Is Obama Pushing Unilateral Nuclear Cuts?

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Air Force Photo / Staff Sgt. Charles Larkin Sr.

A B-2 Spirit takes off from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

In the State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama is reportedly set to make nuclear arms a high-priority issue. In the wake of North Korea‘s nuclear-bomb test and Iran‘s continuing nuclear ambitions, he’s also planning to propose downsizing America’s own strategic nuclear forces.

Obama’s move against the U.S. nuclear deterrent, if true, is likely to stir great controversy, especially among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

For decades, Uncle Sam’s atomic arsenal has not just provided the nation with the ultimate insurance policy against nuclear or large-scale conventional attacks by foreign powers. It’s also extended a reassuring “nuclear umbrella” of shared security that’s encouraged Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other technologically-capable U.S. allies to forsake getting their own nukes, and thus actually provided a cornerstone for nuclear nonproliferation among democracies.

Indeed, the historical record shows that, in the absence of America’s nuclear umbrella, efforts like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 would have faced an extremely difficult, if not impossible, time advancing. And that is a nuclear-age paradox which arms controllers and disarmers have yet to deal with squarely.

However, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is now under siege.

Witness Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense—a nomination that is divisive due not only to the former Republican senator’s support for more deep cuts to defense spending, hostility or indifference to the U.S.-Israeli alliance, an offensive description of the pro-Israel community in the United States as “the Jewish lobby,” and opposition to any military option to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but also to his previously staunch advocacy for deep cuts to U.S. atomic arms in furtherance of global nuclear disarmament.

As senators critically pointed out many times during the confirmation hearing in late January, Hagel co-authored a controversial report for Global Zero in May 2012 urging the United States to make drastic cuts to its nuclear arsenal—potentially by unilateral means.  Global Zero is an international movement formed to aggressively advocate for “the elimination of all nuclear weapons” and, towards that end, the Hagel report is a veritable wish list for dyed-in-the-wool disarmament types—most notably, it calls for an overall reduction from roughly 1,550 deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads to only 450 deployed warheads.

No doubt, the Global Zero report’s recommendations are nothing new, but their elevation from the small circles of nuclear disarmament wonks to the Big Show of a cabinet nomination hearing is certainly a first.

Prior to the Senate hearing, the Hagel report’s co-authors and the larger Global Zero community apparently sensed the toxicity of their recommendations, and aggressively—some might say, disingenuously—tried to reframe the report’s main arguments. For example, the Hagel report clearly states that aggressive reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be “implemented unilaterally.” Unilateral nuclear reductions would mean that America disarms itself of nuclear armaments without a matching quid pro quo from another power, in this case Russia.

It’s a fringe concept that’s been rejected on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and, for now, the White House.

Even though the Global Zero report explicitly allows for unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions, the report’s co-authors nevertheless issued a public letter days before the hearing to distance themselves from their own claim. They wrote:  “Some have specifically asserted that the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report we co-authored with Hagel last year supports unilateral disarmament. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

But during the confirmation hearing, senators pointed out to Hagel how his co-authored report, in fact, featured as many as seven separate and distinct recommendations for potentially “unilateral” actions by the United States. Those included completely eliminating ICBMs from the so-called “nuclear triad,” terminating nuclear-armed B-52 long-range bombers, and slashing the number of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines and B-2 strategic bombers.  Moreover, the Hagel report added that these recommendations could be “implemented unilaterally,” like in a passage from page 18 that deserves to be quoted in full:

“The less good approach would be to adopt this agenda unilaterally.  A strong case can nevertheless be made that unilateral U.S. deep cuts [to its nuclear arsenal] and de-alerting coupled with strengthened missile defenses and conventional capabilities would not weaken deterrence in practical terms vis-à-vis Russia, China or any of the more plausible nation-state challengers that America may confront in the years ahead.  While preserving effective deterrence against all but non-state actors, unilateral steps would lay the groundwork for increasing security cooperation among the former Cold War adversaries and encourage them to consider comparable unilateral actions.”

As Hagel tried to square the circle and distance himself from the Global Zero report throughout the hearing, Senators called him out for his intellectual inconsistencies.  For example, Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said:

So here’s what I’m struggling with.  Why would you ever put your name on a report that is inherently inconsistent with what you’re telling us today, is that you’ve never been for unilateral disarmament as a possibility?…But of all the illustrations and of all the “coulds” you could pick, this report says that the president could implement these unilaterally; although that’s inconsistent with what you say is your position, yet you signed off on this.

While few expect Obama’s State of the Union speech to completely embrace the Hagel report for Global Zero, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are concerned that key elements of the report’s recommendations—such as unilateral U.S. reductions outside of a Senate-approved treaty—may resurface in the days to come.

It’s therefore worth recalling what Air Force General C. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command and is responsible for America’s nuclear operations, told reporters in August 2012:  “Regarding the Global Zero report, in my view we have the force size, force structure, and force posture today that we need for our national security needs.”

Robert Zarate is policy director at the non-profit Foreign Policy Initiative, an independent group pushing to maintain U.S. military strength. He previously worked on national security and foreign-affairs issues on Capitol Hill.