06/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Nuclear Policy: Modest but Important Steps in the Right Direction

Critics of President Obama's nuclear arms reduction policy have launched a barrage of criticisms of an approach that so far entails relatively modest steps towards his administration's stated goal of seeking "the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons." One claim - made by that esteemed nuclear strategist Sarah Palin, among others -- is that limiting the circumstances under which the United States would threaten another nation with nuclear attack makes us more vulnerable to aggression. A second charge -- one that seems to come straight out of the Cold War -- is that Russia will be able to cheat on any new treaty, thereby giving it a strategic advantage over the United States.

Neither of these claims stands up to even minimal scrutiny. They could probably be dismissed out of hand but for the fact that they may show up in one form or other in the debates surrounding Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Washington and Moscow.

On the issue of when the United States might threaten a country with nuclear weapons, a common refrain is the claim that under the new Obama policy the United States would not be able to use the kind of nuclear threat that it allegedly did in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War to keep Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons against U.S. troops. This claim is simply wrong. The Obama administration's new Nuclear Posture Review indicates that the United States will not threaten any non-nuclear-armed nation with nuclear weapons if it is fully in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in 1991, Iraq was decidedly not in compliance with that treaty, so had the Obama policy been in place at that time nothing would have prevented Washington from threatening Saddam Hussein with a nuclear attack. Going forward, the two nations cited as the greatest potential nuclear threats to the United States -- Iran and North Korea -- would also be liable to nuclear threats from the United States under the Obama policy.

I happen to believe that a better policy would be to say that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to keep other countries from using them against the United States or its allies. This would go a significant way towards devaluing and ultimately de-legitimizing nuclear weapons, a stepping stone towards deep reductions and/or the eventual elimination of these weapons of mass terror. The United States has more than enough conventional firepower to make a devastating response against any nation that uses or threatens to use chemical or biological weapons against us, so retaining the right to use nuclear threats in these scenarios is both unnecessary and unwise. But as noted above, the approach that I or other arms control advocates may prefer is not the Obama policy, so it makes no sense for his opponents to criticize him as if it is.

Some anti-arms control advocates have also trotted out the old argument that we can't trust Russia, and that therefore we should beware of signing arms control agreements with Moscow. There are several problems with this view.

First, Russia is not the Soviet Union. We have a decidedly different relationship with Russia than the one we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and this new relationship implies greater levels of trust. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, what is the alternative? Under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States and Russia will maintain exactly the same number of deployed strategic warheads -- 1, 550. And this parity of forces will be policed by a sophisticated, multi-layered verification system. Would it be better to have no treaty and reduce our knowledge of Russia's nuclear activities? Would we be safer if all bets were off as to how many nuclear weapons each side could maintain? Certainly not.

President Obama has focused thus far on practical, achievable steps, not sweeping, visionary leaps in policy. A case in point is this week's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, which has brought together 47 nations -- the largest gathering of countries called together by a U.S. president since the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 -- to find ways to secure nuclear bomb-making materials to keep them from falling into the hands of terrorists. This needs to be done regardless of how many nuclear weapons there are in the world, although it would obviously be easier if there were fewer of them -- and fewer facilities standing ready to design and build them.

President Obama could go further and faster on nuclear weapons reductions without risking U.S. security. But that is unlikely to happen if too many people - both in Congress and among concerned citizens - swallow criticisms that misrepresent the president's current policy.