Will Obama Sell Out Disarmament Like He Did Bank Reform and Health Care?

Most who champion nuclear disarmament were heartened by the election of Barack Obama. His apparent abhorrence of nuclear weapons seemed forged in The Day After eighties. Hopes soared after he delivered his celebrated Prague speech in April outlining his vision for a nuclear-free world.

The first step -- negotiations on a treaty to continue the work of the recently expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) -- may not have met the December deadline, but the treaty's conclusion is seen as imminent. The new, improved model of START, the New York Times reports, "would require each side to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,600 [and] strategic bombers [and] missiles to below 800." Still, "Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said on Thursday that there had been 'some slowing down' in negotiations by the other side."

According to the Moscow Times, he had urged U.S. officials to accept even deeper cuts. Hmm, says the United States, as it looks a gift horse in the mouth. Turns out where teeth should be are the dreaded "less intrusive verification measures."

Resolving those differences, though, could lead to subsequent negotiations for an even more ambitious treaty. This one, reports the New York Times, "would reduce the number of deployed [as well as stored] strategic warheads even further, perhaps to about 1,000 for each country." Oddly enough, lowering the number of the smaller nuclear warheads, known as tactical (ostensibly for battlefield use) poses a stumbling block.

In fact, as the Arms Control Association's Daryl Kimball told the Times, agreeing on their reduction would make the START follow-up "look like a walk in the park." Seconding him, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center's Henry Sokolski said, "The idea that [the Russians] would give these things up lightly is a fool's errand." (Never mind that an idea can't be an errand.)

For starters, Russia views tactical nuclear weapons as a way for it to compensate for conventional supremacy on the part of the United States. Neither is the NATO alliance, which sees tactical nukes as a token of U.S. affection, in any rush to wave them bye-bye. For its part, Russia also just conducted a successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ominously code-named "Satan" by NATO). This was on the heels of a failed launch earlier this month that left a plume of light over Norway earlier this month.

Furthermore, according to Global Security Newswire, "Russia intends to deploy a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber between 2025 and 2030." As if all that weren't enough, Russia's new nuclear weapons doctrine might "permit Moscow to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear attack" (also known as first use).

Between Russia's new bomber, first use, disagreements over verification procedures, and its tactical nukes (as well as Europe's reliance on those), we can be excused our skepticism about a follow-up to the START agreement, not to mention a follow-up to the follow-up.

At least as troubling, from the point of view of the United States, is what's to keep the START treaty from winding up as watered down as President Obama's feeble attempts at bank and health care reform?

First posted at the Faster Times.