Does Romney Know Anything About Nukes?

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Joe Cirincione, one of the nation's sharpest minds on nuclear weapons policy, just highlighted in Foreign Policy yet another big gulp moment in the viral video of Mitt Romney triggering shock and awe (wrong kind of awe though) across the political world.  Cirincione speculates, based on the recording, that Mitt knows little of nukes and even less of dirty bombs.  And the difference matters, big time.

Cirincione picks up something few others did in this clip from the Romney fundraiser:

If I were Iran, if I were Iran -- a crazed fanatic, I'd say let's get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we'll just say, "Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we're going to let off a dirty bomb." I mean this is where we have -- where America could be held up and blackmailed by Iran, by the mullahs, by crazy people. So we really don't have any option but to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

--Mitt Romney, May 17, 2012

The Ploughshares Fund President and former Carnegie Endowment and Center for American Progress nuclear wunderkind (approaching wunderelder) then implies that Romney isn't up to the job he is seeking and doesn't understand what may be the premier responsibility of the American president in a still-nuclear world.  Cirincione writes:

Governor Mitt Romney's description, caught on video, of what he considered the real nuclear threat from Iran has further undermined his national security credentials, showing a fundamental misunderstanding of nuclear threats. Iran's nuclear program has nothing to do with dirty bombs. Terrorists would not use uranium -- from Iran or anywhere else -- in a dirty bomb. It is unclear if Gov. Romney was just riffing, or if his advisors had fed him this line of attack. But it is dead wrong.

Nuclear bombs are serious business, and preventing their spread and their use against the United States is perhaps the paramount duty of the president, who, of course, is also responsible for any decision to use America's own arsenal.

Does Romney really not know the difference between a dirty bomb, which as Cirincione points out has never been used, and a nuclear warhead?  Does Romney know that no matter what bomb Iran manages to put together, if it assembles one, that it will be primitive, and not have anywhere near the magnitude, destructive ability and lethality of any of the single thermonuclear warheads in Israel's sizable arsenal?  Nuclear weapons are a dangerous business -- so too the materials that could contribute to a dirty bomb; but how one deals with each of these types of threats is radically different. 

President Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden, has done a commendable job restoring global concern about nuclear materials management.  Obama hosted a major global summit in Washington focused on nuclear materials controls; got a revised START arms control treaty back in place with the Russians; used the US presidency of the UN Security Council three years ago to focus on nuclear and WMD proliferation.  Obama and Biden know the entire nuclear terrain well.

Let's think the unthinkable for a moment.  If Governor Romney got that 3 am call and learned that a dirty bomb had been successfully deployed in a US city, or perhaps in Israel or another ally, would he launch a nuclear weapon in retaliation?  These questions matter -- and it's not clear that Romney has the wherewithal at the moment to understand the responsibilities the US President carries for global nuclear stewardship.

In the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of working with RAND nuclear strategist and former USAF General Glenn Kent, who recently passed in April of this year, on an arms control related 'currency system' called "Standard Weapon Stations."  In its obituary, RAND recognized Kent for "devising the framework that would serve as the U.S. government's general plan for nuclear war from 1961 to 2003."

Without going into too much detail, one of the technical problems in US-Soviet arms control at the time was trying to find a way to ease the comparison and trade-offs between a widening variety of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.  There were the slow-moving but powerful B-52 nuclear warhead-laden fleet, MIRVed and non-MIRVed warheads on a variety of nuclear missiles, some of which were launched from fixed but hardened sites, some on tracks, some on subs, some miniaturized and highly mobile on cruise missiles. Miles Pomper, Jeffrey Lewis (aka Arms Control Wonk), or William Potter could issue dozens of other innovative ways that the US President or Soviet Premier could blow up a large chunk of the world.  The differentiation in missile warhead throw-weight and accuracy made negotiating across this complex portfolio more than just a political problem -- but also a genuinely technical one.

When trading apples and oranges, or trading GLCMs for SLCMs or more, Glenn Kent smartly thought one needed a currency, or metric, that allowed easy trading of dissimilar nuclear weapons commodities.  Kent wasn't popular for this, nor I for me enthusiasm for his idea, because most thought that we were distracted by a gimmick and not understanding that politics more than anything else drove the deal-making.

What was fascinating at the time is that no matter who was President of the United States -- Ronald Reagan then and Jimmy Carter just before, or the people who wanted to rise up and challenge them like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, eventually Bob Dole, Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar, John Anderson and more -- everyone had a basic, grounded understanding of nuclear weapons, their dangers, and an approximate understanding of America's arsenal as compared to the Soviets.  Folks at the time would joke about whether Ronald Reagan really had a grasp of the nuclear dangers and systems he was frequently speaking about. 

There was a rumor that possibly was urban legend (never have been able to find the quote) that Reagan thought a submarine-launched ballistic missile could be called back after launch.  I doubt Reagan said this -- but even if he had, Reagan knew enough about nukes after many tutorials and discussions with hydrogen bomb father and nuclear hawk Edward Teller that Reagan respected the devastation that a nuclear conflagration could generate.

I happened to be with Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter at West Point one day in the 1980s on the morning that the Los Angeles Times' Robert Scheer wrote about a leaked private letter from then President Ronald Reagan to Albert Wohlstetter, a direct and personal one, asking the famed conservative nuclear strategist to outline for Reagan's second term the key strategic opportunities and pitfalls facing the United States.  Wohlstetter was furious about Scheer's article and refused to discuss publicly what he might share with Ronald Reagan. 

But what one could surmise from both Reagan's letter and Wohlstetter's response is that the actor-turned-Governor-turned-President knew a lot about nukes.

It's not clear that Mitt Romney meets the Ronald Reagan bar -- or the bar set by any other US President in his fundamental appreciation for the nuclear weapons realities the White House must manage. 

One hopes that one of the anchors in the upcoming Presidential debates will pose a nuclear weapons related question to Governor Romney and President Obama. 

Note to the Governor:  a good place to start his tutorial on Iran would be a chat with CSIS' Anthony Cordesman who can give him a candid, Herman Kahn-style rundown on who will be the victor and vanquished in an Israel-Iran nuclear tiff (hint: not Tehran). 

Next, Dana Priest's well-researched and compelling profile of America's deteriorating nuclear weapons stockpile is another fantastic resource.  I'd probably count on Joe Biden and Barack Obama each being totally up to speed on all of this.

Good luck to the Governor in those debates should this topic come up.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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