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Obama plans major nuclear policy changes in his final months


President Obama descends from Air Force One as he arrives at the Naval Station Rota in Spain on July 10. (Jorge Guerrero/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The Obama administration is determined to use its final six months in office to take a series of executive actions to advance the nuclear agenda the president has advocated since his college days. It’s part of Obama’s late push to polish a foreign policy legacy that is plagued by challenges on several other fronts.

President Obama announced his drive to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and eventually rid the world of them in his first major foreign policy speech, in Prague in 2009. In his first years, he achieved some successes, such as the New START treaty with Russia, the Nuclear Security Summits and the controversial Iran deal. But progress waned in the past year as more pressing crises commanded the White House’s attention. Now, the president is considering using the freedom afforded a departing administration to cross off several remaining items on his nuclear wish list.

In recent weeks, the national security Cabinet members known as the Principals Committee held two meetings to review options for executive actions on nuclear policy. Many of the options on the table are controversial, but by design none of them require formal congressional approval. No final decisions have been made, but Obama is expected to weigh in personally soon.

“As we enter the homestretch of the Obama presidency, it’s worth remembering that he came into office with a personal commitment to pursuing diplomacy and arms control,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told the Arms Control Association on June 6. “I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues.”

President Obama called for an end to nuclear weapons in a solemn visit to Hiroshima to offer respects to the victims of the world’s first deployed atomic bomb. (Reuters)

Several U.S. officials briefed on the options told me they include declaring a “no first use” policy for the United States’ nuclear arsenal, which would be a landmark change in the country’s nuclear posture. Another option under consideration is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. This would be a way to enshrine the United States’ pledge not to test without having to seek unlikely Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The administration is also considering offering Russia a five-year extension of the New START treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons, even though those limits don’t expire until 2021. This way, Obama could ensure that the next administration doesn’t let the treaty lapse. Some administration officials want to cancel or delay development of a new nuclear cruise missile, called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, because it is designed for a limited nuclear strike, a capability Obama doesn’t believe the United States needs. Some officials want to take most deployed nukes off of “hair trigger” alert.

The administration also wants to cut back long-term plans for modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which the Congressional Budget Office reports will cost about $350 billion over the next decade. Obama may establish a blue-ribbon panel of experts to examine the long-term budget for these efforts and find ways to scale it back.

Republican congressional leaders are already warning the administration not to use its final months to take actions they say would betray promises to Congress and weaken the United States’ nuclear deterrent. On June 17, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote to Obama to warn him not to unravel their deal on nuclear modernization, which they said persuaded Congress to ratify New START. They acknowledged that the current plan may be fiscally unsustainable but pledged to work with the administration to address the shortfalls.

Opponents in Congress also believe the administration is not taking into consideration how big changes in U.S. nuclear policy would affect allies that live under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, especially in Europe and Northeast Asia. But arms control advocates, Democratic lawmakers and former officials are pressing the administration to announce as many new policies as possible. For them, Obama has one last chance to make good on his nuclear promises.

“It’s pretty clear the Prague agenda has stalled,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which supports groups advocating for nuclear nonproliferation. “There isn’t anything that the president does that isn’t criticized by his opponents, so he might as well do what he wants. He’s relishing his last days in office.”

By focusing on nuclear weapons, Obama sees an opportunity to cement a foreign policy legacy despite setbacks and incomplete efforts in several other areas. But by doing it unilaterally, without congressional buy-in, and in a hurried way, he risks launching policies that might not last much longer than his presidency.

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