Time to get U.S. nukes out of Europe

One of the more pernicious obstacles to rational policy-making is the "ratchet effect": the tendency for policies, once adopted, to acquire a life of their own and to become resistant to change, even when they have ceased to be useful. For example, you can be confident that we will all be wasting time in airport security lines decades from now, long after Osama bin Laden's death. Existing security measures may not pass a simple cost-benefit test, but what political leader would dare relax them?

I thought of this problem as I read a new article by Tom Sauer and Bob van der Zwaan, on the curious persistence of the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe. (The title of the article is "U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe after NATO's Lisbon Summit: Why Their Withdrawal is Desirable and Feasible," and it's in the latest issue of the academic journal International Relations.) Sauer and van der Zwaan examine the various arguments for and against keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. They conclude -- convincingly, in my view -- that there is no good reason to keep them there and plenty of good reasons to remove them.

I have to confess that I hadn't realized the United States still had any tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe. (Sorry about that; I can't keep track of everything). But it turns out we still have a couple of hundred or so weapons stationed there (down from about 500 a decade ago). These are mostly gravity bombs deployed under "dual-key" arrangements: The U.S. has custody of the weapons in peacetime, but custody could in theory be transferred to the various host nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey) in the event of war.

But isn't this a rather ludicrous situation, two decades after the Cold War ended? There is no threat of a conventional invasion of Western Europe, and thus no need to "link" the U.S. strategic deterrent to Europe's defense via tactical weapons physically deployed on the continent. (The theories that justified these deployments during the Cold War never made much sense to me either, but that's another story.) It's hard to imagine that these weapons are helping Dutch, German, or Turkish elites sleep soundly at night, or helping reassure their respective populations. If anything, local populations should worry about having these devices on their soil, which is why governments tend not to talk about them. Democracy in action!

In short, these weapons serve no legitimate strategic purpose (which is why the numbers have been declining), but bureaucratic inertia and/or political timidity explain why the United States and NATO haven't bitten the bullet and removed them completely.

As Sauer and van der Zwaan make clear, the benefits of doing so would be considerable. It would reinforce the basic logic of nuclear disarmament, and further "de-legitimize" nuclear weapons as status symbols, thereby contributing to broader nuclear security objectives. It would be consistent with the pledges that the United States made when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would reduce the threat of nuclear theft and/or nuclear terrorism, a danger intensified by the fact that U.S. nuclear-storage sites in Europe apparently do not meet our own security standards. If it were linked to further reductions of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, it would increase overall nuclear security even more. It would also save money, which is supposedly a priority these days. And if this step had any impact on the credibility of the U.S. commitment to NATO (which is highly doubtful) it might encourage the Europeans to do more for their own defense, instead of continuing to rely on Uncle Sucker.

In short, there's an overwhelming case for removing these archaic and unnecessary weapons from the European continent. Ideally, we would do this as part of a bilateral deal with Russia, but we ought to do it even if Russia isn't interested. It's an election year, which normally encourages a certain degree of chest-thumping on national security matters, so you shouldn't expect any progress until 2013. But getting rid of these useless devices would be a very smart thing to do, no matter who the next president turns out to be.

And then we should rethink airport security....

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What do the attacks in Afghanistan mean?

What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.

On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.

Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.

One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.

I'd like to believe this version story -- really --  and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.

I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.

Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.