The Democrats Bomb Their Nuclear Test

President Hillary Clinton might want to reduce the country's nuclear stockpile. But her own party might try to stop her — with a useless investigation that would take years.

USA, Arizona, Titan nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile in silo

This week’s Democratic National Convention will hit its high point with Hillary Clinton accepting the party’s nomination to be president. But party conventions are also about the sausage-making of party politics. So far, we’ve seen a Game of Thrones-like ending for Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the Democratic National Committee’s chair and efforts to make future presidential primaries more Bernie Sanders-friendly. And then there’s the crafting of the party platform.

Insiders will tell you party platforms don’t matter much, and they are generally correct. A president isn’t bound by a party platform, and it can be a cheap way to appease elements of the base. But politicians also tend to act consistently with platforms, and, not surprisingly, platforms can help anticipate changes in a party’s attitudes. In other words, presidents might not do all the dumb stuff in party platforms, but they try to do more than you might think.

And that’s bad news, because on the little issue of nuclear weapons, the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform commits a President Hillary Clinton to the terrible idea of conducting another Nuclear Posture Review. That would both make it harder for President Barack Obama to act on urgent nuclear weapons issues as his term ends and tie Clinton’s hands on the issue through much of her first term. Why would Democrats do this to themselves?

To understand why, it is helpful to briefly review the history of Nuclear Posture Reviews. The United States has conducted three reviews — one each at the beginning of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. A lot of people have gotten the idea that the Nuclear Posture Review, like the Quadrennial Defense Review, is something that new presidents are obligated to undertake. This is wrong.

The first Nuclear Posture Review occurred at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s administration. Then-Gov. Clinton had campaigned on the idea of spending the “peace dividend” on domestic programs, so one of the first things Secretary of Defense Les Aspin did was undertake a “bottom-up review” of U.S. defense requirements to guide the post-Cold War downsizing of the military. Alongside that process, the Clinton administration also conducted a Nuclear Posture Review. A Nuclear Posture Review is really just a study, one that informs the big choices a president makes about what guidance to issue to the military about using nuclear weapons, as well as the size of the force to execute that guidance. All three studies have been led by the Defense Department, with varying levels of involvement from the departments of State and Energy.

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was led by Ash Carter, the present defense secretary, who back then was a lowly assistant secretary with more hair and less experience. That year’s review was disappointing; nuclear security expert Janne Nolan described it as a “pallid, little document that was not briefed around for very long and that essentially ratified the status quo.” Carter had expected to find support for changing the fundamental assumptions of U.S. nuclear strategy consistent with the changes in the world, particularly the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Carter underestimated the bureaucratic opposition. The Clinton administration chose, for the moment, not to revise its policy, leaving in place the Reagan administration’s 1981 guidance that called for prevailing in a protracted nuclear war against the Soviet Union — a country that no longer existed.

That was the first and last time a president voluntarily conducted a Nuclear Posture Review. The other two Nuclear Posture Reviews were ordered by Congress — in particular, the Senate — which was trying to run out the clock on an unpopular president of the other party.

During Bill Clinton’s second term, Senate Republicans passed an amendment to the defense authorization bill preventing the president from further reducing U.S. nuclear forces. But the obstructionism started to become unseemly, especially once George W. Bush began campaigning on further scaling down the size of the nuclear stockpile. Senate Republicans thought of a clever trick. In 2000, they replaced the original measure with one mandating another posture review in the coming fiscal year and blocking any nuclear reductions until then. With term limits forcing Clinton from office, Senate Republicans were hoping that Bush would win the election. It worked. When the Bush administration took office in January 2001, it did a quick Nuclear Posture Review, followed by new presidential guidance on employing nuclear weapons in June 2002. The changes were fairly minimal and might have gone unnoticed, except someone leaked excerpts that specifically identified the countries that might be on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike.

That leak, along with the invasion of Iraq, started a long-running debate about whether the Bush administration could be trusted with sharp objects. The Bush White House also developed a number of nuclear weapons proposals to modernize the nuclear stockpile, concepts like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). Ellen Tauscher, who represented the congressional district that used to house Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would later joke that only the Bush administration would put “robust” in front of “nuclear earth penetrator.” These proposals met a chilly reception in Congress, even among Republicans.

As the 2008 presidential election neared, Senate Democrats took the opportunity to do to Bush what their predecessors had done to Clinton — delay funding, this time for RRW, until yet another Nuclear Posture Review could be conducted, which would conveniently be only after Bush left office. It was a good talking point: Why build new nuclear weapons when you don’t know what to do with the old ones?

After Barack Obama won the 2008 election having campaigned on the promise of seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, my colleagues in the disarmament community were pretty excited about his Nuclear Posture Review. That was naive. The Obama administration’s review was a fiasco, too, though for different reasons than in 1994. The document, drafted by the Pentagon, was rewritten after the White House failed to heed months of warnings that the process was heading in a different direction than the president’s lofty rhetoric.

