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President Obama's Nuclear Policy: No Sign of Audacity; Some Sign of Hope

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Message Marji Mendelsohn
By Melvin A. Goodman

The good news is that President Barack Obama has ended the Bush administration's campaign against disarmament and has returned to traditional approaches toward arms control. The bad news is that the president's modest steps do not match his rhetorical high ground on nuclear disarmament and that he remains unwilling to take unilateral steps that would advance his strategic vision.

In a brief nine-day period, President Obama took command of the global dialogue on nuclear arms control by authorizing the release of the Nuclear Posture Review; signing a strategic arms agreement with Russia; and hosting a Nuclear Security Summit. Unfortunately, on the eve of the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that the United States was "stronger than anyone, as we've always been, with more nuclear weapons than are needed many times over." With this provocative utterance, reminiscent of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's reference to the United States as the "indispensable nation," Secretary of State Clinton gave the international community good reason to be skeptical of Washington's goals and objectives.

The Nuclear Posture Review of April 5 marked an effort to return US nuclear policy to the approach of President Dwight Eisenhower more than 50 years ago, when Washington ruled out waging nuclear war against non-nuclear states. Eisenhower emphasized that the primary role of nuclear weapons would be deterrence of nuclear war, which was designed to address the foolish notions of then-Harvard professor Henry Kissinger that the United States could wage and win a "limited" nuclear conflict. President Obama is taking on neoconservative critics such as John Bolton, who argue that US advances in nuclear weaponry could make nuclear war winnable. Unlike Eisenhower, however, Obama has threatened the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state (read Iran) or a state without nuclear capabilities against the United States (read North Korea) if these states are in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Unlike President Ronald Reagan, Obama has not proclaimed that "nuclear war cannot be won - and must not be fought."

The Pentagon's Review refused to consider a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons, which would offer the best incentive for non-nuclear states to disavow development of nuclear weapons. For the past two decades, the former Soviet Union and now Russia have been trying to engage the United States in a serious dialogue to pledge no first use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space, and the creation of nuclear-free zones. Moscow made its first unilateral pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in 1982; China and India have also renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon, however, has opposed these steps, and President Obama, like his immediate predecessors, have foresworn taking on the Defense Department on essential issues germane to genuine nuclear disarmament. The Soviets actually broached the subject of no first use as early as the 1960's and 1970's, hoping to place such a pledge in either the NPT or the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The United States has refused to engage the issue because it wants to retain a nuclear option against a non-nuclear threat or attack.

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in Prague on April 9, brought an expected reduction of strategic launchers to 800 vehicles and strategic warheads to 1,550, but did nothing about the 200 tactical nuclear warheads that the United States maintains in West Europe (over the opposition of many West European governments), the several thousand tactical nuclear warheads in American and Russian inventories; or the thousands of reserve nuclear warheads. The United States continues to pursue a national missile defense that is highly objectionable to the international community, and wants to place conventional warheads on strategic launchers, which would create a serious early warning problem regarding detection.

Once again, a major opportunity was missed - the ability to introduce the concept of minimal deterrence, which could lead to reducing strategic warheads to several hundred instead of the goal of several thousand that won't be reached until 2017. Russia is willing to reduce its warheads to 1,000 and such US hardliners as former CIA Director John Deutch agree with the 1,000 level. A recent article in an authoritative strategic journal by several writers associated with the US Air Force argued for a minimal deterrence of 311 warheads, which would protect the strategic triad of missiles, bombers and submarines. As long as we pursue flexible deterrence and not minimal deterrence, we will allow the Pentagon to pursue war-fighting strategies with nuclear weapons, which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara warned about nearly 50 years ago.

This week's Nuclear Security Summit brought needed attention to the issue of nonproliferation as well as announcements from Ukraine and Chile to turn over their stocks of highly enriched uranium to Russia and the United States, respectively. The United States and Russia agreed to reduce their huge stocks of excess plutonium, the key ingredient in thousands of nuclear weapons, but this will not be completed until the 2030's. Mexico pledged to convert its research reactor to low enriched uranium.

Like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 to pledge to outlaw war, which proved worthless, the nuclear summit relies on long-term pledges and not written commitments. There are no mandatory standards for securing nuclear facilities or universal commitments to stop producing weapons-grade materials. The nuclear states of India and Pakistan, which have never joined the NPT, are the main obstacles to a ban on producing fissile materials. Israel is another nuclear state that refuses to sign the NPT, and its hard-line president, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to even attend the Washington summit. President Obama's major mistake in this instance was the failure to invite Iran, North Korea and Syria, the key anomalous states on nuclear issues, thus missing an opportunity to conduct genuine international diplomacy.

In abjuring an opportunity to declare no-first-use of nuclear weapons; to renounce tactical and reserve nuclear warheads; to diplomatically confront Iran and North Korea, and to endorse the notion of minimal deterrence, President Obama missed several opportunities to make the "peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" our new strategic objective, as he proclaimed in Prague in 2009. We may never get rid of nuclear weapons entirely, but we could do more to significantly reduce nuclear stockpiles and to restrict technologies that make nuclear weapons easier to use. Significant nuclear reductions by the United States and Russia would make it easier to demand stringent inspections of the non-nuclear states and the acceptance of the NPT by nuclear states such as Israel, India and Pakistan.

President Obama is off to an acceptable start, but now he must press the Congress for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Presidents Clinton and Bush failed to do; press China for more transparency and confidence-building measures on strategic weapons, and press all nuclear states to take steps to prevent collisions between nuclear missile submarines, such as last year's British-French collision of submarines armed with more than 100 nuclear warheads. Finally, Obama needs to take advantage of the bipartisan group of elder statesmen, including William Perry, Sam Nunn, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, who are prepared to offer support to a serious disarmament agenda and to provide cover against the neoconservatives who believe that disarmament is tantamount to appeasement.

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Marji Mendelsohn has been studying the effects of religion on politics and foreign policy with a secondary interest in election fraud.
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