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Debunking the Administration's Nuke Myths

3:06 PM, Apr 9, 2010 • By JAMIE FLY and JOHN NOONAN
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With healthcare reform behind him, President Obama has turned his attention to what is perhaps his number one foreign policy priority: nuclear disarmament. On April 6, the Obama administration released a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, outlining U.S. nuclear weapons strategy. The NPR is not the dramatic document that some on the left had hoped for, but in a sop to Obama's base, does revise U.S. declaratory policy to limit the instances in which the United States will use nuclear weapons. The NPR also fails to outline a clear path to warhead modernization, something that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said is essential to ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the coming decades.

Debunking the Administration's Nuke Myths

Two days later, the president signed a new arms control pact with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague’s Hradcany Castle. However, in their rush to ink a deal, the Obama negotiators appear to have granted concessions to the Russians on missile defense that are troubling and could torpedo the treaty’s prospects for Senate ratification.

The administration will cap off this nuclear frenzy with a summit in Washington on April 12-13, hosting more than 45 foreign leaders to discuss nuclear security. Preventing unsecured nukes from falling into the hands of terrorists is a worthy effort, but the United States already devotes significant effort and funding to this effort. Corralling leaders and their sherpas to hash out meaningless summit platitudes will do little more than cause traffic deadlock in Washington.

As part of its effort to sell these nuclear initiatives, the White House has propagated several myths that need to be debunked.

START is a giant leap towards a world without nuclear weapons.

Not really. The agreement pales in comparison to the Moscow Treaty, signed by President Bush to half the fanfare and in the absence of a congratulatory Nobel Peace Prize. Where the Moscow pact cut warheads by the thousands and slashed U.S.-Russian stockpiles by 50 percent, START barely nibbles at each nation’s atomic arsenals. In fact, it doesn’t really “cut” warheads at all, but rather sets a lower inventory cap, from 2,200 to 1,500 bombs and 700 delivery systems. While the treaty is useful in the sense that it continues a nuclear verification regime, the new process is less robust.

The new START, the NPR, and nuclear security summit all elevate nuclear terrorism to a higher level than previous U.S. administrations

 Highly dubious. The treaty is limited to the United States and Russia, two nations that boast a strong record of nuclear custody and control. It does not address Iran, which is making rapid progress toward a nuclear weapons capability and is a leading state sponsor of terrorism. Nor does the treaty restrict or limit Russia’s massive inventory of tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller and presumably easier to steal. Nuclear terrorism is prevented by aggressively pursuing terrorists overseas, often via close liaison relationships between intelligence services, not by photo ops at the Washington Convention Center.

The new NPR and START give the United States badly needed disarmament credibility.

 How much credibility do we need? The United States has steadily slashed its nuclear arsenal for the past 30 years. Today our strategic stockpiles are down to approximately 20 percent of their strength at the end of the Cold War. Those cuts have had precisely zero impact on global non-proliferation efforts. Several countries developed nuclear weapons and many more experimented with weapons programs during U.S.-Russian arms reduction initiatives. It took U.S. or Israeli military action (or in the case of Libya, the fear of such military action), not treaties, to halt illicit programs. Iran and North Korea's programs continue unchecked.

START has effectively “reset” relations with the Russian Federation.

Hardly. Moscow has neither the resources nor the technology to keep pace with America’s strategic forces. START affords Moscow nuclear parity with Washington, despite the fact that Russia isn’t bound by treaty to provide a strategic umbrella over dozens of non-nuclear allies, as is the case with the United States. In addition, President Obama’s focus on 1980s-era arms control has obscured other important issues in the relationship such as Russia’s repression of political opposition forces, endemic corruption, bullying treatment of its neighbors, including current and future NATO allies, and its continued hesitance to impose serious crippling sanctions on Iran. 

All of these efforts need to be seen in the context of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, scheduled to take place in May in New York. The president told the New York Times on April 5 that the first step toward reducing the threat of nuclear weapons is to “have a much stronger NPT.” This is pure fantasy. Iran has violated the treaty for decades and North Korea has shown little interest in returning to the NPT since its withdrawal in 2003. Despite his focus on the sanctity of the NPT, President Obama has done nothing to punish Syria for its violation of its NPT obligations, even as he engages Damascus and attempts to return a U.S. ambassador to the country for the first time since 2005.

A nuclear free world isn’t an ignoble goal, but it needs to be approached realistically. Focusing on the stockpiles of the United States and Russia and limiting U.S. options for use of nuclear weapons does nothing to change the calculus of Tehran and Pyongyang.

Henry Kissinger, who is now among the chief proponents of nuclear disarmament, wrote in 1957 in his landmark study Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy that “A renunciation of force, by eliminating the penalty for intransigence, will therefore place the international order at the mercy of its most ruthless or irresponsible members.”

Our unwillingness to penalize countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria for their illicit activities only empowers them. It sends the message to other states potentially seeking nuclear weapons that the path to a weapon can be pursued with few repercussions. If President Obama were truly concerned about the future of the international nonproliferation regime, he would follow his recent disarmament “accomplishments” with some serious action to ensure that rogue regimes realize that there is a price to be paid by those who choose to pursue nuclear weapons. 

Jamie M. Fly is executive director and John Noonan is a policy advisor at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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