Nuclear policy matters, but the Nuclear Posture Review doesn't.

Military analysis.
March 3 2010 5:49 PM

How Important Is Obama's Nuclear Posture Review?

Nuclear policy matters, but the new document will be a side show.

Mushroom cloud.
Should we be concerned about Obama's nuclear strategy?

The once-great nuclear-arms debate is about to be shaken from its long, blissful slumber. A racket will ensue. You'd be wise to ignore it.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed. His 1983 history of the nuclear strategists, The Wizards of Armageddon, is still in print. He can be reached atwar_stories@hotmail.com.

Next month, the Obama administration will release its Nuclear Posture Review, a purportedly "seminal" document that, according to a New York Times story, will herald a new strategy on the use (or nonuse) of nuclear weapons, "permanently reduce" the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads, and "annul or reverse" several of George W. Bush's plans to build new nuclear armaments.

That's the buzz, anyway. Don't count on any of it.

This posture review, like the two before it (the first under Bill Clinton in 1994, the second under Bush in 2002), will almost certainly not result in anything new, even if it alleges otherwise. Even if President Barack Obama does pursue some new nuclear policies, this document will have had little to do with it.

Whatever fuss the review kicks up, four facts are clear.

First, there is no substantial constituency, in Congress or elsewhere, to build any new U.S. nuclear weapons, nor has there been for decades.

Second, Obama has already said that he wants to slash the nuclear arsenal. There is no rational basis for not slashing it, but whether that happens will not be determined by the conclusions of an executive review.

Advertisement

Third, whatever Obama says about the circumstances under which he'd use nuclear weapons (for instance, were he to say that he'd never use them first), there is no reason for other world leaders to believe him or to assume that some future president might view the matter differently.

Fourth, however deeply the United States and Russia cut their nuclear arsenals, the move won't dissuade other nuclear wannabes from pursuing arsenals of their own.

In other words, whatever this document ends up saying (and, apparently, there's still some internal debate on the fine points), it is unlikely to be a game-changer.

Let's take the points, one by one.

First: George W. Bush did try to transform the equation to flesh out some notions first trotted out, but only vaguely, in the Reagan administration—that nukes were just another kind of weapon and that nuclear war was winnable. He used the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review to articulate these fantasies.

That document was classified, but portions of it leaked, among them these jaw-droppers: "Nuclear weapons … provide credible military options to deter a wider range of threats. … Greater flexibility is needed with respect to nuclear forces and planning than was the case during the Cold War. … Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities."

To back up these ideas, Bush or his underlings in the Pentagon proposed building a new generation of low-yield nuclear bombs, nuclear bunker-busters, and a program called the Reliable Nuclear Warhead, which was purported to be merely a way to ensure that the aging stockpile still worked but which in fact included many upgraded features. The point of all these programs was to destroy the "nuclear taboo"—to insinuate nukes into the arsenal of usable, useful weapons.

A front-page story in the Feb. 28 New York Times reported that Obama's Nuclear Posture Review would "annul or reverse" all these Bush initiatives. The thing is, though, there's nothing to annul or reverse. Every year that Bush put these programs in the budget, Congress took them out or slashed their funding to nearly nothing—even when Republicans controlled both houses. The programs never got off the drawing board, and so neither did the revolutionary provisions of Bush's nuclear review. One useful thing Obama's review could—and almost certainly will—do is to declare, unequivocally, that the 2002 review does not reflect U.S. policy. But it never really did, anyway.

Second: Obama is reportedly using the posture review to formalize the "joint understanding" of a follow-on to the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This understanding, signed last July by Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev (as a principle, not a commitment), would cut the number of each side's "strategic delivery vehicles"—the long-range missiles and bombers that carry nuclear weapons—from 1,600 to 800 and each side's operational bombs and warheads from 2,200 to 1,500.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 31 2014 12:02 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Staff writer Alison Griswold shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.