Nukes Will Be Obama’s Legacy

Barack Obama

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June 03, 2016 23:35 EDT

Obama’s approach to nukes will be his most significant legacy—as well as his most salient failure.

Of all the accomplishments and disappointments of the Obama presidency, his nuclear weapons policy is the greatest. Yes, you read that correctly. Barack Obama’s approach to nukes will be his most significant legacy as well as his most salient failure. Obama promised “hope and change” in 2007. The paradox of his nuclear weapons policy is that it falls somewhere between these aspirational poles of his presidency.

Consider, for instance, two highlights of Obama’s tenure: Prague and Hiroshima.

On April 5, 2009, only several months into his first term, President Obama gave a speech in Prague embracing the agenda of nuclear disarmament. His remarks were not particularly radical. But it was the first time that a sitting US president had committed the country to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, albeit with no specific deadline attached.

The speech meandered across several topics—human rights, Europe, NATO. But halfway through, Obama pivoted to the dangers of nuclear weapons. “If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable,” the president declared, and then went on to challenge that very inevitability. “Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Behind this speech lay a profound shift in the US establishment’s understanding of nuclear weapons. Once a cornerstone of US security policy, nukes had become, on balance, a profound liability.

So-called rogue states and unpredictable non-state actors were now players in the nuclear game, and they wouldn’t necessarily abide by the same rules of deterrence that (barely) kept the Nuclear Five (the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) from using their arsenals. Nonproliferation was no longer sufficient. Even Cold War hawks Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (along with Sam Nunn and William Perry) declared that nuclear disarmament was to America’s geopolitical advantage—indeed, they’d done so a full two years before President Obama took his step forward in Prague.

Jump to last week in Hiroshima. The president is nearing the end of his second term. Against the advice of some Japan hands in the administration, Obama decided to visit the site of the first use of atomic weaponry in history. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped a single atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing over 60,000 people immediately (and more than 70,000 subsequently through radiation poisoning). Obama was very clear that the visit did not constitute an apology for US actions, even though conservative critics like John Bolton were quick to label the trip part of the president’s “shameful apology tour.”

In Hiroshima, Obama reiterated his call for the elimination of nuclear weapons: destroying stockpiles and preventing the spread of nuclear material. In remarks as eloquent as any of his best speeches, he said: “We must change our mindset about war itself — to prevent conflict through diplomacy, and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun; to see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition; to define our nations not by our capacity to destroy, but by what we build.” From Prague to Hiroshima, the president’s line on nuclear weapons has been clear, consistent and forceful.


Nor will Obama’s legacy on nuclear weapons be defined solely by his rhetoric. His signature foreign policy accomplishment has been a deal with Iran that eased economic sanctions in exchange for freezing and rolling back that country’s potential for building a nuclear weapon.

The agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—is a triumph of diplomacy over war preparations. It continues to encounter fierce opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress. Yet it stands as a remarkable achievement of nonproliferation.

The embrace of disarmament as a national goal, the fine words about the futility of nuclear war and the agreement with Iran: These are the items that press down on one side of the scale.

But the other side is weighed down at least as much. After all, the doomsday clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists stands as close to midnight in 2016 as at any point in the last 60 years. A mere three minutes separate humanity from extinction, which is also where the clock stood in 1984, one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. When Obama took office, the clock showed a somewhat more comfortable five minutes to midnight.

With all the major threats facing mankind at the moment—from climate change to political extremism—it would be a great relief to retire nuclear holocaust as a clear and present danger. Unfortunately, as the doomsday clock dramatically demonstrates, that’s not possible. And Barack Obama, despite his fine words and occasional actions, deserves at least part of the blame.

Back to The Day After?

Let’s start with START. The Obama administration made a big push for a reset of relations with Russia, with arms control treaties as proof of rekindled affections. The Bush administration had failed to conclude a START II treaty on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals largely because of its overriding determination to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) and move forward on building missile defense systems. The Obama administration attempted to reverse that trend. The New START treaty was supposed to be just the first of a set of arms control initiatives. It sharply limited the number of strategic nuclear warheads that both the US and Russia could maintain—from 31,000 at the peak of the Cold War to 1,550 for each side.

