Mixed Reviews for Obama’s Nuclear Strategy

U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday unveiled a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that will significantly limit the circumstances under which Washington would use nuclear weapons as part of a strategy to bolster the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other efforts to halt and reverse the spread of nuclear arms.

Among other changes, the new strategy forbids the use of nuclear weapons against signatories in good standing of the NPT, forswears the testing of nuclear weapons and development of new nuclear warheads, and commits the administration to seek Senate ratification and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Disarmament groups generally hailed the new document, although some expressed concern that the new strategy falls short of a comprehensive "no first-use policy" and doesn’t go far enough toward achieving Obama’s commitment to "a world free of nuclear weapons," as he promised in a major policy address in Prague one year ago.

"These changes are the most far-reaching since the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago, and reflect the reality that nuclear weapons have become a liability in today’s world," said Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"But given today’s realities, we hope that this is just the beginning and the president will go even further to strengthen national and international security before the end of his term," she added.

Obama, who will join Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Prague Thursday, issued his own statement on the NPR Tuesday.

"The United States is declaring that we will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations," Obama said.

"This enables us to sustain our nuclear deterrent for the narrower range of contingencies in which these weapons may still play a role, while providing an additional incentive for nations to meet their NPT obligations," he added.

The new NPR made a notable exception in its policy of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states for countries, such as Iran and North Korea, which fail to comply with the treaty’s provisions.

"Those nations that fail to meet their obligations will therefore find themselves more isolated, and will recognize that the pursuit of nuclear weapons will not make them more secure," Obama said.

The new NPR, which was cleared by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marks a major turnaround for Defense Secretary Robert Gates who, while serving in the same position under former President George W. Bush, warned in October 2008 that the U.S. would either have to develop new nuclear warheads or test existing weapons in order to ensure the reliability and safety of Washington’s aging nuclear arsenal.

"This NPR determined that the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Programs to extend the lives of warheads will use only nuclear components based on previous tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capability," he said Tuesday.

"[P]rincipally no new testing, no new warheads … no new missions or capabilities," added Gen. James Cartwright, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman and a former head of the US Strategic Command in summarizing the essence of the new U.S. position.

"No one in the previous administration could have said that," noted Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a major nuclear disarmament group.

"If you compare the reduction in roles and missions [of nuclear weapons] of this Posture with the expansion of roles and mission in the [2002] Bush NPR, it’s like night and day," he noted, adding that in Bush’s proposal for new nuclear weapons, such as those that could specifically target bunkers and trucks, "he treated them like they were very large conventional weapons, while Obama is saying, ‘No, they’re not. We would only use nuclear weapons in extremis.’"

The NPR’s release helps set the stage for the signing of the new START accord, which commits the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals by one-third, bringing their total number of warheads down to 1,550 each.

Next week, Obama will host a nuclear security summit that will bring 47 heads of state or government – the largest such gathering in Washington in history – to discuss ways to better safeguard nuclear materials from terrorists and disrupt illicit nuclear trade.

Next month, representatives of the world’s governments will convene at UN headquarters for the latest five-year review of the NPT, including ways to strengthen adherence to its provisions.

"Whether by accident or design, the Obama administration is staging this beautifully. These pieces all fit together and are mutually supporting," said Cirincione.

The new NPR provoked a variety of reactions across the political spectrum, with pro-nuclear hawks, such as Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), calling its renunciation of new U.S. nuclear weapons as "most alarming."

"Even if there were no new START treaty, no further movement on the [CTBT], and no new woolly-headed declaratory policies, the mere fact that the United States will fail to reverse the steady obsolescence of its [nuclear] deterrent … will ineluctably achieve what is transparently President Obama’s ultimate goal: a world without AMERICAN nuclear weapons," Gaffney, who was responsible for nuclear policy under Ronald Reagan, wrote on National Review online.

Others complained that the NPR did not go far enough. While calling it a "significant improvement" over its post-Cold War predecessors, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation expressed disappointment that it did not make deterring a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies the "sole" – the NPR used the word "fundamental" – purpose of Washington’s arsenal and that it did not include a "no first-use" policy.

Both "would have further strengthened the credibility of the U.S. conventional deterrent and reduced the incentives that other states might have to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves from a U.S. first strike," the group said in a statement.

The London-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC) called the document a "step in the right direction" but noted that it "stops far short of a transformational policy."

BASIC’s Paul Ingram said its maintenance for now of the estimated 200 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe was "disappointing," although he noted that their fate was still to be worked out with NATO.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.