Over the past few months, there have been several reports to the effect that Barack Obama's plan for drastic cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal is dead in the water. Newsweek reported that a draft of the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—which, when released next year, will determine the shape of the U.S. arsenal—envisioned only modest arms reductions; a detailed article from Global Security Newswire described a principals meeting in which only Joe Biden argued for an ambitious approach; and Marc Ambinder followed up by explaining how the Pentagon might "take control of the Nuclear Posture Review once more."
It seemed as if Obama's lofty words about deep nuclear cuts were about to be ignored by the Pentagon bureaucracy. And, relatedly, the president looked like he was losing an argument with Defense Secretary Robert Gates over how far to go in refurbishing the U.S. nuclear arsenal--and whether or not to develop a new nuclear warhead that would be seen as undermining the president's pledge to work toward nuclear disarmament.
But, on Monday, the Guardian reported that Obama is putting his foot down. According to the newspaper, "Obama has rejected the Pentagon's first draft of the Nuclear Posture Review as being too timid, and has called for a range of more far-reaching options consistent with his goal of eventually abolishing nuclear weapons altogether." It quotes a European source saying, "Obama is now driving this process. He is saying these are the president's weapons, and he wants to look again at the doctrine and their role." The article was short on specifics, but it said that Obama wants the ability to maintain a nuclear arsenal "measured in the hundreds" and to make doctrinal changes via the NPR that will reduce the number of missions for which we contemplate the use of nuclear arms. (Because of policies put in place by the Bush administration, the portfolio of missions for using nuclear arms is both broad and vague: We require them to be available for use in almost any situation--an approach that increases the number of weapons we need to keep available.) Additionally, the Guardian reported that Obama wants to assure our nuclear arsenal's reliability "without testing or producing a new generation of nuclear weapons."
Of course, that leaves a lot of wiggle room. The administration was already planning to reduce the U.S. arsenal to around 1,500 nuclear warheads and fewer than 1,100 delivery vehicles, as part of the "New START" talks with the Russians--and "measured in the hundreds" could, of course, mean 999. Likewise, the doctrinal changes and any eventual compromise on refurbishing our nuclear arsenal could be far less dramatic than the Guardian makes them sound.
Yet none of that obscures the importance of the fact that Obama is now acting directly to alter the U.S. nuclear posture. Unlike health care or climate change, U.S. nuclear policy is an intensely presidential issue: Throughout history, major changes to America's nuclear stance have almost always been the result of direct presidential engagement. Unless the commander-in-chief gives a direct order to alter our nuclear posture, bureaucratic inertia reigns, as it did when President Clinton's 1994 Nuclear Posture Review essentially froze the cold war status quo for another 15 years. When the president does decide to change course, however, he doesn’t have to ask anyone for permission.
Of course, the Europeans know this, as do the rest of the delegates who will listen to Obama's planned speech about nuclear non-proliferation at this week's meeting of the United Nations Security Council. That's probably the point of the timely leak to the Guardian, which undermines the negative coverage regarding the Nuclear Posture Review and allows Obama to take credit at the U.N. for trying to reduce America's reliance on nuclear arms.