Once and for all, is the Obama administration nuclear posture review slumped or standing up straight? Here’s a sample of commentators whose insights — from fresh to just plain strange — jumped out at us. (The new START treaty is remarked upon as well.)
The Options Are on the Table
We’ll begin with the dependable Fred Kaplan at Slate:
Disarmament activists had hoped for more. But, like the single-payer advocates in the health care debate, they were fooling themselves if they expected it. [Still] Obama’s strategy carves out a novel, and very intriguing, chunk of middle ground. It rejects “no-first-use” … However, it does declare that the United States will not fire nuclear weapons first at any country that has signed, and is in compliance with, the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The distinction may seem semantic, but in fact it’s substantial. Throughout the Cold War and in the two decades since, presidents have. … commonly invoked [the phrase] “all options are on the table,” … Obama is now saying that in conflicts with countries that don’t have nuclear weapons and aren’t cheating on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all options are not on the table. [Emphasis added.]
Take Russia’s Pronouncements With a Grain of Salt
From an Arms Control Association briefing, first Linton Brooks, former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, on START:
The primary benefits of the treaty are two. One is transparency. Transparency leads to predictability; predictability leads to stability…The other benefit is, at a time when we and the Russians don’t have a track record of working as well together as we’d like, something that was reasonably difficult to do got done. [Furthermore the] Russians may issue a statement saying that they have the right to withdraw if we deploy defenses to threaten the strategic balance…It would be tragic if we allowed Russian statements made for domestic purposes to derail it.
A Promise, Not a Threat
Back to the NPR with Mort Halperin, well-known for working on nuclear policy and disarmament inside the government and out, from the same briefing:
It says that…our primary interest is to prevent anybody from using nuclear weapons rather than. . . that our purpose of nuclear weapons is to enable us to meet our own security threats…Now, there’s been some suggestions that this is somehow a threat against North Korea and Iran. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. … For the first time this is a promise to those two countries…If you come back into full compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty, you will have a commitment from the United States not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against you, period, full stop.
Nuke Useless Against Bio-terror if We Don’t Know Whodunit
At Foreign Policy, David Hoffman, author of last year’s acclaimed Deadhand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, writes of the NPR:
The document is filled with laudable goals [which] may help advance his dream of a world without nukes. But flying at high altitude also has certain advantages; you can avoid the rough terrain below. And down on the ground, the president stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that have lingered since the Cold War, such as tactical nuclear weapons and keeping missiles on alert. [Also the NPR] says that. . . the United States “reserves the right” to use nuclear weapons “that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons.” … The suggestion is that nuclear weapons are still a possible deterrent against an adversary contemplating the use of dangerous pathogens. This leaves unspoken the very real problem of attribution: in a pandemic or outbreak of disease it may not be at all clear, at least right away, to whom the nuclear missile should be addressed.
Star Billing for Missile Defense
Also at Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin writes:
For an Obama team that has been skeptical of the past U.S. administrations’ efforts to rapidly deploy ballistic missile-defense systems around the world, missile defense sure does get star billing in the [NPR, which] even features a photo of a missile being shot from an Aegis destroyer. [Though, it] was careful to mention missile defense as only one of several capabilities needed to counter non-nuclear attacks. But Secretary Clinton was less careful. “It’s no secret that countries around the world remained concerned about our missile-defense program,” Clinton said [before proceeding to defend] the role missile defense “can and should play in deterring proliferation and nuclear terrorism.”
Holding Itself Accountable
At Phronesisaical, Cheryl Rofer expands on Linton Brooks’s comment on the NPR’s transparency:
The entire document is unclassified and on the Web. There will be no smirking of “all options are on the table.” The options are there and readable by everyone. If the administration strays too far from what it has said, we can point that out. It means that within the bureaucracy there will be no excuses that they had the wrong classified annex when they made that decision or that they couldn’t find page 273 of their copy. It is a message that this administration thinks that accountability is important and intends to stand by its words.
All-in-All, Status Quo?
At the American Federation of Scientists Strategic Security Blog, Hans Kristensen writes:
The truly new in this NPR is that a good portion of it has very little to do with the U.S. nuclear posture and more to do with policies intended to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons to others. [But] it soon becomes clear that the actual reduction in the nuclear mission — at least for now — is rather modest, if anything at all. In fact, it’s difficult to see why under the language used in this NPR, U.S. nuclear planning would not continue pretty much the way it is now. [When] it comes to Russia and China. . . the NPR appears to continue the Bush administration’s policies.
