Obama Walks The Atomic Plank

President Obama jam-packed early April with events that overhaul America’s nuclear weapons policies which shout naivety and weakness.

Last year, Obama laid out his vision for a nuclear-weapons-free world before a cheering crowd in Prague, the Czech Republic. He promised to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and expressed his determination to take concrete steps toward that goal.

“I am glad Obama made people believe the world could be a better place. On the other hand, he seems naïve,” said David Gaydecka, a Czech citizen concerned about Obama’s nuclear agenda. “His diplomacy is not stopping the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons” and engagement policies alone, Gaydecka warned, did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Adolf Hitler’s troops before World War II. 

This week and next Obama will introduce policies that advance his nuclear vision. He is advancing those policies via three events: the announcement of his Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), signing the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians and hosting world leaders next Tuesday at a summit on locking down nuclear material.

These events when viewed in the context of Obama’s nuclear-free vision communicate four confidence-busting messages.

First, Obama is marginalizing our nuclear umbrella. His policies sap allied confidence and could prompt some to field atomic arsenals.

Today in Prague, Obama signed the new START agreement which essentially makes America’s atomic arsenal equal to Russia’s. The treaty, which becomes effective only after both the U.S. Senate and Russian Duma approve, downsizes both arsenals by almost one-third to 1,550 strategic warheads. The treaty also reduces strategic delivery vehicles—bombers and missiles—a third to 700.

This is a great achievement for Moscow. It saves them money during tough economic times and limits America’s global umbrella. It also leaves in place a great disparity in tactical nuclear weapons—Russia has thousands of tactical nukes to our hundreds. The new START also comes at a time when the Russians are expanding their reliance on nuclear forces as our dependence declines.

Last year, former Czech president Vaclav Havel warned Obama in a letter that the Cold War is not a distant memory. He warned Obama, “We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia.”
That’s a sobering caution but apparently was lost on Obama. Last year he caved to Russian insistence we abandon a European ground-based missile defense against Iran and now Obama accepted deep arsenal cuts that advantage Moscow. 

Time will tell whether the Russians live up to the treaty but the damage is done. Obama’s nuclear policy chills allied confidence. 

Second, Obama virtually abandoned the nuclear option. Previous administrations embraced an ambiguous nuclear-use policy but Obama throws out the guess work and builds in too much time to decide whether to use atomic weapons.

Obama establishes a class of nations safe from American atomic attack. Nations that are non-nuclear and party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with the NPT will never be targeted by American atomic weapons. That language intentionally leaves Iran and North Korea on the target list, however.

The no-nuclear-target list also includes those who launch massive conventional, chemical and or biological attacks against America. Obama’s NPR states because the strategic situation has changed “the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks has declined significantly.” He intends to use conventional arms in the future for most threats and is moving to the point where he reserves nuclear weapons only to respond to atomic attacks.

The administration is also building time into the President’s atomic-weapon decision process. That’s done by keeping bombers “off full-time alert” and missiles aimed at “open-ocean” targets. 

But the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, is critical of this time-buying decision process. He compared it to taking a gun apart “and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you’re in a crisis deciding to reassemble it.” 

Third, Obama naively trusts international enforcement institutions. But international enforcement organizations consistently fail to stop rogues and terrorists.

Obama’s arch nemesis, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, classified the NPR as a “cowboy” policy and said, “Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer (to politics). Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience.” For a decade Iran has consistently fooled the international enforcement agencies trying to monitor its atomic programs.

But preventing rogues like Iran and terrorists from becoming nuclear capable is atop Obama’s nuclear agenda but he isn’t about to become the world’s policeman. That’s why his upcoming heads of state meeting will seek to recruit leaders to three international enforcement programs.

Obama intends to strengthen the 40-year-old NPT which is the cornerstone of the world’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. He wants to strengthen the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to enforce NPT compliance.

But the NPT has been a toothless tiger at stopping proliferators like North Korea which sold a plutonium reactor to Syria and Pakistan which transferred entire nuclear programs to Iran and Libya. Besides, expect that Arab countries will never agree to tougher NPT enforcement until action is taken to strip Israel of its alleged arsenal. 

Obama will use next week’s conference to push for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to be negotiated and brought into force to protect the material against theft. But all countries, including rogue nations like Iran, must cooperate—which is unlikely.

The President will encourage the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to bring it into force internationally. The CTBT would leverage current and would-be atomic weapons powers. The problem with the CTBT is that nations like Russia think they can have low-level nuclear tests and still be compliant with the treaty. Others countries, like India and Pakistan, refuse to consider joining and the U.S. Senate last rejected the treaty in 1999. 

Finally, Obama treats our nuclear arsenal as a used car lot. His approach undermines domestic and allied confidence in our arsenal’s reliability.

The NPR calls for sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. Rather than replace aging weapons, the Obama Administration intends to refurbish them via Life Extension Programs that reuse only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, which avoids testing under the CTBT. It also rejects new military missions or capabilities such as nuclear bunker-buster bombs.

This sustainment effort is intended to facilitate further reductions which supports Obama’s goal of eventually ridding the country of nuclear weapons. But our potential adversaries are doing just the opposite.

Nuclear powers Russia, China and others continue atomic weapon modernization programs. The NPR states China’s nuclear forces are undergoing a “qualitative and quantitative modernization” and lacks transparency.

“Russia remains America’s only peer in the area of nuclear weapons … continues to modernize its still-formidable nuclear forces” but we “are no longer adversaries,” the NPR states.

Obama’s nuclear vision is laudable but naïve. He trusts the Russians, conventional over nuclear deterrence, international enforcement and aging weapons. 

Our enemies and allies are listening to Obama’s nuclear messages. They will rightly understand America’s commander-in-chief is naively walking the nuclear plank expecting others to follow. But at the end he will find himself all alone.