Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who also happens to be vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, expressed concern that President Barack Obama’s approach to the civil war in Syria may lead to nuclear war during an exchange with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at a House Armed Services hearing on Tuesday:
This was not just a casual aside from Gabbard. She took her time setting up the point, beginning by asking Carter how many nuclear warheads the United States and Russia have pointed at each other. Carter did not have the exact number at hand, but he confirmed that both countries have “massive” nuclear arsenals.
“And it would be accurate to say that both of our countries have the capacity to launch these nuclear weapons within minutes?” Gabbard asked. Carter answered in the affirmative.
Gabbard went on to cite the horrors of nuclear war, made clear by photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, asking if Carter would agree that “nuclear war would be devastating to the American people… the amount of suffering that it would cause, the devastation to our families, our children, our communities, our planet, our future generations.”
Taking his agreement that it would be awful for granted, she proceeded to ask Carter if he had an estimate of the total number of lives lost, and property damage that would be done, in a full-scale nuclear exchange with Russia.
“Congresswoman, I’ve been doing this for a long time, including during the Cold War,” Carter replied, a bit wearily. “I’ve been working on nuclear weapons since the beginning of my career. To answer your question, there have been estimates made, right along – when there was a Soviet Union, then Russia… It’s a very simple story. It is as you say: nuclear war would be absolute unprecedented, and would result in catastrophic destruction.”
Carter thought he could follow this up with a point about the importance of nuclear deterrence, but that was not the topic Gabbard wanted to discuss. “So the fact that we now have our F-15s patrolling the Turkey-Syria border, with a primary air-to-air-combat operation… There’s no air-to-air combat against ISIS. They don’t have any air assets. So, I can only presume that the purpose of these planes would be to target Russian planes. Is that accurate?”
(Before getting into Carter’s answer, let us pause to note that ISIS does not have any air assets yet, but thanks to the disaster Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made of Libya, they are working on it.)
Carter tried to move the exchange back to the “larger point” Gabbard began with, namely the difference of opinion between the U.S. and Russia about what the latter could be “constructively” doing in Syria.
“We can’t align ourselves with what they’re doing,” he said. “We’re opposing, and want them to change, what they’re doing in Syria.” He stressed this was not the same as the United States and Russia gearing up for a global conflict, especially one fought with nuclear weapons, and stressed that steps were being taken to avoid accidental incidents between U.S. and Russian forces.
“We have a sharp disagreement there, but that’s not the same as blundering into an armed situation with one another,” Carter concluded, visibly losing patience with the conversation.
“But that sharp disagreement with two diametrically opposed objectives – one, the U.S. seeking to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad, Russia seeking to uphold the Syrian government of Assad – creates that potential, that strong potential and strong likelihood for that head-to-head combat,” pressed Gabbard.
“Russia’s installation of their anti-aircraft missile defense system increases that possibility – whether it’s intentional, or even an accidental event – where one side may shoot down the other side’s plane. And that’s really where the potential is for this devastating nuclear war – for something that could blow up into something much larger,” she continued.
Carter objected to Gabbard’s characterization of the Russians’ perspective, noting that “what they say and what they do are two different things.”
“What they said they were gonna do is fight ISIL, and pursue a political transition, and not support Assad endlessly, but instead try to pursue a political solution. What they’ve done militarily has had the effect of supporting Assad, no about it, and they haven’t gone after ISIL, they’ve gone after moderates… that’s our source of disagreement,” said Carter.
None of which really does anything to answer Gabbard’s point about the dangers of accidental conflict or even really her supposedly incorrect characterization of Russia’s perspective. He said all bets are on Secretary of State John Kerry’s ability to talk the Russians out of what they are doing in Syria, which does not exactly inspire confidence in anyone familiar with Kerry’s career.
It seems odd that Carter did not offer the obvious response to Gabbard’s theatrical concerns about nuclear Armageddon, namely that Russia was not about to launch a doomsday planetary war over this situation, even if a plane did get shot down. The Defense Secretary concluded by assuring Gabbard that the Russians share America’s desire to avoid an accident conflict in the skies over Syria, but he was remarkably reticent to engage her question about what happens if such an incident occurs despite the best intentions of both parties.
Perhaps Rep. Gabbard should chat with Hillary Clinton about her plans for a Syrian “no-fly” zone that Vladimir Putin would not dream of violating, because she’s Hillary Clinton. Clinton, like Ash Carter and everyone else associated with the Obama administration, seems to think they can badger Russia into changing its Syria strategy by whining about how “non-constructive” it is.
Years of Obama failure have left the U.S. with no cards to play in the region and no reason Putin should take their carping seriously—unless we put down the kind of military marker that Gabbard fears could lead to a larger conflict. She might be overstating the consequences rather dramatically, but this wouldn’t be the first time a larger conflict started with a whimper and ended with a bang.