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."

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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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