William Beecher’s essay earlier today on the World Policy blog misreads or misrepresents the Obama administration’s nuclear policy in several key respects. I am speaking of the Obama policy as it exists, not as I wish it would be.
On one key point—the idea that under the new Obama policy the United States would not be able to use the kind of nuclear threat that it allegedly did in 1991 to keep Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons against U.S. troops—Beecher is simply wrong. The Obama administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review indicates that the United States will not threaten any non-nuclear-armed nation with nuclear weapons if it is fully in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in 1991, Iraq was decidedly not in compliance with that treaty, so had the Obama policy been in place at that time nothing would have prevented Washington from threatening Saddam Hussein with a nuclear attack. Going forward, the two nations cited as the greatest potential nuclear threats to the United States, Iran and North Korea, would also be liable to nuclear threats from the United States under the Obama policy.
I happen to believe that a better policy would be to say that the sole purpose of American nuclear weapons is to keep other countries from using them against the United States or its allies. This would go a significant way towards devaluing and ultimately de-legitimizing nuclear weapons, a stepping stone towards deep reductions, even the ultimate elimination of these weapons of mass terror. The United States has more than enough conventional firepower to make a devastating response against any nation that uses or threatens to use chemical or biological weapons against us, so retaining the right to use nuclear threats in these scenarios is both unnecessary and unwise. But the approach that I or other arms control advocates may prefer is not the Obama policy, so it makes no sense to criticize him as if it is.
Beecher also trots out the old argument that we can’t trust Russia, and that therefore we should beware of signing arms control agreements with Moscow. There are several problems with this view.
First, Russia is not the Soviet Union. We have a decidedly different relationship with Russia than the one we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and this new relationship implies greater levels of trust. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, what is the alternative? Under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States and Russia will each maintain exactly the same number of deployed strategic warheads: 1, 550. And this parity of forces will be policed by a sophisticated, multi-layered verification system. Would it be better to have no treaty and reduce our knowledge of Russia’s nuclear activities? Would we be safer if all bets were off as to how many nuclear weapons each side could maintain? Certainly not.
As for the need for new nuclear weapons, both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen have endorsed the administration’s current approach of refurbishing and rebuilding current weapons rather than building new ones. And as Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted, the Obama approach “leaves the door open to allow a future administration to extend the life of an existing warhead by essentially replacing it with a newly designed one.” Thankfully, the Obama administration has no intention of doing this, but its new nuclear policy doesn’t prevent some future president from doing so. William Beecher’s suggestion that the Obama policy would prevent the development of new weapons “at any point in the distant future” is simply incorrect.
Again, I would prefer that President Obama’s policy were less equivocal on this point. If some future president were to exploit the above-mentioned loophole in the Obama policy and design and build new nuclear weapons, it would be extremely difficult to get other nations to substantially cut their own nuclear arsenals. The concerns of the directors of the weapons laboratories regarding the reliability of current warheads is overstated, and no doubt driven in part by parochial interests (after all, their institutions would be the ones to design the new weapons they claim might be needed at some point). But, as with the question of when the United States can and should threaten other nations with nuclear weapons, Beecher is criticizing an Obama policy that does not in fact exist.
If I were to characterize the Obama nuclear policy I would not call it “ill-considered,” as Beecher does, but incomplete. The administration has taken some modest but critical steps in the right direction, though the road to “nuclear zero” is long and largely uncharted. Beecher points to the most difficult sticking points, from Israel’s concern about Iran to the history of suspicion and conflict driving India and Pakistan’s nuclear rivalry. But assuming we get that far, it will be a long time before those issues will be addressed.
President Obama has focused thus far on practical, achievable steps—not sweeping, visionary leaps in policy. A case in point is this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, which has brought together 47 nations(the largest gathering of countries called together by an American president since the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945) to find ways to secure nuclear bomb-making materials to keep them from falling into the hands of terrorists. This needs to be done regardless of how many nuclear weapons there are in the world, although it would obviously be easier if there were fewer of them—and fewer facilities standing ready to design and build them.
President Obama could go further and faster on nuclear weapons reductions without risking American security, but he is not currently doing so. It’s unfair to criticize him for a policy that he is not pursuing for the moment.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.