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Deciphering Biden's Speech on Nuclear Policy

7:58 AM, Feb 19, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Vice President Biden’s long-awaited and snow-delayed speech on nuclear posture was delivered yesterday and there wasn’t much news in it.  He mostly said what one would expect him to say and what the Obama administration has been saying for more than a year now: America should take the lead in an effort to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth but, in the meantime, we must keep our own deterrent strong. 

Deciphering Biden's Speech on Nuclear Policy

The rhetorical posture (so to speak) of the speech was to portray the administration as the sensible center between peaceniks who seek heedless disarmament and paranoid hawks who see dangers lurking around every corner.  The peaceniks, Biden argued, are right about the endgame but wrong about the near-term means for getting there.  The hawks are wrong to think that nukes must be with us forever but right that so long as they are we must have good ones. 

Sounds reasonable, no?  Except it’s not quite that simple.  The real bone of contention between the administration and its rightward critics is what, exactly, constitutes a credible and reliable nuclear arsenal.  The administration believes, and the vice president today reiterated, that America can maintain the credibility and (if necessary) the functionality of our nuclear stockpile without testing and without any substantial technological upgrades, rebuilding, or new warhead designs.  Critics—led by Senators Jon Kyl and Joe Lieberman, and joined by many defense intellectuals, former military men, nuclear scientists and (before he changed his mind) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—argue that this so-called “Life Extension” approach may not be good enough. 

This is all well plowed ground, though, and the vice president today said nothing to change anyone’s mind.  Thus it was hard to see what the purpose of the speech was, unless it was just more salesmanship (and a little Bush-bashing for cuts to the nuclear complex in the 2000s).  Certainly, the administration wants—and deserves—credit for boosting funding for the nuclear labs. 

But it wants more than that.  It wants to get a new arms control treaty with the Russians, another treaty banning all nuclear testing, and another banning the production of weapons-usable fissile material through the Senate—the first two this year.  The block of 41 senators led by Kyl and Lieberman has made it clear that the price of the first (to say nothing of the other two) is real movement on a real upgrade to the U.S. arsenal.  By arguing forcefully that we can have it all through “research” alone, Vice President Biden implicitly ruled out the kinds of upgrades the Gang of 41 is seeking. 

Or perhaps by not dipping into those issues at all he thought he was maintaining the administration’s flexibility to make a deal down the road.  If so, he should read the transcript of a speech delivered yesterday by Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher in which she declared that the Reliable Replacement Warhead “is dead and … it’s not coming back.”  No ambiguity there!  As an old speechwriter, I think I can spot an ad-lib when I see one, and that line reads like an unscripted addition—perhaps from an official who wants to bolster what she knows is supposed to be the official position but privately suspects may be traded away. 

It’s impossible to say.  What is quite possible to say is that there is no chance at all that the administration can get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty through the Senate (something both Biden and Tauscher called for again), and little chance of getting a new START agreement, unless they make major concessions on warhead design.  Are they prepared to do that?  Time will tell. 

There was one sign that they might, and that sign constitutes the only discernible news in the vice president’s speech.  Biden referred to the long-awaited (but still incomplete) Nuclear Posture Review, a document that promises to outline comprehensively the administration’s new approach to nuclear policy.  It has been the subject of much interest, and much reporting.  Some of that reporting, the vice president today confirmed, will formally reduce (in favor of conventional weapons) the role that nuclear weapons play in guaranteeing the security of America and our allies. 

But one previously reported retreat from longstanding policy appears not to be in the offing.  Several reports have stated that the NPR would recommend getting rid of one leg of the so-called “nuclear triad” of ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear capable long-range bombers.  The latter was the leg believed to be on the chopping block.  Yet in the section of the speech on the NPR, the vice president specifically announced “a commitment to sustain our heavy bombers and land and submarine-based missile capabilities, under the new START agreement.”  I suppose this could be carefully worded: he didn’t say “nuclear capable” heavy bombers. But then he didn’t apply that qualifier to the missiles either; he must know full well that everyone who heard or reads the speech will just assume that the reference is to nuclear forces.  Hence, if the administration really does intend to take away the bomber force’s nuclear role, the above sentence would have to count as at best deliberately misleading.  In any case, outright elimination of long range bombers, whether nuclear or conventional—a move that some feared—appears to be off the table.  And that is another piece of good news. 

The big issue, however, still looms.  The administration has talked a lot about nuclear policy this month, and has talked some sense.  But it continues to dodge the one issue that matters most—and not just to its critics but to the political success of its own ambitious nuclear agenda.

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