The President Who Went Nuclear

How Barack Obama's fixation on ridding the world of nuclear weapons is transforming the Middle East.


In the wintry days of January 2009, as Barack Obama prepared for his inauguration, he was briefed on how to unleash the weapons that could destroy the planet many times over. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright conducted the briefing on the "nuclear football," the 45-pound briefcase containing the codes that allow the president to launch America’s arsenal of over 5,000 nuclear weapons.

In the tumult before the inauguration – not to mention a global economy heading toward meltdown – Obama wasn’t certain he would remember each step to launch the world’s most dangerous weapons. Shortly after taking office as the 44th president, he contacted his defense secretary, Robert Gates. "You know that guy who scared the shit out of me?" he said, according to James Mann’s The Obamians. "Can I talk to him again?"

Almost five years later, non-proliferation has emerged as the centerpiece of Obama’s agenda in the Middle East. In Syria, he signed off on a Russia-brokered agreement for President Bashar al-Assad to gradually destroy his chemical weapons. In Iran, he inked a controversial agreement that will see the Islamic Republic stall its nuclear program for six months, in exchange for roughly $6 billion in sanctions relief. Such steps represent significant victories for the president’s non-proliferation agenda — but have also disappointed those who wonder if they come at the cost of America’s other interests in the world.

The drive for a nuclear-free world, in fact, has been a central thread of Obama’s foreign policy views for his entire adult life. It was the topic of his first public foray into the debate over America’s role in the world as a university student, a subject that he turned into his calling card in the U.S. Senate, and an issue that he raised in his first months as president, where he told a crowd in Prague that he would work toward "a world without nuclear weapons." Now, it may just be the cause that defines his administration’s foreign policy legacy.

Cartwright, speaking to Foreign Policy, said Obama has also come to grips with the fact that the proliferation of knowledge about nuclear technology has permanently altered America’s options in combatting the spread of these weapons. Since you can’t bomb knowledge, he says, military force can only delay, not stop, proliferation risks. "This is much of the problem we have with Iran today," he said. [If] a country wants these weapons, they can get them…So you have to start to think of alternatives to the threats of: ‘I’m going to attack you.’"

While the deal just signed in Geneva only temporarily stalls some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, non-proliferation experts hold out hope that it could pave the way sweeping reductions in nuclear warhead stockpiles in the world’s most powerful states.

"In my view, Iran is a gateway issue," said Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization focused on nuclear weapons policy. "If Iran is seen as abandoning its [nuclear] approach…it opens the pathway to convincing North Korea to take a deal like this, to convincing others states not to start nuclear programs, and to give the countries with nuclear weapons greater confidence that they can safely reduce [their stockpiles]."

Obama came of age during the nuclear freeze movement, a grassroots attempt to halt the deployment of ever more destructive weapons by both the United States and the Soviet Union. As a senior at Columbia University, he enrolled in a seminar taught by Professor Michael L. Baron on foreign policy decision-making, where he wrote a long year-end paper on the arms reduction negotiations between the two Cold War rivals. That same year, he published an essay in the Columbia University magazine Sundial titled "Breaking the War Mentality," which noted the "flowering" of the nuclear freeze movement.

Obama’s primary critique of the movement was that its goals were not sweeping enough, arguing that its narrow focus "suit[s] the military-industrial interests, as they continue adding to their billion dollar erector sets." His overall tone, however, was positive, as he suggested the freeze movement represented the public’s "growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust."

While Obama certainly tempered his rhetoric about nuclear weapons between his early 20s and the beginning of his political career, his interest in the topic – and his fundamental views – do not appear to have changed. Upon beginning his career in the Senate in 2005, he turned to non-proliferation as the issue on which to bolster his foreign policy bona fides, and sought out the mentorship of Sen. Dick Lugar to do so.

As Obama recounts in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, the two senators traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe to inspect firsthand the efforts to secure what had been the Soviet Union’s weapons of war. The future president wrote about "gazing in silence at the massive, sleek, still-active missiles" that had once been aimed at European cities, and noted with some horror coming across a freezer in Kiev, Ukraine, holding anthrax and the bubonic plague that was "secured by nothing more than a seal of string."

