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Obama’s nuke review: A deft compromise or a muddled middle ground?

Obama’s nuke review: A deft compromise or a muddled middle ground?

After a very long and tortuous process, the Obama administration has started to roll out the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) — a comprehensive statement of the role of nuclear weapons in providing for American national security. The New York Times obliged the administration for an apparent exclusive presidential interview by hyping the NPR as "a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation’s nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China." The Washington Post, playing catch-up, offered a much more measured lede: "A year after his groundbreaking pledge to move toward a "world without nuclear weapons," President Obama on Tuesday will unveil a policy that constrains the weapons’ role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas."

For my money, I think the Post‘s take will prove to be the more accurate one, and the New York Times‘s own reporting seems to bear this out. Despite the extraordinary pressure President Obama faced from his left flank to live up to his Nobel prize-winning post-nuclear/anti-nuclear rhetoric, in fact the NPR steers for the middle ground.  

The Times/White House claim that the NPR is a "sharp shift" that focuses the arsenal for the first time on rogue proliferators rather than the major nuclear powers is belied by the fact that the Bush administration’s 2002 NPR did the very same thing. Moreover, as the Times story notes:

In shifting the nuclear deterrent toward combating proliferation and the sale or transfer of nuclear material to terrorists or nonnuclear states, Mr. Obama seized on language developed in the last years of the Bush administration. It had warned North Korea that it would be held "fully accountable" for any transfer of weapons or technology."

To be sure, the NPR shaves a little bit of the wiggle room that post-Cold War presidents had carved out concerning the conditions under which the United States would use its nuclear arsenal weapon.  But it did not chisel into stone an unambiguous "no first use" policy. On the contrary, the President reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first against states that are not in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty – and presumably it is the President of the United States and not the IAEA or some other international body that gets to determine whether a state is in compliance.  

Similarly, while the Times story relays a White House talking point — "For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack" —  it goes on to show that the White House was careful to walk that point back a bit: "White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike."  

The novelty of the new policy apparently resides in the difference between a "crippling" and a "devastating" attack and I do not expect the Obama administration to split that hair to anyone’s satisfaction. In any case, the United States always has the option of reconsidering a no-first use policy (or any national security policy) if circumstances change.  The only reason for explicitly flagging that option in advance is to buy back some of the very deterrence that comes from the strategic ambiguity that the new declaratory policy was surrendering.  In other words, seeking a middle course of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.

The NPR left unresolved some thorny issues like the disposition of NATO’s remaining tactical nuclear weapons. And while the NPR made it clear that the United States would not build a new nuclear weapon now, anti-nuclear activists noted that the NPR "will leave the door open to that option, essentially kicking that can down the road." The NPR calls for substantial investments in the nuclear weapons complex (the national laboratories and weapons storage facilities), making clear that the administration believes the president’s vision of a post-nuclear world is many decades away from fruition.

On balance, the NPR seems to be a split-the-difference compromise between different factions among Obama’s advisors. In this respect, it resembles the most important national security decisions President Obama has made thus far on Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics may complain that this results in a lack of strategic clarity — and some of the confusion that has attended the Iraq and Afghanistan policies shows that this danger is a real one — but perhaps it will come to be seen as a politically deft balance of competing desiderata. It is unmistakably a step away from the compromises struck during the Bush era, but I don’t see much evidence that this is the bold leap that wins plaudits in academic seminar rooms, activist think-tanks, and Norwegian parliaments.