Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-AZ) yesterday had an interesting give-and-take with Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher during a committee hearing on the Nuclear Posture Review. In his opening statement, McCain expressed concern regarding the Obama administration's "change to our nation's long-standing nuclear declaratory policy of calculated ambiguity, which has been embraced by past administrations on a bipartisan basis. This declaratory policy has successfully and effectively deterred aggressors by preserving the use of all options in response to an attack on the United States or our allies."
When he asked Tauscher about it later, the following interchange ensued:
McCAIN: Secretary Tauscher, why did the decision made concerning the elimination of the nuclear option in cases of nations that are in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- what was the rationale behind that reversal of what has been a national policy of deliberate ambiguity since the Cold War began?
TAUSCHER: Senator McCain, I don't think it's a reversal. I think what it is, is an articulation of the reality of the 21st century. What we have --
MCCAIN: Excuse me. It's not a reversal of the previous policy of ambiguity concerning what the United States action would be in case of attacks on the United States and our allies?
TAUSCHER: With all due respect, Senator, I don't know how you reverse ambiguity. Ambiguity is what it is; it means that you were not --
MCCAIN: Oh, no. Ambiguity was clearly a policy, Madame Secretary. It was clearly a policy so that our enemies would not be clear as to what actions we would take in case of attacks. That --
TAUSCHER: Senator, you're making my point.
MCCAIN: That is a policy, Secretary Tauscher. And if you allege that it's not, then we might as well move onto the next question.
TAUSCHER: Senator, you're making my point for me.
MCCAIN: Pardon me?
TAUSCHER: You're making my point for me. We were not clear. We were not clear to countries that we would never use nuclear weapons against --
MCCAIN: . . . and now we are clear.
TAUSCHER: -- that we would not use nuclear weapons against them. That's what this policy says. This policy says that for non- nuclear weapons states that are in compliance with their Non- Proliferation Treaty obligations, they are not going to be -- we're not going to either threaten or use nuclear weapons against them.
MCCAIN: And that's not a change in our policy?
TAUSCHER: It is an articulation of our policy. It is -- it is moving our policy to a more clear point of view. It's more clear than ambiguity. Yes, that's right.
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller tried to explain it further -- which McCain welcomed, calling Tauscher's remarks "one of the more bizarre statements I've ever heard made before this committee."
MILLER: Senator McCain, the United States first made a negative security assurance associated with the NPT in 1978. It was by secretary of State Cyrus Vance. That statement said that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that were party to the NPT. Same pledge was made in 1995 and again in 2002 by subsequent administrations.
So the -- this negative security assurance is not new. What the change is, in the Nuclear Posture Review, is that we've added the condition that a state must also be compliant with its nuclear nonproliferation obligations. So we've added a condition: In order to get into that -- into that -- into that group, that is, provide an assurance the United States will not use nuclear weapons, we've added a condition. Under the old assurance, the -- Iran, to date, would be provided that assurance. Under the new assurance, it is not.
So the other part of the -- I think you had referred to it as calculated ambiguity -- at various points in time in the past, United States has hinted that nuclear weapons might be used in response to chemical or biological weapons, even if by a non-nuclear weapons state.
Our view was that the credibility and capability of our -- of our deterrence posture is the determinative factor in that both with respect to non-nuclear weapons states and nuclear weapons states or not noncompliant states, that a clear posture that makes -- that distinguishes between those two was likely to be more effective for deterrence.
MCCAIN: I guess that's in the eye of the beholder, Dr. Miller.
For more on the hearing, click here.