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All quiet on the nuclear front

Leading Republican critics of the Obama administration are holding their fire ahead of a big week in the world of nuclear weapons, with a series of landmark documents expected to drop in the coming days. Several government sources said they anticipate the White House will release the unclassified portion of what’s called the Nuclear Posture ...

Leading Republican critics of the Obama administration are holding their fire ahead of a big week in the world of nuclear weapons, with a series of landmark documents expected to drop in the coming days.

Several government sources said they anticipate the White House will release the unclassified portion of what's called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on Tuesday, Apr. 6, just two days before President Obama is set to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia in Prague. The timing of both events is meant to show successes for the president's ambitious nuclear agenda before a 44-nation nuclear security summit convenes in Washington on April 12.

The substance of the documents shows the White House's effort to please its supporters in the arms-control community while not going so far in its changes to U.S. nuclear policy as to provoke leading conservatives who might want to pick fights over the issues.

Leading Republican critics of the Obama administration are holding their fire ahead of a big week in the world of nuclear weapons, with a series of landmark documents expected to drop in the coming days.

Several government sources said they anticipate the White House will release the unclassified portion of what’s called the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on Tuesday, Apr. 6, just two days before President Obama is set to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia in Prague. The timing of both events is meant to show successes for the president’s ambitious nuclear agenda before a 44-nation nuclear security summit convenes in Washington on April 12.

The substance of the documents shows the White House’s effort to please its supporters in the arms-control community while not going so far in its changes to U.S. nuclear policy as to provoke leading conservatives who might want to pick fights over the issues.

"The White House is getting very adept at satisfying both constituencies," said Tom Donnelly, a fellow at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and someone who is normally not shy about criticizing the Obama administration, "Conservatives are taking more of a hopeful, wait and see attitude than you might expect."

Donnelly sees this middle-of-the-road approach as the result of internal compromises within the administration, chiefly between the White House and the Pentagon led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"Gates is fighting the good fight, so conservative want to support him too. We don’t want to undermine the ‘moderate regime elements,’" Donnelly said. He added that Obama’s choices also show he’s "not going to spend a lot of political capital on the arms-control agenda."

Some influential conservatives do seem to be searching for a way to criticize START and the NPR, as liberal bloggers associated with the arms-control community have been quick to point out. Leading GOP senators like Jon Kyl, R-AZ, who have been vocal on the issues in the past, are waiting to see actual text of the documents before weighing in, aides say.

An administration official close to the issue said that conservatives are now contending that the reductions of nuclear weapons in the new nuclear treaty are so modest that the Obama administration is actually exaggerating its impact on nuclear reductions. If that’s their point, the official said, then it will be tough to argue during ratification that the cuts undermine national security.

Another administration official described both the new START agreement and the NPR as "modest steps in the right direction."

Here are some of the examples of how the new nuclear agreements represent Obama’s drive to change the direction of U.S. nuclear policy, but not too much:

  • On declaratory policy, the NPR is expected to say that the "primary" or "principal" or "fundamental" purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. That’s not as daring as saying that’s the "sole purpose" of nukes (as arms-control advocates want) but is much more clear than the complete ambiguity hawks would have liked to preserve.
  • On the decision that under new START, each bomber will be counted as "one" deployed nuclear weapon, that’s also a middle-of-the-road solution. Defenders of the bomber fleet fear that counting bombers at all will lead to getting rid of them in favor of missiles and subs, which are more effective in an emergency anyway. Arms-control advocates feel that since bombers can actually carry over a dozen nukes, the counting rule could allow both sides to keep arsenals above the agreed limits.
  • On nuclear modernization, the administration really threaded the needle here. Gates is well known to have supported what’s called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a program Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher has adamantly opposed. So the NPR is expected to back up the president’s budget, which provides lots of stuff related to "stockpile modernization" and a "life extension" program. When put together, these items can mollify GOP concerns about the aging stockpile while not actually committing to building a whole new warhead.
  • On missile defense, new START will contain an acknowledgement about the relationship between offensive and defensive systems, but won’t contain any firm restraints on U.S. missile defense deployments that conservatives could sink their teeth into. Expect the NPR to follow suit.

Congressional sources said they haven’t yet been told whether or not they will get advance briefings on the NPR, as their members are still out of town on recess. The NPR release date could slip because classification and clearance details are still not complete, they said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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