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A reality check on Obama's bid for zero nukes

Since the nuclear genie can’t be put back in the bottle, striving for a system of stability – rather than dreaming of zero nukes – is the best course.

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Certainly, there is plenty of room to radically reduce arsenals, as the new START treaty begins to do, starting with the destabilizing weapons and putting in place controls that prevent unauthorized or accidental launch of a nuclear-armed missile. As long as a minimal balance remains that ensures the capacity for mutual destruction, deterrence will hold.

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The other focus should be on non-nuclear means of deterrence, though that, too, may generate instability if it creates a gap, real or perceived, with the capabilities of rival powers. The favored child of the Obama Pentagon is the “Prompt Global Strike” (PGS) weapon – a highly accurate inter-continental ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead that can hit any target globally within an hour.

The advantages of such a weapon are self-evident – it can strike at the heart of any enemy without annihilating its population or prompting a retaliatory nuclear attack. As such, its large-scale deployment could radically reduce dependence on nuclear weapons. At the same time, since its use will not be incommensurate with rational goals, it is far more likely to be used than a nuclear weapon. And it will be hard to distinguish from an incoming missile that is nuclear-armed.

Further, as the Russians, and no doubt the Chinese, fear, a world of zero nuclear weapons where only the US possesses the PGS is a recipe for American domination of the global battle space.

Inexorably, one day they will catch up with like technology. A system of deterrence based mainly on conventional weaponry might let us all breathe a little easier, even if nukes remain in the wings.

Unfortunately, it seems apparent that the only way knowledge of nuclear weapons will ever be lost is through a nuclear war that would destroy the civilization that spawned them. Short of that catastrophic eventuality that no one would hope for, aiming at building a system of stability – instead of dreaming of zero – is the best course.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of Global Services of Tribune Media Services. His most recent book, with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, is “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.”

© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network/ Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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