McCain Signals Desire to See Reduction in Nuclear Arms

Senator Does Not Endorse Eliminating Them Completely

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; Page A04

DENVER, May 27 -- Sen. John McCain called for a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia on Tuesday, staking out a position on nonproliferation somewhat at odds with the policies of the Bush administration.

In a speech at the University of Denver, the presumptive Republican nominee said "it is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller force" of nuclear weapons -- "the lowest possible number" -- though he gave no goals or targets. While Bush has said he does not want to reduce U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals below 1,700 to 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear weapons -- a reduction by more than half -- McCain suggested he would seek a new agreement with lower targets, though he did not give a precise figure.

The senator from Arizona said that if he became president he would offer a vision "in which the United States returns to a tradition of innovative thinking, broad-minded internationalism and determined diplomacy."

McCain cited former president Ronald Reagan's dream of eliminating nuclear weapons, but he did not embrace proposals to eliminate nuclear weapons offered by the so-called Gang of Four -- former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former defense secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Both of the leading Democratic candidates have touted their support for the proposals, with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) that recommends many of the measures.

McCain aides said that Schultz and Kissinger, both of whom have endorsed the him, were consulted on the speech and that McCain agrees with the Gang of Four on many key issues.

McCain was interrupted at least four times by antiwar protesters and earned his biggest cheer from the mostly quiet crowd of about 200 when he declared in response, "I will never surrender in Iraq."

Without mentioning him by name, McCain also criticized Obama, who has said he is willing to meet with the leaders of North Korea, Iran and other U.S. enemies. "Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades," McCain said.

The Obama campaign responded to the speech by noting the similarity between what McCain said and positions Obama has taken. "By embracing many aspects of Barack Obama's nonproliferation agenda today, John McCain highlighted Obama's leadership on nuclear weapons throughout this campaign," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement.

The campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also took issue with McCain's comments, saying that "Senator McCain's goals will remain an illusion as long as he continues to embrace and magnify the failed policies of the Bush administration."

Nuclear experts said McCain did not break significant new ground, but they welcomed the focus on the issue. "McCain's speech, while vague in several key areas, reflects the emerging bipartisan consensus in favor of renewed U.S. leadership on nuclear disarmament that is needed to win support for steps needed to shore up the beleaguered global nonproliferation system," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. He said it was "a welcome start" that candidates are focused "on this underreported issue in the campaign."

McCain appears more open to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty than Bush but has not said he would support it, only that he "would keep an open mind about future developments." Obama has said he would seek a "bipartisan process to reconsider the treaty."

McCain also called for the elimination of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a bunker-busting weapon backed by Bush that he said "does not make strategic or political sense." Funding for the project has already been canceled.

On North Korea, McCain outlined a more skeptical position than the Bush administration on the results of recent negotiations. In an opinion article co-authored with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) that appeared in Tuesday's Asian Wall Street Journal, McCain urged using "the leverage available from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test" to press North Korea for a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear facilities. The Bush administration essentially abandoned enforcement of the U.N. resolution when it decided in 2007 to negotiate an end to the impasse.

Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company