That sounds good. But in a recent report, the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) concluded that “the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile less than any other post-Cold War administration, and that the number of warheads dismantled in 2015 was lowest since President Obama took office.”

In Hiroshima, Obama reiterated his call for the elimination of nuclear weapons: destroying stockpiles and preventing the spread of nuclear material.

In September 2015, according to newly declassified information, the US stockpile of warheads stood at 4,571. That’s a lot more than the ceiling established by New START. The treaty only counts deployed warheads, and both sides actually have until February 2018 to get those numbers down to 1,550. But Washington is moving at a glacial pace.

“To be fair, it is not all President Obama’s fault,” Hans Kristenson of FAS concedes. “His vision of significant reductions and putting an end to Cold War thinking has been undercut by opposition ranging from Congress to the Kremlin. An entrenched and almost ideologically opposed Congress has fought his arms reduction vision every step of the way. And the Russian government has rejected additional reductions while New START is being implemented.”

The other problem with New START is that President Obama had to give an enormous gift to his congressional opposition simply to get the treaty approved—or, at least, he thought he did. Obama wooed the likes of Jon Kyl, a conservative Arizona senator, who said he’d support the treaty if it included a little sweetener for the nuclear industry. As I wrote in 2011:

“Kyl sold his ‘support’ for the treaty by insisting that an $85 billion modernization of the U.S. nuclear complex be included in the package. It might seem odd that the party that purports to prohibit pork endorsed the biggest BBQ blow-out of them all: a 10-year obligatory upgrade in the very systems that we’re supposed to eliminate.

“OK, fair enough. Politics is a game of give-and-take. Kyl … managed to get a good deal for himself. But here’s the ugly part. After practically gutting New START, Kyl worked overtime to defeat the treaty!” 

Kyl is no longer in the Senate. But his modernization plan lives on. In fact, it’s metastasized into a nearly $1 trillion program over a 30-year period. Sure, given reports of a decrepit network of labs and manufacturing facilities, funds for some upgrade of the nuclear complex make sense. You don’t want the most dangerous weapons in the world to be housed in substandard accommodations. But the modernization plan goes way beyond any reasonable concerns for safety.

For instance, the administration plans five new warhead types that fly in the face of Obama’s promise not to promote any new nukes. The first of these, the B61 Model 12, is more accurate and lower yield. But it’s precisely these characteristics that might make a president and his generals more likely to use them tactically—that is, in a battlefield environment as opposed to an all-out nuclear exchange. Short of actual tactical use, the new warheads will inevitably inspire Russia and China to modernize their arsenals accordingly.

Proponents of the modernization program—and the new nukes—argue that they will permit the US to get rid of old Cold War-era weapons and thereby reduce arsenals more quickly. But as William Broad and David Sanger point out: “That argument, though, is extremely long term: Stockpile reductions would manifest only after three decades of atomic revitalization, many presidencies from now. One of those presidents may well cancel the reduction plans — most of the candidates now seeking the Republican nomination oppose cutbacks in the nuclear arsenal.”

Then there’s the strategic triad. The US nuclear capability consists of three delivery options: strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear missiles circulating at sea in submarines. A few years back, when it looked as though the Pentagon was going to have to tighten its belt as a result of threatened across-the-board sequestration cuts, the administration began to look into shifting to a nuclear dyad, possibly eliminating strategic bombers. But Obama has backed away from pushing this sensible nuclear game-changer or even supporting significant cuts in the obvious redundancies in these delivery systems.

OK, the administration hasn’t done so well on strategic arms control, the necessary steps on the way toward Obama’s promised goal of disarmament. It has, however, trumpeted its accomplishments in nonproliferation, beginning with the deal with Iran.

The JCPOA is indeed an important step forward. The agreement prevents Iran from restarting its program to acquire nuclear weapons, which all indicators point to its having suspended in 2003, for 10-15 years.

