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Obama Nuclear Review is, Shockingly, not Awful

Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation, National Security Council

Make no mistake: There are things in the Obama administration's just-released 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that will make conservatives uncomfortable. It raises real questions that will be much debated in the coming months -- especially as the still-unfinished "New START" agreement with Russia faces Senate ratification.

Will the president make sure we have a reliable nuclear deterrent as our numbers shrink? Does "New START" bring our delivery systems down too quickly? Are we doing enough, as we reduce the size of our arsenal, to provide credible security for allies who depend on the "nuclear umbrella" of U.S. extended deterrence? And so on.

But on the whole, the most shocking thing about the document is how bad it isn't. By contrast, for President Barack Obama's supporters on the left and in the disarmament community, this Nuclear Posture Review is surely nothing short of a catastrophe.

Let's not forget: this is the president elected on a "transformative" platform of "change we can believe in," who has reputedly dreamed of nuclear weapons abolition since his undergraduate days, and who spent the first year of his presidency playing to the disarmament grandstands and collecting a Nobel Peace Prize for seeming to promise the moon in achieving "a world without nuclear weapons."

Well, from the perspective of the disarmament community, this Nuclear Posture Review isn't the moon. The White House has tried to make its new more restrictive declaratory policy the central story of Nuclear Posture Review media coverage, but even here, as I have detailed elsewhere, the new rhetoric is more confusing and less radical a departure than it pretends. Experts will be debating its actual meaning -- and of course its impact on deterrence -- for a while.

More importantly, the Nuclear Posture Review turns out to be replete with things that are sure to drive the disarmers positively nuts. Readers can find my longer, issue-by-issue account of the Nuclear Posture Review elsewhere, but among these points are:

  • Obama promises he will retain a robust and effective nuclear arsenal "as long as nuclear weapons exist."
  • He defends the role of our nuclear arsenal in providing extended deterrence to allies, even to the point of describing the deployment of weapons in Europe – and "NATO's unique nuclear sharing arrangements" – as contributing to alliance cohesion and "providing security to allies who feel exposed to regional threats."
  • The Nuclear Posture Review flags ongoing Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization, and China's continuing nuclear build-up, as presenting potential problems for future disarmament and for stability at lower force levels. And it specifically declares that Russia's large stock of nonstrategic weapons must be addressed in any future arms talks.
  • It continues many key policies from the Bush administration, not least by stressing the importance of modernizing our nuclear weapons production infrastructure -- on which Obama actually proposes to spend more than George W. Bush -- to ensure stockpile reliability and provide a "hedge" against future technological surprise or changes in the security environment that would require a rapid resumption of warhead production.
  • While it promises to build no "new" nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Posture Review defines this in terms that would actually let it resurrect Bush initiatives such as the "reliable replacement warhead." Using vintage RRW phrasing, in fact, the Obama administration says its warhead life extension programs will "use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities."
  • And whereas until now the United States has been the only nuclear weapons possessor not to be modernizing its nuclear forces, the Obama Nuclear Posture Review also now openly lays the groundwork for the modernization of several American delivery systems.
  • Meanwhile, the president who last year caved in to Russian pressure and abandoned loyal NATO allies over European-based missile defense now declares that missile defenses are a key component of our deterrent strategy -- especially as we reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal.

Granted, the Nuclear Posture Review promises America's commitment "to the long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons," but it makes clear that this is a very long-term goal indeed, describing the conditions that would have to be achieved in order to make abolition possible as being "very demanding." And -- after articulating some of these conditions in terms that fit remarkably well with positions we articulated in the Bush administration -- the Nuclear Posture Review says pointedly that the necessary conditions "clearly ... do not exist today," and that "it is not clear when this goal can be achieved."

The irony here, of course, is that the details of the Nuclear Posture Review likely to prove anathema to the disarmament left in fact probably are consistent with a sincere commitment to trying to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

At this juncture, both hawks and doves probably have an interest in supporting the president in pursuing such nuclear modernization: the former because from their perspective some modernization is vastly better than the status quo of no modernization, and the latter because any serious effort to make deep cuts will probably require a different force mix, greater reliability, and better productive and scientific capacity than we have today -- and because we will have to make it through many long years before there could be any hope of abolition.

Still, Obama will face a very entertaining and awkward political and diplomatic dance as he tries to explain to his starry-eyed allies on the left why the Nuclear Posture Review's surprisingly robust commitment to nuclear deterrence, modernization, missile defense, prompt global strike and the "nuclear umbrella" deserves their support.