Less than a month after Obama got Osama, House Republicans still don't trust the president to safeguard U.S. national security. At least, that's only possibly explanation for this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House yesterday and is now headed to the Democrat-controlled Senate.
While the NDAA is intended to define the budget of the Department of Defense, this year's bill includes provisions that, if signed into law, would undermine a number of President Obama's signature national security initiatives, including his repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," efforts to reign in wasteful defense spending and, most significantly, the implementation of the New START nuclear agreement with Russia.
Approved by a bipartisan majority in late 2010, the New START nuclear arms control treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed, strategic nuclear weapons. Considering that nearly all of these weapons are far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such an arsenal would provide more than enough firepower for the United States to meet any conceivable national security threat. If you're not going to be deterred by 1,550 nuclear weapons, you're not going be deterred by anything. Perhaps most importantly, the treaty replaces the verification system that expired with the START I treaty, thereby providing an element of stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship.
The NDAA, however, attempts to hamper President Obama's nuclear policy in three ways. First, it bars funding for New START reductions until the Secretary of Defense and Energy Secretary certify to Congress that that the administration is on track to invest $180 billion in nuclear modernization over the next 10 years.
Second, and more egregiously, the NDAA prohibits the administration from eliminating surplus, non-deployed warheads until two new next generation nuclear facilities become operational, currently scheduled for 2024.
Most significantly, in a historically unprecedented move, the NDAA attempts to bar the president from unilaterally reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile below New START levels or amending U.S. nuclear targeting strategy without congressional approval.
These sections of the NDAA demonstrate an unprecedented lack of faith in the president's national security decision-making. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, as Commander in Chief the president, in conjunction with the military, has always determined U.S. nuclear policy. House Republicans' attempts to strip President Obama of this authority may be unconstitutional. But they are also a remarkable demonstration of extent to which the modern Republican party has defined itself primarily around an unrelenting opposition to the president's agenda, even when this agenda is moderate and supported by the country's top military leadership.
Since 1967, the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile by 85 percent. This achievement is a testament to a remarkable and coherent commitment to nuclear disarmament by presidents of both parties, including conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Despite fierce right-wing opposition to the New START treaty, President Obama's nuclear policy is, in reality, a continuation of this bipartisan effort.
President Obama has smartly threatened to veto the NDAA if these nuclear provisions remain in the final bill. Given the fiscal problems facing our nation and historic highs in defense spending, the Obama administration has been right to downsize or eliminate out- dated weapons systems that do little to further American security, like the F-22 and EFV.
Surplus nuclear weapons, which are expensive to maintain and protect, should be no exception. The Obama administration has been right to work to bring the U.S. nuclear stockpile down to levels that present an effective and affordable deterrent.
It is in our best interest as a country to modify the size our nuclear stockpile to fit the threats of the twenty-first century. By allowing the U.S. to reclaim the moral high ground, nuclear reductions will strengthen American efforts to stop global proliferation.
Moreover, our nuclear arsenal possesses no utility in any of the U.S.'s three current military campaigns (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). And at a time when the U.S. government is cutting WIC funding (which provides nutrition assistance to lower-income pregnant women, infants, and children), spending even one dollar more than necessary on nuclear weapons is irresponsible. The NDAA would waste billions, undermine our national security and limit the ability of the president and military to ensure that our nation's scarce resources are being distributed where they can be most effective.
Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Alex Rothman is a special assistant at the Center.