This was a response memo crafted to simulate having 24hrs to recommend to the US Department of State, whether or not to use a tactical nuclear strike against five high value terrorists gathered “at a cave complex in the Mount Lebanon range, not far from Qurnat as Sawda.”
TO: The Secretary
SUBJECT: Emergency NSC Meeting
As no nation has yet forgotten that the first and only uses of nuclear weapons in combat were by the United States, and that those uses were taken under the intense duress of the most costly and terrible global conflict the world has ever seen, to use them again on under the circumstances present would set a negative precedent for US foreign policy the totality of which is difficult to contemplate. The transformative power of those historic moments on global society, on the reputation of the United States as the guarantor of last resort for peace and stability in the world, cannot be understated. We have leveraged those moments for deterrent credibility for the last half-century. A second use would in no way enhance that credibility, but instead transform the US image from protector to pariah—indefinitely.
To nuclear weapons under these circumstances would be an act of first use. While we must also be clear-eyed about the persistent and pervasive threat of global terror and the thousands of lives lost, the targets designated for this strike are targets of opportunity, and their presence in a cave region (known to Christians as the land where Noah planted a sacred tree after a global annihilation by God), constitutes a strike of opportunity and not of eminent threat to the United States. A first strike by a US President against five men on holy ground, would have disastrous consequences for the US global reputation.
The choice to use a nuclear weapon in this case appears to rest on two conditions: the ripeness of opportunity of target, and the inadequacy of the US military to craft a proportionate response. Responding to these two conditions would appear weak, not strong, to our allies and more importantly to our adversaries. The Lebanese government most certainly sever relations with the United States, rendering any diplomatic, trade or military benefits of that relationship immediately moot. It would likely deeply destabilize a region deeply distrustful of the US and where no nuclear weapon has ever been used before. Unilateral action would likely challenge the faith, of our allies in NATO and every other security partnership that we hold, that we respect a fundamental principle of just war: proportionality. They might wonder if we would use nuclear weapons on terrorist groups of any size in their countries. This in turn might require them not only to abandon our alliance, but to seek a nuclear weapon of their own. Our adversaries, at the state and non-state actor level would almost certainly use the event as a recruiting tool, whether for hard-line, hawkish, and anti-US political parties, or latent terrorist organizations. More immediately, efforts to de-nuclearize Iran through the JCPOA or North Korea through the possibility for talks between the US and DPRK officials announced only today would be rendered moot. A nuclear strike of any size would likely reverse global non-proliferation efforts and tenuous peace agreements brokered by the US and UN for decades to come.
The US cannot be seen to act with disproportionate violence in a moment of opportunism. Nor can it be seen as having a capability gap that would prevent a proportionate response. A nuclear strike, even one that is supposedly low-yield, against five terrorists is an unsellable, unconvincing argument, and would make the US into a global pariah.
In addition, the first-use of a nuclear weapon would undermine the position of ambiguity about first-use that has been a staple of US nuclear deterrence policy for decades, as expressed in the current Nuclear Posture Review. References to this ambiguity, and the illogic of first use as a part of Russian military policy can be found repeatedly throughout the document. I urge you to review pages 7, 8, 22, and other mentions of “first-use” as part of Russia’s “escalate-to-deescalate” strategic posture, and think through what it would look like to an adversary once the US had demonstrated its willingness to drop a B-61 on five people at a holy site.