New nuclear arms policy shows limits U.S. faces

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A06

In a landmark speech in Prague last year, President Obama pledged to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and move toward a world without nuclear weapons. This week, that soaring vision came down to Earth, with the issuance of a new policy reflecting the limits the president faces.

Obama's nuclear policy breaks with the past by narrowing the circumstances under which the U.S. government says it will use the devastating weapons. But on one point after another, the changes are gradual rather than transformational.

Although a senior White House official had predicted, for example, that the policy would "point to dramatic reductions in the stockpile," the document released Tuesday mentions only the modest cuts included in a new treaty the president is scheduled to sign with Russia on Thursday. Officials said that further shrinkage of the nuclear arsenal will come through a second round of negotiations with Russia that are expected to be drawn-out and difficult.

The new document is less ambiguous about the purposes of nuclear weapons than in the past, saying their "fundamental role" is to deter a nuclear attack. But it shies away from declaring that their "sole purpose" is deterrence, as some Democratic lawmakers and arms-control activists had wanted. That leaves open the possibility that the weapons can be used in some other scenarios, such as in response to a conventional attack.

Further, while Obama in his presidential campaign had called for taking U.S. nuclear weapons off "hair-trigger alert," the military balked. The document instead adopts compromise measures aimed at giving leaders more time to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons in a crisis.

Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, noted that the new policy highlights the eventual goal of a world without nuclear weapons. However, he said, "the document is surprisingly cautious in terms of the measures that will move us there, because it essentially retains current U.S. nuclear policy."

Analysts said Obama's policy reflects the hard reality of advancing an agenda that has not attracted enthusiastic support among the American public or lawmakers and has raised some opposition in the U.S. military. Obama needs support for his nuclear policies in Congress, starting with ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

The new document "is clearly thought through and written in a way to be the best posture review that President Obama could do that would attract 67 votes to ratify the new START treaty," said George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The policy document, known as the Nuclear Posture Review and mandated by Congress, drives nuclear investments and war-planning for five to 10 years.

It does break with some policies of George W. Bush's administration, most notably in putting unprecedented emphasis on the nuclear threat from terrorists and rogue states, as opposed to nuclear powers such as Russia and China.

"There's more realization that our nuclear competitors that are states already are basically deterred," Perkovich said. The emphasis on post-Cold War threats will change priorities at the Pentagon and in budgeting for nonproliferation activities, he said.

Peter D. Feaver, a former defense and strategy official in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, wrote on ForeignPolicy.com that the new document is not "the bold leap that wins plaudits in academic seminar rooms, activist think-tanks and Norwegian parliaments."

Rather, he wrote, it reflects the kind of pragmatism Obama has shown in foreign policy decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan: "Critics may complain that this results in a lack of strategic clarity . . . but perhaps it will come to be seen as a politically deft balance of competing desiderata."

In fashioning a new nuclear policy, Obama faced not only domestic political constraints but international ones as well. Some countries expressed nervousness about any changes that would appear to weaken the U.S. nuclear "umbrella" protecting them, officials said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said officials had wrestled in interagency meetings with how much they could change U.S. policy and had even considered a U.S. commitment not to use nuclear arms first in a conflict.

However, he said at a news conference: "We didn't think we were far enough along the road of getting control of nuclear weapons around the world to limit ourselves so explicitly. . . . We recognize we need to make progress moving in the direction the president has set. But we also recognize the real world we continue to live in."

In the end, the policy settled for saying that the "fundamental role" of the U.S. arsenal is deterrence. It also clears up the ambiguity about whether the United States would use its arsenal to attack a nonnuclear country. Unlike the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Obama team says it would not authorize a nuclear strike against a nonnuclear country in retaliation for a chemical or biological attack.

But it attaches important caveats: The nonnuclear country must be in compliance with its nonproliferation obligations under international treaties, which leaves Iran on the list of potential targets. And the U.S. government reserves the right to change its mind if biological weapons become more powerful.

Officials said nuclear arms reductions continue to be driven by the need to maintain "approximate parity" with Russia, the other nuclear giant. It might lead to "misperceptions, misunderstandings" if one side sharply reduced its arsenal, said James Miller, a senior Defense Department official.

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