Terms of Engagement

Fumbling the Nuclear Football

President Obama finally has a chance to make good on his pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons. So why is he so afraid of making history?

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In the first major foreign-policy speech of his tenure, President Barack Obama told a wildly cheering audience in Prague that the United States would commit itself to "a world without nuclear weapons" and then described in detail the "trajectory" required to get there. In the almost three years since that euphoric moment, the Obama White House has done what it so often does — forthrightly acknowledge the complexity of its visionary goal, issue nuanced documents that compromise that goal even while reaffirming it, and accept half-measures, then quarter-measures, in the face of utterly unreasonable partisan opposition, surrendering more than planned to get less than expected.

Obama now has the chance — perhaps his last chance — to finally make good on his Prague pledge. He has ordered a review of the U.S. strategic arsenal, to be delivered to him in the coming weeks. The president must decide how many nuclear weapons the United States really needs. Arms control advocates think that this time, finally, Obama will grasp the nettle and accept that the country needs far fewer deployed warheads than the 1,760 or so it now has. I hope he does. But the mottled history of the last three years should give any disarmament advocate pause.

According to the extraordinarily ambitious strategy Obama laid out in Prague, the United States would adopt a new policy to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," pursue arms reduction in treaty negotiations with Russia, pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to control the production of enriched uranium and plutonium, and strengthen the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of all these measures, the only one wholly within Obama’s own powers was the new policy statement, to be embodied in a document called the Nuclear Posture Review. I followed this debate closely throughout 2009; then, administration officials told me that the document would furnish a clear "narrative" of a fundamental, directional change toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Advocates inside the administration hoped that the new document would change "declaratory policy" to stipulate that the United States would only use nukes against a nuclear threat rather than, for example, against a rogue state or a terrorist group that it feared might obtain weapons of mass destruction (as current policy now foresees); that it would end the terrifying but archaic Cold War requirement that hundreds of warheads be available for launch "on warning"; and that it would eliminate one leg of the nuclear "triad" of bombers, missiles, and subs (probably bombers). None of those things happened. As I noted at the time, even Sam Nunn, the hawkish former U.S. senator, said that he was "disappointed" with Obama’s caution and specified that the unwillingness to "de-alert" the nuclear force "went beyond what I thought was rational."

The Nuclear Posture Review, published in April 2010, was blunted by skeptics in the Pentagon and perhaps the White House, as well as by opposition in the nuclear laboratories. The disarmament negotiations over the New START agreement, however, faced external resistance — first from the Russians, who dragged out the talks over months, delaying Obama’s planned trajectory, and then from Senate Republicans, many of whom treated the modest agreement to limit each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads as a radical act of unilateral disarmament. To win them over, the administration had to promise to make exorbitant investments in the nuclear labs in Los Alamos and elsewhere.

We live with that decision today: The Energy Department’s 2013 budget includes a 5 percent increase for refurbishment of the equipment that produces warheads and their nuclear "pits," upkeep of the weapons themselves, and training for nuclear scientists and the like, at a time when discretionary spending is frozen. Over the next decade, the United States is now projected to spend over $180 billion on nuclear modernization.

The administration had been prepared to offer such a deal for Republican acceptance of much tougher agreements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But once it had to pay that price for New START, there was no currency left for the future; in any case, Republicans weren’t about to accept anything beyond the nuclear reductions agreement. Opposition from Pakistan and several other states then took the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty off the table. Spirited American diplomacy did salvage a consensus document at the 2010 conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There, as elsewhere, the Obama administration has taken what the market will give and has very good excuses for what it hasn’t achieved. But a transformational president doesn’t wish to be judged by the quality of the rationales he can furnish.

Now, however, the market may have shifted in Obama’s favor. Thanks chiefly to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama is no longer under the onus of proving his toughness on national security issues. Voters preoccupied with the economy don’t care that much about foreign threats. And with half a trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts scheduled for the next decade, senior military officials are engaged in triage, and they will be prepared to get rid of weapons they never expect to use in order to preserve ones, like aircraft carriers and new-generation fighters, they believe they need. It is possible, in short, that the very economic crisis that has bedeviled Obama’s entire presidency will afford him the opportunity to achieve the historic change he has sought.

Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide him with options for reducing the number of warheads below the 1,550 stipulated in the New START agreement. Administration officials won’t talk about the highly secret document now apparently moving through the interagency process; none of the congressional staffers or arms control experts I talked to had seen it or heard a reliable account of its contents. A Feb. 14 Associated Press article made the startling claim that the administration was considering options ranging from a low of 300 weapons to a high of 1,100. This is almost certainly wrong, or misleading. One expert I spoke to said that he would be "staggered beyond belief if the president were seriously considering going to 300" — a figure that would put U.S. forces at about the level of France. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly told a House committee that "the status quo" — 1,550 — "is always an option and one that is in play." (The view inside the arms control world is that a Republican staffer leaked the story in order to give conservatives a target to attack.)

What is the "right" number of warheads? (See today’s article by Joseph Cirincione.) Of course, the "right" number depends on the threats that can be deterred only by the reciprocal threat of a nuclear attack. At a recent panel discussion, Morton Halperin of the Open Society Foundations sarcastically asked whether we believe the Russians will wake up and say, "Oh, it’s Easter Sunday; the Americans are at rest. We can launch a surprise attack, and it will be successful." The answer, save perhaps to some Republican members of Congress who haven’t yet acknowledged the end of the Soviet Union, is obvious. The country’s targeting strategy, which foresees the simultaneous obliteration of 250 industrial centers across Russia and China, is a grotesque relic of the Cold War. Obama has the chance to finally put it to rest.

The numbers matter, but the underlying doctrine matters just as much. In a recent article, arms control expert Hans Kristensen listed the policy choices Obama could make to justify a smaller nuclear force: He could, among other things, reduce the category of targets or "the number and diversity of strike options," change the declared mission to one of responding only to nuclear threats, take warheads off high-alert status, eliminate one leg of the triad — or do all of the above. In short, Obama now has the opportunity to review the decisions he made in the Nuclear Posture Review and thus make the sharp break with the Cold War that he vowed to do in Prague. He has, in short, a second chance.

Will he take it? Republican hawks have already begun to warn of the "reckless lunacy" of deep cuts. Obama could take any number of exit ramps from the transformational highway, for example by insisting that any additional cuts be negotiated with the Russians in a new treaty — which the Senate would almost certainly reject. He might postpone the decision until after the election — which would be fine, so long as he wins. But he must choose between making perfectly reasonable excuses for the half-measures he adopts and taking the risks that come with historic change.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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