Nuclear Agenda Draws Scrutiny

The Boston Globe

February 22, 2009 – President Obama is preparing to move ahead with the most ambitious arms-control agenda in decades, calling for dramatic cuts in US and Russian arsenals, a halt to the Bush administration’s plan for a more advanced nuclear warhead, and the ratification of a global treaty banning underground nuclear tests.

Obama’s agenda, posted on the White House website shortly after his inauguration and outlined by several top officials, also includes a worldwide ban on the production of nuclear weapons material – leading to what the administration calls “a world without nuclear weapons.”

The new administration’s goal of starting down what it calls the “long road” toward total elimination of nuclear weapons represents perhaps its most striking foreign-policy departure from the Bush administration, which expressed widespread skepticism about arms-control treaties and pulled out of the anti-ballistic missile pact with Russia.

Obama has said he would base his arms-control efforts in part on the work of the biparti san Nuclear Security Project, whose initiatives, including a plan for sharp reductions in US nuclear stockpiles, were crafted by centrists including former Democratic senator Sam Nunn and former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz.

Nonetheless, the president’s plans are rousing sharp opposition from other key elements of the national security community, including members of government advisory boards on nuclear weapons, independent weapons analysts, and think tank scholars – all of whom have expressed concern that Obama’s proposals could weaken US security.

Henry D. Sokolski, a member of the bipartisan US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which was established last year by Congress, is one who worries that Obama’s agenda could increase global nuclear competition.

“This brave new, nuclear world may be anything but peaceful,” said Sokolski, an independent analyst who has supported arms-control pacts in other contexts. “As the qualitative and quantitative differences between nuclear weapons states become smaller, rivalries are likely to become much more dangerous.”

Beyond the arms-control community, Obama is facing potential opposition within his own Cabinet. The White House website says the administration will “stop the development of new nuclear weapons,” a step that many arms control advocates believe is necessary to convince the international community that the United States is serious about disarmament.

But Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said last fall that building the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead is essential to ensuring that the nation’s nuclear defenses remain viable for years to come. Without the new warhead, Gates said, the United States would have to test its current inventory to be sure it works properly, something it hasn’t done since 1992. (Some specialists believe computer modeling technology may make it possible to test the new warheads without exploding one.)

Gates has also expressed concerns that it may be difficult to catch nations that disregard obligations under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Obama is urging the Senate to ratify.

“Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead,” Gates said in a speech last October to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

Gates has not outlined his views about the new warhead since deciding to remain as defense secretary under Obama. When asked earlier this month what his role will be in implementing Obama’s arms-control agenda, Gates made it clear that he will be questioning some of the White House’s assumptions.

“It will be our job to identify pros and cons of various proposals and help identify options for the president with the risks and benefits of each of those options,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

Denis McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told the Globe that the president is still assembling the team to implement his arms control agenda but said it “is a principal priority for the president, as he talked about during the campaign.”

On the campaign trail, Obama had said his arms-control efforts would follow the parameters laid out by the Nuclear Security Project, an initiative established last year by Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn, and former Clinton administration secretary of defense William J. Perry.

Their vision for a nuclear-free world is predicated on the view that the United States – the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon, to help bring an end to war with Japan in 1945 – must lead by example in reducing nuclear arms.

Without America taking the first step, they say, other nuclear powers will be too slow to reduce their arsenals, increasing the likelihood that terrorists will obtain a nuclear bomb.

Many arms control advocates and top government officials believe there is a historic opportunity to implement the first steps on the vision laid out by the four former officials.

Representative Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing US nuclear forces, said in an interview that reducing US and Russian arsenals, negotiating a treaty to end production of new nuclear weapons material, and ratifying the test ban pact “are all achievable goals. The debate is at a point where it is a question about when we achieve these goals, not if,” she said.

But there remain deep divisions among American specialists over the wisdom of some of the steps that the White House is contemplating.

Some are raising fears that changing the so-called “alert status” of the US and Russian arsenals – by taking weapons mounted on land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers off launch standby – would undercut the arsenal’s deterrent value and make the United States vulnerable to a sneak attack from another nuclear power.

Others are warning that reducing the overall number of US and Russian nuclear weapons from several thousand to hundreds – the initial goal of Perry, Nunn, Shultz, and Kissinger – could motivate states with smaller arsenals, such as China, India, and Pakistan, to seek parity, thus increasing the danger of nuclear confrontation.

And some argue that deep cuts in the American arsenal could force non-nuclear states – including US allies who have long relied on America’s “nuclear umbrella” for protection – to consider developing their own arsenals.

“The problem is that they are betting the physical survival of the US on nothing more than the hope that other nuclear-armed states and any states or non-state actors that join the nuclear club will follow suit by disarming,” said Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who is actively seeking to persuade members of Congress to vote against many of the Obama proposals. “This gamble involves the highest possible stakes and has an exceedingly low likelihood of success.”

Frank Gaffney, a top Pentagon official during the Reagan administration who is president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, is even more blunt about the risks of Obama’s approach at a time when other nuclear powers are upgrading their arsenals and US adversaries are seeking to develop their own arsenals.

“Every other declared nuclear weapon state is modernizing its stockpile and the most dangerous wannabes – North Korea and Iran – are building up their offensive missile capabilities and acquiring as quickly as possible the arms to go atop them,” Gaffney wrote in a newly published paper. As currently outlined, he said, Obama’s arms-control agenda risks turning America “into a nuclear impotent, with possibly catastrophic consequences.”

McDonough responded that such concerns – including the possible risks from reducing the US arsenal too much or too quickly – will be taken into account as the administration undertakes a series of policy assessments in the coming months.

But he also noted that taking the steps that Obama has outlined toward realizing a nuclear-free world already has a strong analytical foundation. “There is a very hardened strategic argument for this view,” he said.

Backers of the president’s agenda warned it won’t be easy to convince Congress, the international community, and the national security apparatus.

“It is going to require a herculean effort,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to halting the spread of nuclear weapons. “It is completely doable, but it will require the sustained attention of the president himself.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at 

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