The problem is in how the US is fulfilling its side of the bargain. Iran is expected to be able to reengage with the global economy. But many US sanctions against Iran remain in place, including those preventing US banks from interacting with the country. European banks, wary of even inadvertently violating US sanctions, have not been extending credit to potential investors in the Iranian economy.

Some of the fault lies with Iranian companies that don’t meet international transparency standards. But accounting firms and similar third-party service providers are also reluctant to help Iranian firms comply with these standards. And this is where the Obama administration is not stepping in to reassure these providers that their activities will not, if conducted within certain parameters, violate the remaining sanctions.

On top of that, opponents continue to come up with new ways of undermining the nuclear accord. Congress has proposed new sanctions. It’s tried to push through a new “visa waiver” provision that could potentially make travel to the US more difficult for Iranians and non-Americans who’ve visited Iran. And the Republican governor of Texas has pledged to resist President Obama’s request to states to follow the JCPOA by lifting sanctions.

Those who follow nonproliferation agreements might be experiencing some heavy-duty déjà vu.

A similar kerfuffle arose after the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, in which the latter expected more immediate progress on the building of two light-water nuclear reactors and the fast-tracking of economic and political engagement, both of which suffered from congressional opposition. The collapse of the Agreed Framework resulted from a lack of good faith on both sides (including North Korea’s secret pursuit of uranium enrichment).

But even though the George W. Bush administration eventually reversed its approach toward Pyongyang, pursuing both bilateral and multilateral negotiations to re-freeze the north’s nuclear program, the Obama administration failed to quickly follow up on these initiatives in the critical months after the transition. As a result, North Korea went on to conduct three additional nuclear tests, confirming its claims of entering the nuclear club.

So, the Obama administration won one with Iran and lost one with North Korea. In the nonproliferation game, a .500 batting average is actually not very good at all.

The administration has tried to compensate by making a big deal out of its biennial nuclear security summits: first in Washington in 2010, then in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014, before returning to DC this year. Instead of pushing a disarmament program, however, the National Security Strategy (NSS) has focused on the threat of nuclear terrorism and keeping nuclear material out of the hands of “irresponsible” actors.

Yet even on these narrower goals, the administration comes up short. When the administration had the opportunity to support discussions to construct a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, it bowed to pressure from the one nuclear power in the region, Israel, to block the proposal.

It’s been 33 years since the movie The Day After appeared on television, drawing a huge audience to its tale of nuclear war between the two Cold War rivals and its horrifying consequences. The reappearance of this landmark TV event on a recent episode of the Cold War drama, The Americans, should have elicited a collective sigh of relief from today’s viewers: “Ah, those poor worrywarts of the 1980s!”

Instead, we’re left wondering if that much has changed, after all. The TV shows have become more sophisticated. Our nuclear policy hasn’t.

Passing the Nuclear Football

Kissinger and Shultz supported disarmament to keep nukes out of the hands of crazies. Everyone assumed that they were worried about foreign leaders. But what about lunatic American presidents?

If the American people suffer a collective breakdown and elect someone with a screw loose, it would be best not to have a nuclear football to hand off. And yet now we are facing this potential Dr. Strangelove scenario, with plenty of nukes remaining in the US arsenal for Donald Trump to play with.

The other likely choice on the ballot in November, Hillary Clinton, has taken nearly every opportunity to demonstrate her hawkish credentials—in her 2008 run against Obama, as secretary of state and in the debates with Bernie Sanders. Still, she has a marginally better position on nuclear issues than even Obama. She backs the Iran agreement. She supports further arms control negotiations with Russia and negotiating with North Korea. She might even oppose the $1 trillion nuclear modernization program.

Given her general cautiousness, however, Clinton will probably not buck the nuclear industrial complex. She is, after all, the consummate establishment politician. She will likely maintain Obama’s general approach to nukes. But given Obama’s decidedly mixed record, that’s just not good enough.

*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Juli Hansen /

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