Defense officials are writing a new U.S. nuclear policy that could blow up President Obama's declared agenda. The White House must reassert its control.
The Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, will be issued at the end of the year, but Obama's defense officials are briefing others in the administration this week, hoping to lock in their policies before the end of the month.
Why should you care? Joan Rohlfing, vice-president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative headed by Sam Nunn and Ted Turner, explained in a speech before the Arms Control Association May 20:
What comes out of this posture review is going to help reshape our global norms, practices and the legal context in which not just the United States but our allies and the rest of the world develop their own thinking and approaches to reducing the nuclear threat. So the stakes are high. The NPR really, really matters. And this president will probably have one shot at getting it right, certainly in the first term.
That is why Center for American Progress Senior Analyst Andrew Grotto and I urged in our report last year that the review "be a strategy-driven exercise guided by a vision for nuclear weapons policy elaborated by the president." We warned, "A review process conducted without a sense for the ultimate destinations is unlikely to produce any meaningful changes in the posture."
But there is minimal involvement of the White House and other agencies, including the State Department. Rather than shaping a policy to prevent the 21st century threats of nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states, the Pentagon reviewers are defending Cold War architectures.
If the Pentagon's civilian officials continue on their current course, the new Obama nuclear policy will be Bush Light. Same doctrine, same weapons, slightly tweaked. This would duplicate the failure of the posture review during the Clinton administration, which made only minor adjustments to the policy of Bush 41.
It would also make a mockery of the agenda Obama called for in the campaign, in his statements with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and most famously, in his historic speech in Prague on April 5:
The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War... So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons....we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.... we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year.... this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.
...My administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty....Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them...We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.
The Pentagon review nods to Obama's vision, but takes as its starting point the deeply flawed U.S. Nuclear Strategic Posture Commission report chaired by Jim Schlesinger and Bill Perry. The commission -- stacked with far-right nuclear ideologues -- never developed a real consensus. The hardliners dominated the process, which almost collapsed, salvaged in the end by a report that spliced together very different agendas. Conservatives carry the report around like holy script, but few in Washington take it seriously outside of the Heritage Foundation...and the Pentagon.
Pentagon officials have cherry-picked the president's agenda. Their main themes are not to prevent nuclear terrorism and proliferation, but to "maintain a safe, secure, effective and reliable nuclear deterrent" and "maintain extended deterrence."
This last theme is particularly insidious. It emerged during the Commission deliberations (I was a member of one of the expert advisory panels) as a way to justify keeping thousands of nuclear weapons. The argument goes that if we reduce our forces and/or if we do not use our nuclear weapons to deter any attack on our allies (particularly Japan), even by conventional weapons, they will go nuclear.
There are ultra-nationalist Japanese defense officials who say this, including the former head of the Air Force who wants Japan to go nuclear now. But this is not the view of the Japanese people or leading politicians. Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party that is likely to win the election later this month, said August 6, "Realizing a nuclear-free world as called for by U.S. President Obama is exactly the moral mission of our country as the only atomic-bombed state."
Similarly, Japan's leading newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, last week urged President Obama to use his chairing of the UN Security Council on September 24 to spread the "non-nuclear umbrella," urging a resolution by "the Security Council permanent members, which are all nuclear powers, to guarantee they will not use nuclear arms to attack countries without nuclear capability."
The posture review authors need more inputs like this, to balance the pressures Pentagon civilian officials are feeling from defense contractors, conservatives and the nuclear bureaucracy. Instead of trying to use the review to position the administration to be "tough on defense," they should redefine what tough actually means.
They should start by answering the most important questions of all: What are nuclear weapons for? The answer should be clear: Nuclear weapons are only useful for deterring the use of nuclear weapons by other nations. Justifying any other mission increases the threats to American security.
It is time to take Rohlfing's advice, before it is too late:
The process of the Nuclear Posture Review must be driven by the president and his staff...This should not be left solely to the Department of Defense. There are some very good people at the Department of Defense, but again, because of the bureaucratic inertia, it's not clear that a process that is exclusively DOD driven will end up in the right place, even if they have people from other agencies at the working level plugged into their working groups, which I know they do.
In the end, these are the president's weapons and it's going to take presidential leadership for him to move this forward.