, 25 tweets, 5 min read Read on Twitter
Okay. Those of you who want an explainer about why Elizabeth Warren's answer on #nuclear weapons wasn't crazy - and is basically a restatement of current U.S. policy - here it comes. Those of you who think Liz Cheney is right, I can't help you. /1
So, Warren said she would not use U.S. nuclear weapons preemptively. This is a word that's not as obvious as it seems. But to understand this, you need to understand "first use" and "first strike" and "no first use." That requires a quick trip back to the Cold War. /2
During the "missile age," post-1960, the question was: "When is it okay to fire your missiles in retaliation for an attack on yourself?" The problem is that if you go too soon, you might be jumping the gun on just a warning, but if you go too late...well, you're too late. /3
There were three and a half options here (quick Twitter versions):
1. Preemption (fire before the other guy; only suckers wait)
2. Launch on Warning (high certainty enemy attack procedures are in motion)
2.5 Launch Under Attack (evidence that enemy strikes are happening) /4
The Pentagon used "on warning/under attack" interchangeably, but they're different. We won't cover that here, except to say that "on warning" is basically an itchy trigger finger in the IMMEDIATE pre-war environment, not a discretionary preemption from a standstill. /5
There's a third, tough-guy option sometimes called Ride Out: waiting for the other guy's attack to finish and then firing. This was a theoretical idea meant to curb escalation to cities. Not really anyone's choice in World War III vs the USSR. /6
None of this is a "first-strike," which is basically just firing first not because the other guy is about to go, but because you think it's to your advantage. That's not been U.S. policy since we dumped "Massive Retaliation" after the Eisenhower administration. /7
(And even Eisenhower didn't believe in that, it turns out.) /8
Now, "first use" is another matter. We assumed that in a war in Europe against the USSR, we'd lose. We were outnumbered and outgunned. So we said: "We reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first," meaning "in Europe against your tanks." Not "nuke Moscow instantly." /9
We hoped the Soviets understood us. They'd use nukes too, it would escalate to a theater nuclear war in Europe, and eventually, to ...New York and Moscow. Gone. So, the Soviets would behave, because even if they win, they lose. /10
That was a strategy of desperation, and it is the reason we've never embraced "no first use." We still have this 1968 hangover about losing a war in Europe, with the Soviets giving us the finger from Calais in just a week or two. /11
Anyway, back to the strategic picture: Our nuclear strategy after the early 1960s was predicated on such a war already being underway. We assumed that some regional conflict would bring us to a nuclear showdown. and we have to make a go/no-go decision. /12
Our answer was launch on warning: Once we thought enemy attack was in process, we'd launch quickly to catch as much of their stuff on the ground as possible. This was called, for years, a strategy of "damage-limitation," not "preemption" and certainly not a first strike. /13
"Preemptive attack" is the thing you do *before* launch on warning. That is, you just don't like what you see, as the other guy goes to alert and [very Gene Hackman voice] STARTS FUELING HIS MISSILES. You're not certain, but screw it, better safe than sorry.
Launch on warning is VERY risky, but it's pretty much post-1960 nuclear orthodoxy. It's not preemption. But there's always been a group of people out there with a serious jones for nuclear war-fighting, who were mostly kept away from the gun and liquor cabinets after 1990. /14
Now, did we have *plans* for doing all kinds of ghastly things? Yes. Strategic Air Command came up with thousands of targets. That's what planners and targeters do. But that wasn't ever policy, and isn't now. Even DICK CHENEY tried to pare back the target list. /15
Now those nuclear war-fighters are back, and trying to change things while Trump's in office because he has no idea about "the nuclear" or what any of this means. What it really means is lots of consulting contracts, mostly in the 703 area code, and new weapons systems later. /16
I don't know what Warren thinks about Launch on Warning, but it seems clear to me she was rejecting was the "if they even *think* it" school of nuclear warfare. We maintain a ridiculously high alert status and I hope she or someone puts an end to that. /17
Now, there is *one* place she's open to criticism here: Launch on Warning, if it ever made sense, still only makes sense for peer competitors like RU or PRC. What about North Korea? Can't we just preempt those guys if they look at us sideways? /18
Hell, if NK has only one or two missiles, nuking it sounds tempting. But you'd better not be wrong, you better be ready for the consequences of a nuclear disaster, and you'd better pray that other powers don't mistake what you're doing as a prelude to a bigger war. /19
That's why the Bush and Obama admins have been trying to create a conventional capability for long-range, quick strikes. For years. Because once you break the nuclear seal, you've opened up Pandora's box, including other powers now saying that all bets are off on nuclear use. /19
Add to this that we are *just not going to fight limited nuclear wars*, at all, and certainly not in NK or Mideast. People we care about live there. Retaliation against the USSR, or RU and PRC, was and is credible because we'd be facing extinction. Not so against NK or IR. /20
So to dump on Warren's position, you'd have to argue that
(1) US nuclear policy since 1960 has been stupidly and even dangerously weak;
(2) We must decide now to blow up any small-size nuke threat at will if we can get to it;
(3) and we can only do (2) with a nuclear weapon.

Otherwise, all Warren did was to say: "I won't change our already dangerous declaratory policy - the same policy that's been in place for decades under R and D presidents - to some koo-koo pants thing that says we can use nukes if we see you even *think* about it." /22
The people who trashed the INF Treaty and who are trying to bring us back to 1983 are dangerous. I have my problems with Warren, but this one isn't even on the list. She's right on nukes - and her view is a *mainstream* view.
Her critics, not so much.
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