Why Obama Can't End Nukes

For many years, America's master plan for nuclear war with the Soviet Union was called the SIOP—the Single Integrated Operational Plan. Beginning in 1962, the U.S. president was given some options to mull in the few minutes he had to decide before Soviet missiles bore down on Washington. He could, for instance, choose to spare the Soviet satellites, the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. Or he could opt for, say, the "urban-industrial" strike option—1,500 or so warheads dropped on 300 Russian cities. After a briefing on the SIOP on Sept. 14, 1962, President John F. Kennedy turned to his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and remarked, "And they call us human beings."

Ever since the dawn of the atomic age at Hiroshima in August 1945, American presidents have been trying to figure out how to climb off the nuclear treadmill. The urgency may have faded in the post–Cold War era, but the weapons are still there. By 2002, President George W. Bush was signing off on a document containing his administration's Nuclear Posture Review, an -analysis of how America's nuclear arms might be used. Bush scribbled on the cover, "But why do we still have to have so many?" According to a knowledgeable source who would not be identified discussing sensitive national-security matters, President Obama wasn't briefed on the U.S. nuclear-strike plan against Russia and China until some months after he had taken office. "He thought it was insane," says the source. (The reason for the delay is unclear; the White House did not respond to repeated inquiries.)

During his presidential campaign, Obama embraced a dream first articulated by President Reagan: the abolition of nuclear weapons. The idea is no longer all that radical. In January 2007, an op-ed piece calling for a nuclear-weapons-free world appeared in The Wall Street Journal, signed by Reagan's secretary of state George Shultz; Nixon's and Ford's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger; Clinton's secretary of defense Bill Perry; and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and longtime wise man of the defense establishment. "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," as they were quickly dubbed, had gotten together to give cover to politicians. "We wanted the candidates of both parties to feel they could debate the issue freely," said Nunn.

So when Obama joined the cry for a world without nukes in his campaign, he wasn't taking a big political chance. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, did not seem to disagree. And yet, accomplishing this goal—or even taking some meaningful steps toward it—makes health-care reform look easy. As president, Obama the idealist has had to become Obama the realist: working for a nuclear-free world tomorrow, but at the same time, and at great cost, keeping up America's nuclear forces today.

In a speech in Prague last spring, Obama noted that "in a strange turn of history, the threat of global war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He warned that with more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, or wishing to, the scary but oddly stable reign of "mutual assured destruction" was giving way to a new disorder. "As more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold." Obama stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But, he added, "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime." And he threw in an important caveat: "Make no mistake. As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."

Nuclear policy will be front and center for Obama this spring, but in a way that may reveal more about limits than possibilities. On April 8, the president will sign an arms-control treaty with Russia that will set limits on numbers of warheads and launchers, lower than any previously agreed. Progress, to be sure. But it's not entirely clear that a polarized Congress will find the two-thirds majority to ratify the treaty. Its most impassioned opponent, Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, is already demanding to know whether the "New START" treaty represents "a new era in arms control or unilateral disarmament." For their part the Russians are still smarting from perceived humiliations at the end of the Cold War and are increasingly dependent on nuclear weapons as their conventional forces wither. They seem unlikely to go much further in cutting their arsenal.

The prospect of nuclear proliferation is anxiety-inducing for all presidents, especially as terrorists try to get their hands on loose nukes. Obama is convinced that nuclear terrorism now poses a greater threat than the remote possibility of a nuclear war. On April 12 and 13, he will host a Washington summit of more than 40 heads of government with the aim of getting tougher measures to secure the fissile material still lying unprotected around the world. He's set a deadline of four years for truly securing the most dangerous materials. His own advisers suspect he is being overambitious but see the summit as a "consciousness-raising exercise." Every five years, the signers of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meet to review progress, and in May they will meet again. The Obama team hopes to use the conference to push his no-nukes agenda, but he will be resisted by countries, like Iran, that resent American power. At the same time, Obama can't cut America's arsenal as much as he might like. Countries long under U.S. nuclear protection, like Japan, may decide they need their own nuclear arms as American power declines in the world. Countries choosing to stay under the nuclear umbrella will want reassurances that they can depend on it.

Obama's dream of a nuke-free world will encounter the stiffest resistance at home—from the people who make and safeguard nuclear weapons. America's nuclear systems are aging, raising questions about the reliability of bombs, planes, and missiles. The U.S. Senate never ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and though the White House has talked hopefully of getting a vote on the CTBT sometime in a first Obama term, congressional staff experts are skeptical. "The CTBT is going nowhere," says a staffer who declined to be named. "The Republicans are not going to go for it." The GOP rationale: the United States needs to at least preserve the option of testing the reliability of old weapons or developing new ones.

For the past 15 years, the United States has been pursuing what it calls "stockpile stewardship." Atomic labs have used elaborate computer simulations and chemical and physical testing to ascertain whether the aging bombs would still go off. But at some point, the older weapons may have to be seriously upgraded or replaced. The Obama administration is proposing to increase funding for nuclear-weapons work by some $5 billion over five years. The United States needs to train a new generation of nuclear-weapons scientists and build a new plant at Los Alamos to construct plutonium "pits," the fissile cores of U.S. warheads.

Some Obama supporters on the left are outraged. Last month in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a well-informed antinuke group, bitterly decried "one of the larger increases in warhead spending history." Even so, the sweeteners may not be enough. In January, the directors of America's three nuclear labs told Republicans in Congress that they couldn't be confident that stockpile stewardship would work indefinitely to guarantee America's arsenal.

Sometime this week, Obama is supposed to release a long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review. The hope is to lay out a "paradigm shift" in thinking—to move away from war planning and focus on steps toward a nuclear-free world. There will be ambitious plans to safeguard against proliferation, in part by strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency; by providing nuclear fuel to countries that need it (so they don't try to enrich their own uranium); and by better securing nuclear materials from reactors around the world used for research and medicine, ingredients that might be used to build a "dirty bomb."

These are all sensible steps. But on the question of what Obama will do with America's own nuclear weapons, the president is sure to fall shy of his ambitions. Obama has rejected calls to scrap one leg of the "triad" of U.S. nuclear forces: missiles, submarines, and bombers. He does want to get away from the alert status known as "prompt launch," so there is talk of "repositioning" U.S. forces so they could not be quickly taken out by surprise. (The old standards were "launch on warning" or "launch under attack." Obama wants to avoid any kind of hasty response.) But the United States is likely to keep some ICBMs on alert against a Russian or Chinese missile attack.

Obama will call for improved communications with the Russian leadership to avoid what are tactfully called "misperceptions." Obama is also un-likely to make a "no first use" pledge, though the wording will be fudged. The new members of NATO—former Soviet satellites like the Baltic states—would be aghast at any such promise. As for future reductions, the United States has already removed all battlefield nukes from Europe. The Russians have not. Obama's advisers are hoping to trade some of America's "reserve force" of intercontinental weapons for those Russian tactical weapons.

But Obama is still faced with the age-old question of targeting America's strategic weapons. Will American missiles be aimed at Moscow or Beijing—or Tehran? No, cities are off-limits. But even if the targets are military forces, millions would still die. Obama is still pondering the dilemma; the matter is said by administration officials to be under secret review.

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