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No Nuclear First-Strike?

The New York Times has a thorough overview of the Obama administration’s forthcoming nuclear-weapons policy. Anonymous administration officials tell the paper to expect “thousands” of weapons to be eliminated from the U.S. nuclear stockpile, commensurate with President Obama’s Prague speech outlining a nuclear-free world, and modernization of the remaining stockpile, sort of as a gambit to preempt calls for developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. As called for in the Quadrennial Defense Review issued last month by the Pentagon, the U.S. will develop missiles that carry a massive but non-nuclear explosive payload that give the president options for a huge, devastating strike that doesn’t cross the nuclear threshold.

But there’s still a debate about what the policy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, ought to say about military doctrine for the purpose and use of nuclear weapons. When the U.S. faced a nuclear-armed global adversary in the Soviet Union, there was general consensus that ambiguity about whether the U.S. would initiate a nuclear war benefited the greater cause of never fighting one, as the ambiguity created a more robust nuclear deterrent. Now, officials are wondering whether it makes sense to retain that ambiguity or changed global circumstances — and the need to hold the U.S. to the same non-nuclear standard it expects of the rest of the world — merit greater candor. Here’s how to tell what Obama will decide:

Some leading Democrats, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have asked Mr. Obama to declare that the “sole purpose” of the country’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attack. “We’re under considerable pressure on this one within our own party,” one of Mr. Obama’s national security advisers said recently.

But inside the Pentagon and among many officials in the White House, Mr. Obama has been urged to retain more ambiguous wording — declaring that deterring nuclear attack is the primary purpose of the American arsenal, not the only one. That would leave open the option of using nuclear weapons against foes that might threaten the United States with biological or chemical weapons or transfer nuclear material to terrorists.

Obama meets with Defense Secretary Robert Gates later today to discuss this and other issues.

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