A secret meeting in the White House today will set US nuclear policy. It will also test Barack Obama's sincerity and determination.
Today an interagency working group on nuclear policy will meet at the principals level to finalize the administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). This document will set US nuclear policy for the next five to ten years. It has been managed by the Department of Defense for most of last year. Today, the secretaries of defense, state, energy, and the national security advisor as well as top military and intelligence officials will gather to agree on the final wording. The President and Vice President may join them.
The meeting may slip a day or two, but it must take place soon to get the NPR to the Congress by its scheduled date of March 1.
The question is: Will this document chart a new strategy for the 21st century or will it continue to rely on 1940's weapons and a Cold War game plan? Will it do what President Obama has promised: "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy"?
A lot is riding on the outcome. Our failure to finalize a new nuclear reductions agreement with the Russians--originally promised for last December 5--and a $2 billion increase in the budget for new nuclear weapon's facilities means that the president has few tangible products to show for the ambitious agenda he laid out in Prague last April and reaffirmed in the State of the Union this January.
It has raised doubts among supporters that he has the strength to buck the entrenched nuclear bureaucracy, whose jobs and profits depend on keeping nuclear weapons policy just the way it is. It has raised claims of hypocrisy among some nations, whose support we need to restrain Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs and prevent terrorists from getting bomb materials.
This means the Nuclear Posture Review must present a transformational doctrine. It must establish the "narrative" for everything that is to follow this year. It must explain the budget, the new START treaty, why we must permanently end nuclear testing, how we are truly reducing nuclear weapons... and why other nations should, too.
If you are wondering why you haven't heard of this important policy debate before, it is because democracy does not apply to nuclear weapons policy. It never has. No nation has ever had a vote on whether to go nuclear. These decisions are made in secret. They don't have to be. There is no reason why the meetings on the Nuclear Posture Review could not have been on CSPAN. Most of the discussions have nothing to do with atomic secrets, locations, or weapons.
But the secrecy aids the status quo. It keeps it in the hands of the nuclear laboratories and contractors. It makes it harder for the public to have its voice heard.
These views are clear. In a recent poll 84 percent of Americans said they would feel safer in a world where no nation, including the United States, had nuclear weapons. Americans have consistently supported mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. In a time of economic crisis it is hard to believe that Americans want to spend the $53 billion each year we lavish on this obsolete stockpile--let alone increase this budget.
Stand by Your Policy
President Obama should heed the words of a group of top experts organized by the Arms Control Association whose letter to him last week urged a change in course. They favor a nuclear policy that "advances the highest security priorities: preventing terrorists or additional states from obtaining of using nuclear weapons; reducing global stockpiles, and moving toward a world without nuclear weapons."
1. Narrowing the purpose of nuclear weapons to the fundamental role of deterring nuclear attack on America and its allies. Not the Cold War strategy of using them for a first strike or even in conventional battles.
2. Reducing our nuclear arsenal to hundreds of weapons, instead of the thousands we now hold. We have more than 9,000 thermonuclear bombs today.
3. Getting rid of the 300 or so weapons stationed abroad. Our German and Japanese allies now tell us they don't need or want the weapons we say we station to protect them.
4. Standing by the President's pledge "not to authorize new nuclear weapons." Our existing weapons work well and scientists say they can last another 100 years.
It is time for the President to put into policy what he has put into his speeches. He and the Vice President must stand up for what they believe. Half steps now when bold action is needed could sabotage the nuclear policy both men have worked so long to enact.
It is time to do the right nuclear thing.