The trip, however, also highlighted the challenges of dealing with the Russians. As the two senators attempted to leave Russia, Lugar told Foreign Policy, they were detained for three hours as Russian security officials tried to search their plane. "You might as well take a nap, because we’re going to be here for a while," Lugar remembers telling Obama.

For both Obama and Lugar, the trip underscored the difficulties – and also the urgent need – to secure nuclear stockpiles. "Whatever might have been your idea of the impact of mutually assured destruction, it certainly drove it home," Lugar said. "When you see the pictures and the targets [of Russian nuclear weapons], you understand the jeopardy the United States faced."

Obama also used his time in the Senate and the 2008 presidential campaign to assemble a team of non-proliferation advocates, who would be integral in pushing the issue during his administration. Then Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, for example, was integral to shepherding the New START treaty, which led to joint nuclear weapons reductions with the Russians, through the Senate in Obama’s first term. In 2012, Chuck Hagel, who had retired from the Senate and gone into academia, co-authored a report with James Cartwright that called for sweeping reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Other members of Obama’s transition team dealing with non-proliferation — such as Ivo Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Robert Einhorn, and Ashton Carter — went on to serve in high-ranking positions within the administration.

Obama’s non-proliferation agenda got off to a fast start in its first year, as the administration negotiated the New START treaty; held the Nuclear Security Summit, which included delegations from 47 countries across the world; and released a new Nuclear Posture Review, which called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. In some of the global hotspots that concerned the United States, the focus on nuclear non-proliferation also took precedence over concerns about human rights or democracy promotion.

In Russia, Obama prioritized non-proliferation over concerns about Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on his domestic political opponents. "The nuclear issue is really important to his background," Michael McFaul, the current U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told Mann for The Obamians. "He thinks you need a New START treaty, no matter whether the Russians are a democracy or an autocracy, because these are dangerous weapons and we’ve got to control them-and in a way, that’s a legacy from this 1980s era."

When it came to Iran, nuclear non-proliferation also clearly took precedence over human rights, or the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorist groups across the Middle East.

"I don’t think [Iran’s nuclear program] was a high priority to the exclusion of everything else, but it was clearly a kind of ‘first things first’ approach," Dennis Ross, who served as a key Obama advisor on Iran and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy. "[Obama] saw we were living an in age of terror, and I think he saw the possible linkage of the worst weapons in the worst hands as something that was really unthinkable."

But while most U.S. officials recognized the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, some were willing to contemplate the possibility that the president’s pursuit of non-proliferation goals elsewhere was coming at the expense of other American foreign policy goals. The most obvious example of that came in Syria, where the administration’s pursuit of an agreement to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapon’s stockpile has arguably granted a degree of legitimacy to his regime as the international community’s interlocutor on this effort.

"I think there’s some validity to the argument that the chemical weapons deal gives a boost to Assad," said Robert Einhorn, who served as the secretary of state’s special advisor for nonproliferation during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. However, he noted, that hasn’t stopped the United States from offering modest amounts of military and humanitarian support to the Syrian rebels, or attempting to organize a peace conference that would remove Assad from power. U.N. officials announced that the conference will be held in Geneva on Jan. 22, and both the regime and the mainstream opposition have stated their willingness to attend.

However, the administration has appeared to disconnect its aims in Syria’s chemical stockpile from its larger goals in the country. "Chemical weapons were always treated as something different than the political fate of Syria," said Ross. "You’ve had chemical weapons as an issue that almost stood alone in terms of what we were responding to."

With the wind at the back of the president’s nuclear agenda, the stakes could extend far beyond Damascus or Tehran. The one notable exception to Obama’s non-proliferation agenda — so far – has been Israel, where this administration’s refusal to push for nuclear disarmament has led to charges of hypocrisy among both Arabs and Iranians. Could a non-proliferation breakthrough really serve as a gateway issue – reordering America’s alliances in the Middle East, paving the way for the dismantling of thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, and bringing the world closer to Obama’s goal of "nuclear zero"?

Those fresh out of government, cognizant of the tenuous nature of progress on non-proliferation — not to mention the many minefields of negotiating with Iran – are cautious. "Whether this is a good arrangement [with Iran] will depend on where it leads, and whether it does get us to a final deal," said Einhorn.

In other corners of the nation’s capital, however, a few people are beginning to allow themselves to think big.

"It’s not very often that you get to see the hinge of history move," Cirincione said. "We are in one of those moments."

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