Obama's Nuclear Stance At Issue

Internal Debate Rages On A Model For Other Nations Vs. Deterrence

December 28, 2009|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Tribune Newspapers

President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to begin phasing out nuclear weapons has run up against powerful resistance from officials in the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, posing a threat to one of his most important foreign policy initiatives.

Obama laid out his vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague in April, vowing the U.S. would take major steps of its own to lead the way. Eight months later, the administration is locked in internal debate over a top-secret policy blueprint for shrinking the United States' nuclear arsenal and reducing the role of such weapons in military strategy and foreign policy.

Officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere have pushed back against administration proposals to cut the number of weapons and narrow their mission, according to U.S. officials and outsiders who have been briefed on the process.

In turn, White House officials, unhappy with early Pentagon-led drafts of the blueprint known as the Nuclear Posture Review, have stepped up their involvement in the deliberations and ordered that the document reflect Obama's preference for sweeping change, according to the U.S. officials and others, describing discussions on condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity and secrecy.

The Pentagon has stressed the importance of continued U.S. deterrence, an objective Obama has said he agrees with. But a senior defense official acknowledged in an interview that some officials are concerned that the administration may be going too far. He described the debate as "spirited. ... I think we have every possible point of view in the world represented."

The debate represents another collision between the Obama administration and key parts of the national security establishment, following earlier scrapes over troop levels in Afghanistan and missile defenses in Eastern Europe. But more than those issues, the future of U.S. nuclear weapons policy is directly tied to a series of initiatives Obama has advanced as a prime goal of his presidency.

"This is the first test of Obama's nuclear commitments," said former U.S. Ambassador Nancy E. Soderberg, who held senior foreign policy positions in the Clinton administration. "They can't afford to fall short at the outset."

Congress called for the nuclear review, the third such study since the end of the Cold War, placing the Pentagon in charge. Similar reviews were conducted near the beginning of both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but Obama's is the first in which substantial changes stand to be made both in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and how they are used.

The government maintains an estimated 9,400 nuclear weapons, about 1,000 fewer than in 2002. Obama believes that stepping up efforts to reduce the stockpile will give U.S. officials added credibility in their quest to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone international arms control pact.

The timing of the administration debate on the nuclear review is crucial, because a key international meeting on the treaty is planned for May in New York. Also looming next year are other elements of Obama's nuclear agenda, including renewal of an arms reduction treaty with Russia and a push for Senate ratification of a global ban on nuclear testing.

The nonproliferation treaty has been weakened in recent years by the spread of nuclear technologies to countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. But non-nuclear countries are wary of intrusive new rules, arguing that while the United States preaches nuclear arms control to others, it has failed to live up to its own promises to disarm.

For Obama, the stakes are high. The difficulties posed by challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and the Middle East underscore the need for progress on arms control.

Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part because of expectations that he would make good on his pledge to reduce the nuclear threat.

He would not be the first president to suffer setbacks on nuclear policy at the hands of politics and the U.S. bureaucracy. Former President Clinton and his defense secretary, the late Les Aspin, had ambitious plans to overhaul nuclear policy in a 1994 review. But it quickly became bogged down in internal disagreement, and ended largely by preserving the status quo.

Obama has vowed to move toward abolition of American nuclear weapons, but has acknowledged the process may not be completed in his lifetime. He told world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September that his administration would soon set out a new nuclear posture policy statement that "opens the door to deeper cuts and reduces the role of nuclear weapons."

But the process of doing so in Washington has encountered difficulty on several scores, according to those who described the talks.

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