The bottom line is that Nuclear Posture Reviews, at least for Democratic presidents, have not proved helpful. Just look at how long Clinton and Obama took to revise the existing guidance to the military on the use of nuclear weapons. A nuclear posture review is, after all, just a review or study; any recommendations still need to be implemented, something that normally happens in the form of a short document signed by the president. (If you are curious, Nixon’s and Carter’s guidance documents are now pretty much declassified.) Not every White House feels the need to issue original guidance. George H. W. Bush had no problem leaving the Reagan administration’s 1981 guidance in place. But Clinton and Obama promised big changes and were unable to deliver. The 1994 review, for instance, was such a fiasco that Clinton also left in place the Reagan guidance until November 1997, 10 months into his second term. Obama, after his Nuclear Posture Review was completed in 2010, ordered a 90-day implementation study in mid-2011. The poorly named study was not completed until Obama signed the resulting guidance in June 2013, five months into his second term.

It is easy to understand why Nuclear Posture Reviews generally fail to produce significant changes in U.S. nuclear policy. Sir Humphrey Appleby would happily tell you that the primary goal of ordering a study is to delay action, not enable it. Nuclear Posture Reviews eat up time, delaying the president the opportunity to act for a year or more into the first term. By that point, the honeymoon is over, and mid-term elections are looming. Presidential attention understandably starts to drift.

Furthermore, Nuclear Posture Reviews tend to be dominated by career bureaucrats. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. A lot of ideas are terrible, so the tendency of career bureaucrats to stifle innovation has its heroic moments. (Nolan, the nuclear security expert, wrote a whole book about that, called Guardians of the Arsenal.) Moreover, many proposals for nuclear weapons that get bandied about by politicians are simply meaningless in the sense that they are impossible to implement. My favorite is Obama’s pledge not to develop “new” nuclear weapons, which has no technical meaning whatsoever. The point shouldn’t be to crush the bureaucrats — but to exert presidential control through them. A Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t do that because it asks the bureaucrats what they think.

I recall one meeting in the Pentagon, during the Obama administration’s review and shortly after the president’s speech in Prague. Why did they invite in a hippy like me and my ne’er-do-well friends in the arms control community? Well, the Nuclear Posture Review was staffed by people who did not support the president’s goal, but they did want to be responsive to the chain of command. They wanted people who did support the president to help explain what Obama’s lofty rhetoric might mean in very practical terms. For example, the president said he was seeking disarmament but did not expect that to occur in his lifetime. How long, they wondered, should life extensions to existing warheads last? I almost suggested we Google the life expectancy of a 48-year-old smoker but then thought better of it. (My phone was securely locked in a cubby anyway.)

If you ask the Pentagon what U.S. nuclear policy should be, it will tell you what the policy is. If you want to change that policy, there is no point in asking. Clinton and Obama both discovered that Pentagon-led Nuclear Posture Reviews were a waste of time. When they finally wanted to change nuclear policy — and knew what they were doing— they ran the studies out of the White House.

Obama is now trying to make up for lost time. There are reports that the president is planning major nuclear policy changes in his final months of office. Maybe that Hiroshima visit got to him. Some of my colleagues wonder whether such changes are likely to stick, although I think they are. In my experience, nuclear wonks worry intensely about the risks of the slightest nuclear policy change, only to worry just as intensely about the risks of changing it back. But a planned Nuclear Posture Review mucks all this up. It will be much harder for Obama to make any changes if they appear to prejudge the next president’s review. Chances are that congressional Republicans are going to beat up the president for any policy changes as a lame duck, but why write the Democratic platform to make it easier for them?

And if Hillary Clinton does win the election, she’s likely to face pressure not to make any changes until she follows through on the promise to do yet another Nuclear Posture Review. If she caves in to that demand, then she may not be in a position to make changes to U.S. nuclear forces, policy, or posture until a second term — provided she is lucky enough to win one.

That’s too long. The next president won’t have four years to make hard choices about nuclear weapons. The United States is currently committed to an across-the-board modernization of its nuclear forces. In my view, that modernization is unaffordable. If we continue on this path, we will end up with the worst of all worlds — deep cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal that are made on the basis of political exigency, not strategy. The United States could easily end up with deep cuts to the nuclear stockpile but no arms control agreements to constrain Russia. Despite the political rhetoric about how we can’t afford not to modernize U.S. nuclear forces, there is a growing awareness that executing the modernization is going to be tough. All three legs of the nuclear triad are reaching the end of their service lives at the same time. The United States does not have the luxury of spreading the modernization costs out over many years. Instead, the United States must modernize the forces simultaneously, giving rise to metaphors like mountaineering catastrophes, train wrecks, and bow waves. Brian McKeon, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, was particularly blunt in invoking that last image — which is a favorite among defense wonks, although it leaves me cold — in asking how to fund the planned nuclear modernization, before admitting that he and his colleagues were “thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.”

The Obama administration might not be in office when the bills come due, but someone will. We should all hope it’s Hillary Clinton, rather than her opponent, who will have to make the hard choices about where to modernize and where to economize. We shouldn’t burden her in the meantime with yet another Nuclear Posture Review.

Photo credit: Michael Dunning/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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