Obama to take middle course in new nuclear policy

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A year after his groundbreaking pledge to move toward a "world without nuclear weapons," President Obama on Tuesday will unveil a policy that constrains the weapons' role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas.

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

The new policy will also describe the purpose of U.S. weapons as being fundamentally for deterrence. Some Democratic legislators had urged Obama to go further and declare that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. But officials in the Defense and State departments worried that such a change could unnerve allies protected by the U.S. nuclear "umbrella."

The administration's nuclear policy, contained in a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be released at the start of a jam-packed week of events focused on one of the president's signature issues. Obama is to sign a new arms-control treaty with Russia on Thursday, then host at least 40 world leaders next Tuesday at a summit on locking down nuclear material.

The Nuclear Posture Review is important because it sets the framework for decisions on U.S. nuclear policy for the next five to 10 years, including the size of the stockpile and investments in submarines, missiles and nuclear laboratories. This one had raised particularly high expectations because of the president's nuclear agenda, which helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

The document will break with the Bush administration's nuclear doctrine in several ways. But officials and analysts said the policy's cautious tone reflected a desire to not upset the military or Republicans in Congress at a time when Obama hopes to get several nuclear treaties ratified.

The document also reflects the continuity in the nuclear establishment, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates straddling the two administrations, said nuclear expert George Perkovich.

"There's no Robespierre who comes in and says, 'Off with their heads -- we're going to do things differently,' " he told an audience Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Still, Perkovich noted, the document marks a departure in focusing on terrorists and rogue states as the main nuclear threats. It also narrows the stated scenarios in which the U.S. government would use nuclear weapons.

During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to work with Russia to take the countries' nuclear arms off high alert, saying that "keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War."

Officials familiar with the new policy said it will not remove weapons from alert, but will instead seek to give the president more time to decide whether to fire the weapons. The U.S. military had expressed concern about taking weapons off alert. The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, compared it last year to taking a gun apart "and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you're in a crisis, deciding to reassemble it."

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