by half and maybe counterproductive. The purpose seems to be to give these states an additional incentive to sign the NPT or to conform to it, but it's hard to believe that this statement will have that effect on anyone.  India, Pakistan and Israel are all non-signatories, but surely they aren't worried about U.S. "first use" against them and so this statement will be irrelevant to their nuclear calculations.

The real target of this exception is Iran (and conceivably North Korea and Syria). At best, this new statement will have little or no effect, for the reasons noted above (i.e., no one know what we might do in a crisis or war, so pledges of no-first-use are essentially meaningless). At worst, however, excluding Iran in this fashion -- which amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons its own -- merely gives them additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option.  In particular, declaring that we reserve the right of "first use" against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all), sounds like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice  thing to have.

Remarkably, U.S. policymakers never seem to realize that the same arguments they use to justify our own nuclear arsenal apply even more powerfully to states whose security is a lot more precarious than America's. If the U.S. government believes that "the fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States, and the United States is now proclaiming that it still reserves the option of using nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear Iran (under some admittedly extreme circumstances), then wouldn't a sensible Iranian leadership conclude that it could use a nuclear arsenal of its own, whose "fundamental role" would be to deter us from doing just that?