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The New Nuclear Consensus?


Defense Secretary Robert Gates discusses the Nuclear Posture Review at the Pentagon on Tuesday. (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

The beginning of the new Washington consensus on nuclear strategy, embodied by Tuesday’s release of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, began, ironically, with an October 2008 speech that presented a notably different view.

[Security1] A week before the presidential election, Robert Gates, the Bush administration’s well-respected defense secretary, admonished a gathering at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank with an arms-control bent, about the continued need for a robust nuclear deterrent. “Rising and resurgent powers, rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation, international terrorism — all demand that we preserve this ‘hedge,’” Gates said, defending an expansive series of roles and missions for the U.S. nuclear stockpile, including deterring chemical or biological-weapons attacks. Gates held out the prospect for building new nuclear weapons in the guise of modernizing the existing stockpile; gave short shrift to the idea of additional U.S. arms reductions; and even said there was “absolutely no way” to make such cuts without “either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” After all, Gates said, “we must be realistic about the world around us.”

Arms control advocates in the audience were horrified. “I was totally pissed at that speech,” recalled Joe Cirincione, now the president of the non-proliferation Ploughshares Fund. Gates appeared to be challenging the likely next president. “I thought, Obama is going to become president, and this is one of his top objectives!” But in retrospect, Cirincione added, “It turned out this was going to be a political asset for him.”

The new, 75-page Nuclear Posture Review effectively represents a repudiation of Gates’s 2008 speech by, among other administration officials, Robert Gates. Months of laborious interagency meetings and discussions — 80 of them, one participant counted off at a Pentagon press briefing Tuesday afternoon — resulted in a document that for the first time places the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and particularly their acquisition by terrorists, as the principle nuclear threat the U.S. faces. Contrary to the tone and content of Gates’ speech, the so-called NPR expressly forswears the use of nuclear weapons to retaliate against non-nuclear attacks by good-faith signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, perhaps the first time that U.S. nuclear doctrine has been explicitly tethered to compliance with an international treaty. And it pledges that the Obama administration will seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999.

Additionally, while it keeps both the nuclear stockpile and the “triad” of missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver nuclear weapons — though it pledges to cut the arsenal even further than a new treaty with Russia calls for — it embraces the sort of restrictions on the stockpile that Gates’ speech rejected. Or, in the words of Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Marine to helm the military command in charge of nuclear weapons, “No new testing, no new warheads… no new missions or capabilities.”

The NPR is a “concrete plan for implementing the presidential vision” of a nuclear-free world, said Bradley H. Roberts, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile-defense policy. Accordingly, the NPR “reduce[s] the number and role of nuclear weapons, while at the same time ensuring we maintain a safe, secure and effective deterrent as long as nuclear weapons remain relevant.”

Though it’s not without its caveats. At his press conference, Gates didn’t refer to his 2008 speech, nor did he show interest in dredging up differences between him and other members of the administration. Instead, he singled out Iran and North Korea as potential exemptions to the abandonment of U.S. nuclear retaliation for non-nuclear attack, since Iran has been repeatedly criticized by the International Atomic Energy Agency for insufficient compliance with the NPT and North Korea, now a nuclear power, withdrew from the treaty in 2003. “If you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator,” Gates said, “then all options are on the table.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added that the move was an “important step to reinvigorate” the NPT.

Similarly, the document states that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter attack, which has struck some arms-control experts as insufficient. “Giving nuclear weapons roles beyond deterring nuclear attack is both unnecessary and counterproductive, and we urge the administration to adopt a ‘sole purpose’ policy now rather than later,” Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a prepared statement.

Roberts conceded the dissatisfaction before downplaying it on a bloggers’ conference call in response to a question from TWI. “We were not prepared to endorse the statement of ‘sole purpose’ in this review, and that will be disappointing to some,” Roberts said. “On the other hand, those who wanted a concrete, pragmatic work plan to actually reduce nuclear dangers and to identify an agenda of activities that can be accomplished cooperatively internationally see a lot in this report. I would say we’ve had much more positive feedback on the latter point than we’ve had negative feedback on the former.”

That “concrete, pragmatic work plan to actually reduce nuclear dangers” is the sort of thing that Gates called for in 2008. And in both his press conference and in his forward to the NPR, he found points at which to implicitly reconcile his old comments with the new administration nuclear assessment. For one thing, Gates spoke of adversaries who attack the U.S. with chemical or biological weapons receiving a “devastating conventional military response,” an statement in line with his 2008 speech’s throwaway line that conventional U.S. weapons are also a powerful deterrent. (A line, incidentally, echoed by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday when ABC’s Jake Tapper asked about Gates’ 2008 speech.)

And for another, Gates wrote in the NPR’s introduction that a new $5 billion investment in the Department of Energy’s program to refurbish the nation’s nuclear infrastructure “represent[s] a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation’s deterrent.” So much for there being “absolutely no way” to cut the stockpile without new testing or new warheads.

For Cirincione, that line signaled Gates — considered in the press to be the last holdout to administration consensus on the NPR — has joined the fold. “That is a reversal of Bob Gates’ October 2008 speech, and this document puts the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff solidly behind ratification of the test-ban treaty,” he said, referring to the longtime arms-controller priority. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Pentagon press corps that the NPR was a “great product” that the “chiefs and I fully support.”

Key to that support was Cartwright, whose experience running U.S. Strategic Command apparently convinced him of the dubious military utility of nuclear weapons. “Cartwright is the man,” Cirincione said. “He’s the one who advises Mullen, who advises Gates, he’s the one [Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen] Tauscher’s close to. He’s the guy.” Adm. John Roberti, the deputy director for strategy and policy on the military’s Joint Staff, said that Cartwright’s “influence on the final decisions and the final product was felt throughout the process.”

Gates’ support for the NPR will likely signal to official Washington that the Obama administration’s cautious, gradual steps to the elimination of nuclear weapons is the new normal, not some wild-eyed progressive fantasy. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing about the document on April 22, and its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said in a statement that he was pleased it “balances a discussion of the nuclear triad with a strengthening of nonproliferation programs and commitments.”

Indeed, at his press conference, Gates effectively reprised a formulation used in his October 2008 speech — but this time, in defense of the administration’s approach to eventually junking nuclear weapons. “We recognized the need to make progress in the direction the president has set,” said Obama’s defense secretary, “but we also recognize the real world we continue to live in.”

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