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AOL.News Op-ed: Waiting for Obama’s Policy on Nukes


This opinion piece ran recently with Aol.News.  Catch it -- and Aol.News’ other offerings -- at this link. For a rather different view of this subject, see the associated opinion piece by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute.

To defense experts, "NPR" stands not for "National Public Radio" but for the "Nuclear Posture Review" -- the reassessment of nuclear weapons policy U.S. presidents customarily undertake upon taking office. NPRs produce guidance used to direct management of the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, Pentagon contingency planning, research and development, and other matters.

The Obama administration's NPR may be of defining importance.

Why is the Obama NPR particularly important? President Barack Obama wants his administration to be seen as offering something new and different, and has worked hard to create the impression of a bold new dawn in which Washington will finally lead the world to disarmament. In Prague last April, Obama spoke of this vision in sweeping terms, deliberately raising expectations to a fever pitch. (Indeed, he was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part on the strength of this rhetoric.)

But remarkably, for all his nuclear posing, no one knows what Obama's nuclear weapons policy actually is. So far, his administration has done little of real import. Obama seeks a modest new arms-reduction treaty with Russia but contemplates cuts that would not have been too shocking from the Bush administration -- which, in fact, actually began these negotiations in 2006. The administration also wants to reattempt ratification of the nuclear test ban defeated in the Senate in 1999, although the treaty's Senate prospects are dimming. As a result, at this point Obama's "transformative" arms-control agenda looks like President Bill Clinton's from the mid-1990s.

And having so far followed its "change" rhetoric with no more than a laundry list of reheated Clintonisms and largely impact-free posturing, Obama also faces a bit of a trap of his own making: Doing too much risks greater contempt from the right, which will portray Obama as a national security naïf; doing too little risks increased ire from the left, which expects bold departures. Had Obama charted a more cautious and moderate course from the outset, this likely wouldn't be an issue.

So the world is left waiting to see what Obama's nuclear weapons "change" means in practice.

This is why his NPR is so important. And it is well past time for him to offer one. The NPR is where rhetoric starts to bump up against reality: Talk is not quite so "cheap" when it comes to actually giving the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration their marching orders.

Interestingly, the review has been significantly delayed, and rumors are flying of bitter internal disputes. How things will come out is difficult for outsiders to assess, but it seems safe to say that no NPR is likely to produce anything living up to the expectations the administration has taken pains to create.

Already, there are hints that the administration's agenda may be suffering from scuffles with reality.

For example, it has recently sought funding to refurbish our sole remaining air-delivered nuclear bomb and has requested more money for the weapons infrastructure in the name of "reliability." It is once again considering building a new bomber, and has asked for money to study a potential replacement for our current ballistic missile submarine. Merely to study something, of course, is not to build it, but it is at least possible that we will not forever continue to be -- as we are today -- the only nuclear weapons power not to be modernizing its forces.

But specific budget items don't tell much of a story without understanding their place in an overall policy framework, and no such framework yet exists for the Obama administration.

That's why this NPR is of huge significance, for good or ill. Many eyes are watching.

Dr. Christopher A. Ford is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He previously served as U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation and as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control verification.

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