Supreme Leader on the NPR: “Very Strange”
At Race for Iran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett write:
More liberal Democrats and the professional arms control/nonproliferation community have been inclined to see the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy as a “glass half full” rather than a “glass half empty”. … they depict the Iranian/North Korean exception as an unfortunate byproduct of interagency compromise which can be “worked on in the future.” This is regrettable [in part because] Iranian reaction to the Nuclear Posture Review has focused on highlighting the illegitimacy of U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons against Iran and other non-nuclear-weapons states. … Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told senior military commanders on Sunday that President Obama’s threats to use nuclear arms against Iran “are very strange and the world should not ignore them because in [a] century of claiming to advocate human rights and fight terrorism, the head of a country has threatened a nuclear attack.” [He added that] “these remarks show that the U.S. government is a wicked an unreliable government.”
Hawk Fears Mongolia Has Final Say on U.S. Nuclear Policy
At the Washington Times, Bill Gertz solicited an opinion from Keith Payne, director of the National Institute of Public Policy, a think tank that devotes much of its energy to advocating for missile defense. Payne zeroed in on an element of the NPR not often commented upon:
[He] said an alarming feature of the Nuclear Posture Review. . . is that the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the foreign powers that are represented in it will be able to indirectly set U.S. nuclear weapons policy. “The new NPR appears to place the UN’s IAEA and its Board of Governors at the heart of determining U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy options,” e-mailed Mr. Payne. … According to the new strategy, the U.S. will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear members that sign [and comply with the NPT.] Who will determine whether a state is complying with the treaty? “This question becomes central to U.S. nuclear deterrence policy,” Mr. Payne said. … “A quick check will reveal that NPT compliance is determined by the IAEA’s Board of Governors a board made up of 35 states, including Russia, China, Venezuela, Mongolia and Cuba.”
Waving a Cape at Terrorists
When it comes to conservatives, leave us not overlook the redoubtable Ralph Peters, writing in the New York Post:
Of all [the NPR’s] malignant provisions. . . the most worrisome is the public declaration that, if the US suffers a biological, chemical or massive cyber attack, we will not respond with nukes. … The new policy guarantees that [our enemies will] intensify their pursuit of bugs, gas and weaponized computers. … Will [it] be the inspiration for an engineered plague that someday scythes through humankind?
But It Can Be a Glass Half Full to Conservatives, Too
Hudson Institute fellow and Former Bush administration NPT negotiator Christopher Ford writes:
Make no mistake: There are things in the Obama administration’s just-released 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that will make conservatives uncomfortable. … 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. [It] turns out to be replete with things that are sure to drive the disarmers positively nuts [such as continuing] 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.
Are Conservatives Who Support the NPR Traitors to Their Cause?
At Think Progress’s Wonk Room, Max Bergmann writes:
In an interesting twist, the Wall Street Journal oped page today chose to highlight the split between moderates and extremists within the Republican foreign policy establishment. [It] published the thoughts of six former senior Nixon, Reagan, and Bush W. national security officials on Obama’s nuclear agenda. The result. . . clearly demonstrates that opposition to Obama’s nuclear agenda is only really coming from the far-right neoconservatives. Half the authors were firmly in support (George Schultz, Richard Burt, and Fred C. Iklé), one was lukewarm (James Schlesinger), and two were negative (Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle). Collectively, these pieces expose a conservative national security movement that is completely cracking.
Will the NPR Turbocharge the NPT Conference?
At the Guardian, Paul Ingram of BASIC (the British American Security Information Council) writes:
In less than a month, nations gather in New York to review the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. To reach agreement. . . require[s] clear signals that the United States — and other nuclear weapon states — [are] prepared genuinely to start the process of giving up their attachment to. . . nuclear weapons. Does this NPR do it? The simple answer is no. … But it. . . acknowledges the need for further movement. Whether this is enough for success next month remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, William C. Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writes:
This document, combined with the New START accord, will have an impact on the NPT review conference. … But it is an open question at this stage whether the changes it outlines will be sufficient to convince the majority of non-nuclear weapons states that sufficient progress toward disarmament. . . is being made.
How Historians Will See It
We’ll give Arms Control Wonk’s Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation the final word:
[About the details] none of that will matter a year from now. I suspect we will look back at this period — the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of the Prague Treaty [his name for START — Ed.], the Nuclear Security Summit and the NPT Review conference — and say that this was a pivot point, the moment when we began talking about nuclear weapons on terms that are different from those of the Cold War.