Obama must decide degree to which U.S. swears off nuclear weapons

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010; 12:13 AM

President Obama's top national security advisers will within days present him with an agonizing choice on how to guide U.S. nuclear weapons policy for the rest of his term.

Does he substantially advance his bold pledge to seek a world free of nuclear weapons by declaring that the "sole purpose" of the U.S. arsenal is to deter other nations from using them? Or does he embrace a more modest option, supported by some senior military officials, that deterrence is the "primary purpose"?

The difference may seem semantic, but such words, which will be contained in a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review, have deep meaning and could dramatically shift nuclear policy in the United States and around the world. The first option would scale back the arsenal's war role, potentially leading to a smaller U.S. stockpile and taking weapons off alert. The second option would be less of a change, holding out the nuclear threat but still permitting a reduction in weapons. The president was briefed on the document this week and requested additional intermediate options, officials say.

Senior administration officials have indicated that the review is likely to roll back some George W. Bush policies, such as threatening the use of nuclear weapons to preempt or respond to chemical or biological attacks. The review will also point to new ways to cut the Pentagon's stockpile of roughly 5,000 active nuclear warheads, they say.

The review will "reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, even as we maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent," Obama said in a statement Friday marking the 40th anniversary of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But, officials say, after lengthy debate, Obama's aides have rejected some of the boldest ideas on the table, such as forswearing the option to use nuclear arms first in a conflict, or dropping one leg of the "triad" of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles that carry the deadly weapons.

Obama's decision on the sensitive issue of U.S. "declaratory policy," officials and outside experts say, will help determine whether the document is regarded as a far-reaching shift from the Bush administration's version released in 2001. Lower-level officials trying to craft the language engaged in fierce discussions about how far and fast the administration could alter course without alarming allies.

The Nuclear Posture Review is done at the start of each administration, and it influences budgets, treaties and weapons deployment and retirement for five to 10 years. Expectations for this one have been raised because of Obama's pledge last year to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and move toward global disarmament -- a vision that helped win him a Nobel Peace Prize.

The review, more than a month overdue, reflects the tension in seeking to advance the president's sweeping agenda without unnerving allies dependent on the U.S. nuclear "umbrella." The Pentagon is also wary of losing options in a world with emerging nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, officials say.

Until recently, Obama generally has not intervened in the Pentagon-led process, which also involves officials from the State Department, the Energy Department and other agencies. That has raised concerns among arms-control advocates that the final product will be a cautious bureaucratic compromise.

"This NPR will be sort of the bell toll," said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It will signal the direction. Will the president try to push that agenda?"

U.S. diplomats hope the final document will establish the Obama administration's credibility before a nuclear security summit in April and a crucial meeting in May on the fraying nonproliferation treaty. That treaty is at the heart of Obama's strategy to combat the most urgent threat today: the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable states and to terrorists. The last such session, in 2005, ended in failure, with many countries accusing the Bush administration of trying to scotch their nuclear programs while maintaining one of the world's most massive stockpiles.

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