The Obama administration is using an internal budgetary review of the Department of Defense as cover to undertake what amounts to an off-schedule Nuclear Posture Review—one that ices out Defense and State Department experts usually consulted on nuclear issues. It is also beginning a new round of talks with Moscow here in Washington next week that many observers believe will result in the United States offering to trade U.S. strategic weapons in exchange for reductions in Russian tactical weapons.
When proposals for deep, perhaps unilateral, reductions in U.S. nuclear forces eventually surface, expect President Obama to then cast himself as continuing the legacy of . . . Ronald Reagan.
This is, of course, one of the president’s favorite tropes. In the 2008 election, President Obama was fond of comparing himself to the Gipper. In 2010, citing the 40th president as his inspiration, President Obama signed an agreement with Moscow that committed the United States to cut nuclear forces by one-third, to 1,550 operational warheads.
With the upcoming retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl (R, Ariz.), no Senate Republican seems willing to call the White House on this dangerous misappropriation of the Reagan legacy. Indeed, many Republicans themselves seem just as apt to misremember Reagan.
Of course, Reagan did describe the abolition of nuclear weapons as a worthy and achievable goal. He invested new energy in diplomacy that put the superpowers on a path to slash operational arsenals by tens of thousands of warheads.
Now, the Obama administration is looking to make unilateral cuts Reagan would never have endorsed. Though no one knows for sure exactly where this secretive process is heading, many experts believe the administration wants to quickly reduce U.S. force levels down to the mere hundreds. Structural changes to the national defense are also on the table. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has suggested that to save money the administration might have to eliminate America’s land-based 450 single-warhead Minuteman III ICBMs (though ICBM sustainment is but a rounding error in the DoD budget).
If he were alive today, Ronald Reagan would be crying foul. Obama conveniently forgets several Reagan principles at our peril.
Trust, but verify: Reagan made verification the cornerstone of disarmament. Today, China is a rising spacefaring nation that is rapidly modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces, while rebuffing former Secretary Bob Gates’s invitation to joint verification. The Pentagon reports that China is developing a road-mobile intercontinental ICBM, and, most ominously, hiding its growing forces from U.S. spy satellites in 3,000 miles of tunnel.
Absent verification, China is a rising threat Reagan would never have ignored.
Replace offensive deterrent with defensive technology: Ronald Reagan called on the same scientists who created nuclear weapons “to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” He foresaw a slow, decades-long transition in which dependence on nuclear weapons could be eased by increasingly robust defensive technologies.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently hinted that budgetary pressure may force the administration to scrap its own plans to install radars and interceptors in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean to protect U.S. allies and forward-deployed forces from the rising Iranian nuclear threat.
In short, the Obama administration is poised to embrace half of the Reagan formula, without its failsafe.
Peace through strength: By contemplating the scrapping of one leg of the U.S. triad—the combination of land, sea, and air platforms that work together to make the timing of a successful first strike on the United States unachievable—the Obama administration may inadvertently expose the United States to outright intimidation by Putin’s Russia in concert with an increasingly belligerent China.
Ironically, reductions will likely increase nuclear proliferation. As the shrinking U.S. nuclear umbrella loses credibility, allies from Japan to Egypt will be tempted to develop their own arsenals. A U.S. force reduced to the mere hundreds may also inspire rogue states to match the United States in this one dimension of superpower clout.
Most worrying of all is that U.S. cuts are largely irreversible. Alone among the nuclear powers, the United States no longer has a pit production facility to manage the expensive and environmentally dangerous business of serially mass manufacturing nuclear weapons.
The promise of nuclear disarmament is a worthy vision. But as long as China, Iran, and North Korea resist appeals for arms control—we are doing something Ronald Reagan would have never done: Lead a parade with almost no followers.
With the departure of Kyl, there is a vacancy for a Senate leader to step forward and assume the mantle of watchdog of this administration’s disarmament agenda. Until such a leader emerges, Senate Republicans should at least safeguard the budget for our deterrent and its modernization, whatever the budgetary consequences. At the very least they should let the administration know that until world conditions settle, we need a “pause and a plateau”—a pause on new nuclear agreements, and a plateau in force levels.
Mark Davis worked in the Reagan administration and wrote addresses on START I as a White House speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.