Will the Pentagon thwart Obama's dream of nuclear disarmament?

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Aug. 21 2009 4:14 PM

Will the Pentagon Thwart Obama's Dream of Zero?

How serious is the president about nuclear disarmament?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Barack Obama dreams of Zero. A world without nuclear weapons. None. Zero. The nuclear lions will lie down with the non-nuclear lambs and hope that there are no nuclear wolves hoarding or hiding the deadly devices out there in the darkness. Meanwhile, though, the decisive question—whether this is merely a dream, merely rhetoric—will depend on how seriously the Pentagon's nuclear commanders take what is, in effect, a mandate to zero themselves out. And there are indications that more forceful direction from the White House is needed if they are to transform Obama's Zero from dream to reality.

Obama put Zero on the map at the very beginning of his presidency. In an April speech in Prague, he spoke of a desire for "a world without nuclear weapons." And when he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in July, the two leaders agreed to deep reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and launchers each country keeps at hand, renewing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that had been due to expire at the end of this year.

But there have been recent indications of "pushback" against Obama by generals in the nuclear chain of command, not so much on reducing the numbers of missiles but on their alert status and on the flawed "command and control" system that makes us vulnerable to accidental nuclear war.

How seriously does what you might call the nuclear-industrial complex take Obama's goal of Zero? I recently attended a large convocation of the nuclear establishment in Omaha, Neb., near the headquarters of STRATCOM, the United States Strategic Command.

The event was called "The First Annual Strategic Deterrence Conference," and I learned about it at the last minute from Bruce Blair, one of the founders of the privately funded "Global Zero Initiative," which recently unveiled its "action plan" to zero out nukes by 2030. So I dropped everything to get to Omaha, because I'm writing a book about the new nuclear landscape, including the dream of Zero.

But Zero wasn't a focus of the program. There were seven panels of heavyweight generals and admirals and top-of-the-line think-tankers, almost all of them devoted to strengthening and lengthening the life of our nuclear-deterrent weapons. In the midst of 14 hours of nukes-are-our-future panels, the conference squeezed in one speaker—a Baltimore archbishop—who was allowed to make a half-hour talk on "Nuclear Weapons and Moral Questions: the Path to Zero." If any swords were beaten into ploughshares after he spoke I must have missed it.

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When I say I'm sensing reluctance from the nuclear-industrial complex to get with the Zero program of the president, I am not suggesting we're headed for the scenario of the classic Cold War thriller Seven Days in May, in which a cabal of generals plots a coup against a president who signs a disarmament treaty with the Russians (and in which Burt Lancaster, as the sinister coup leader, turns in a great performance).

But I am concerned that we will lose the chance to make a historic turning point in our nuclear history, that Obama's Zero will sink into a bureaucratic swamp of inertia, inanition, and passive-aggressive neglect from long-entrenched interests who see the move toward Zero as their own "death panel." Their opposition may well grow out of a sincere desire to protect the nation, but they may not be the most objective judges or managers of the path to Zero.

Obama has a car czar; he needs a Zero czar if he's serious.

I should note first, of course, that I don't know whether Obama's Zero will ever be possible or practical or even morally desirable. Will the absence of nuclear deterrence increase the death toll from conventional wars? It's certainly hard to imagine the moment—which even Obama said might not happen "in my lifetime"—when the last nuke on earth is handed over for destruction. I tend to find myself in agreement with a line I believe I read on the highly informative Armscontrolwonk.com blog: The hardest part of arms reduction will be not getting down to zero but getting down to 10.

Nonetheless, it's huge news—or should be—that the president of the United States has set out zero nukes as a goal. (Yes, there's some argument lately about how serious Ronald Reagan was when he spoke fondly of abolishing nukes toward the end of his second term, but he was never serious enough about it to give up on Star Wars, his unattainable space-based defense darling.) But now that we have a president, a commander in chief ensconced in Washington, who says he's not just a nuclear reductionist but a nuclear abolitionist—someone who could make the goal of Zero more than a dream or a photo op—it's begun to seem like Zero is going nowhere. Where are the interagency working groups? (I never thought I'd be asking that question.)

He has yet to mobilize the Defense and State department bureaucracies by, for instance, issuing a presidential policy directive on the national security strategy of the United States. A recent, valuable pamphlet from the Federation of American Scientists and the National Resources Defense Counsel ("From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence") offers Obama a model Presidential Policy Directive that would light a fire under the responsible departments.

Or, if he's really serious about Zero, he could task out the bold but specific steps of the Global Zero Initiative's "Action Plan" to get to Zero by 2030.

It's ironic that while the Pentagon bureaucracy and much of the Washington establishment has shown little interest in engaging in the Zero question, almost condescendingly taking the attitude of "let him dream; we'll be here long after he's gone," some of the toughest, most hawkish Cold warriors have astonishingly—to me, anyway—begun signing on to Zero as a realistic option in the new nuclear age.

It began in January 2007 with a now famous (in nuke-wonk circles) op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signed by a covey of hard-line Cold warriors, including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

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