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Nuke Notes: Hillary's umbrella

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Even undeniably "puerile" debates can sometimes cough up interesting tidbits, and, on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton proposed an interesting way to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions: Extend nuclear deterrence to "those countries [in the region] that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear [weapons] ambitions." Unfortunately, moderator George Stephanopolous did not ask any follow-up questions, even though Sen. Clinton’s idea certainly merits a closer look.

The concept of a "nuclear umbrella" has been around almost since the Cold War and the nuclear arms race began. At the most basic level, it involves a nuclear- weapons state promising to use its nukes to respond if non-nuclear ally is attacked with nuclear weapons. Cold War strategists hoped that "extending" nuclear deterrence like this would cement important alliances and, crucially, eliminate the need for those countries to develop their own nukes. A nuclear umbrella is thus a tool of both diplomacy and of nonproliferation.

The key question here is credibility. How, for instance, would you convince the Soviets that the United States really would risk New York to defend Paris? During the Cold War, U.S. strategists achieved this credibility in several ways (pdf). First, American troops were deployed heavily in allied territory, placing them in the way of any nuclear attack. Second, U.S. nuclear weapons were often deployed in forward locations and sometimes integrated into allied command structures. Third, the umbrella only got extended to countries with which the United States already had strong alliances.

Unfortunately, even in Gulf regimes that are friendly to America, all of these preconditions are weak or nonexistent (pdf) -- which does not bode well for Sen. Clinton’s proposal. In addition, Iran does not have the ability to project power globally like the Soviet Union did, making any direct threat to U.S. interests unlikely. I should also note that any Iranian nuclear weapon is still a long ways off, and attempting to deter the Iranians is premature at this point.

However, the idea is still worth exploring as a contingency plan, and new ways of establishing credibility and commitment might be possible -- for instance, extending a missile-defense "umbrella," even one that doesn't work very well yet. But although technical measures like these may be part of the solution to U.S. problems in the Middle East, they can't supplant a broader strategy that uses all the diplomatic, political, and economic levers at America's disposal.

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Putin: Out of the Kremlin, still in the rumor mill

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The Russian tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent has spread rumors that outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin has left his wife, Lyudmila Putina, in favor of the younger, sprightlier rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva (left).

Kabayeva, known for her medal-winning flexibility, would be quite the catch.  Since winning the gold for rhythmic gymnastics (yes, that’s the one with the hula-hoops), the Uzbek native has not only appeared in this music video but now currently serves as a parliament member in the lower house of the Duma –- representing Putin's party, of course.

Today, however, at a meeting with Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, Putin flatly denied the story as containing "not a single word of truth." That's just as well for Miss Kabayeva. This is what Lyudmila has to say about life in the happy Putin home:

He never praises me and that has totally put me off cooking...   He has put me to the test throughout our life together. I constantly feel that he is watching me..."

 Guess once you've gone KGB there's no going back.