Monday, September 21, 2009
Obama faces battle with Pentagon hawks to achieve nuclear-free goal
Military chiefs argue that cuts in America's arsenal would spur proliferation Julian Borger guardian.co.uk, Sunday 20 September 2009 23.56 Five months ago in Prague, Barack Obama used one of his first foreign policy speeches to call for a world free of nuclear weapons. Ever since then the White House has been engaged in a race to turn that declaration into real-world policy. The first obstacle is the Pentagon. According to officials with knowledge of the inter-agency bargaining, the US defence department produced a draft nuclear posture review that did not just fall short of Obama's vision. In some ways it appeared to be moving in the opposite direction. The current Pentagon take on US nuclear doctrine envisages maintaining a stockpile of thousands of weapons for the foreseeable future, partly in the name of "extended deterrence". Supporters of that doctrine argue that without a large arsenal, allies abroad will lose confidence in Washington's willingness and capacity to defend them from attack. The US currently has a deployed arsenal of some 2,600 warheads, with a 2,500-strong reserve and another 4,000 awaiting dismantlement. Significant cuts in the operational warheads would, the argument goes, lead countries like Japan to build a nuclear force of their own. Cuts would paradoxically spur proliferation. A recent British parliamentary delegation to Washington was surprised to be told in the Pentagon that Britain was one of those countries that would lose faith in the transatlantic alliance if the stockpiles were cut, even though British policy is to encourage those cuts. The Pentagon, under the leadership of the defence secretary, Robert Gates, is also wedded to the idea of building a new generation of warheads, arguing that only that can guarantee that US nuclear weapons will work, and so allow for deeper cuts and a permanent ban on tests. The arms control teams in the White House and state department, led by Gary Samore and Ellen Tauscher respectively, argue that there are other ways of ensuring reliability, and that developing new nuclear weapons is the worst possible sign to send to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conference next year. Joseph Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund which sponsors debate on nuclear policy, said Obama was not just up against existing doctrine, but against a huge industry. "There is $54bn spent [annually in the US] on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programmes. That's a lot of contracts and a lot of jobs, and right now it's a battle for budgets," Cirincione said. "The new weapons programmes are seen as a way of guaranteeing funding and jobs in the infrastructure. Obama is trying to convince [the weapons establishment] that he is going to look after them in ways other than building new weapons." This is a difficult time for Obama to enter a gruelling bureaucratic battle with the Pentagon, since he is already in a fight over troop deployments to Afghanistan. But his arms control advisers are aware they only have a narrow window of opportunity to bring about radical change before their agenda gets bogged down in Congress. "There's a strong commitment to live up to Obama's Prague speech, but Afghanistan is dragging all the oxygen out of the room," said a European official. The looming deadline is next May, when the world's government are supposed to come together to review the non-proliferation treaty, which has succeeded over the past four decades in keeping the number of nuclear weapons states in single figures. But with North Korea's departure from the treaty to build an arsenal, and rising suspicions over Iran's intentions, the NPT is under extreme pressure. If, as in 2005, May's review conference fails to find common ground between states with nuclear weapons and those who do not have them, many fear that the barriers to untrammelled proliferation could fall away. About a dozen Middle Eastern states are exploring the creation of civil nuclear power programmes, which will give them the option of building weapons at a later date. "If Obama can't rescue the NPT at this conference you might be looking at the end of the treaty," Cirincione said. "It's already on shaky ground. If you can't shore it up in 2010, you face the real possibility that it won't be there in 2015." Iran led the resistance to new anti-proliferation measures in 2005, rallying developing countries behind the claim that the weapons states were trying to impose double standards – keeping their weapons while denying nuclear technology to the have-not nations. The strategy being pursued by Obama, with the support of Gordon Brown, is to make such significant strides towards disarmament that Iran can no longer credibly make that argument next May. "This is about isolating the Iranians, and denuding them of the arguments they made in 2005," a British official said. Stopping Iran's enrichment of uranium – which Tehran insists is for civil power generation and which the west alleges is ultimately for building a bomb – is an even harder task. Many officials in western capitals privately fear nothing can prevent the increasingly autocratic regime in Tehran from developing an arsenal, or at least the capacity to put together weapons at short notice. If diplomacy has any chance of succeeding, they say, it will have to backed up by the credible threat of international sanctions. That requires Russian backing, and one of the reasons Obama sacrificed US plans for missile defence in eastern Europe last week was to win that support. Whether he has succeeded may become clear in the next few days, as the focus shifts to the United Nations assembly in New York. A second treaty at stake is the comprehensive test ban treaty. But Obama's hopes of winning long-awaited Senate support for a treaty first agreed internationally more than 13 years ago, have had to be put on hold, at least until Congress has debated his healthcare reforms, the budget, and at least two other pending treaties, on the law of the sea and the International Criminal Court. US ratification of the test ban would be represent a significant step towards bringing it into force, but the White House says it will not bring the treaty to the floor of the Senate before it is sure of the 67 votes needed to ratify. Interviews blitz Facing a perfect storm of a week, as his big foreign policy challenges threaten to collide while his principal domestic healthcare problem remains unresolved, Barack Obama embarked on an unprecedented media blitz today, with five separate morning television interviews. During a marathon session in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Obama recorded interviews with CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and the Spanish-language network Univision. But he snubbed Rupert Murdoch's conservative-leaning Fox, which he accused earlier this year of being "entirely devoted to attacking my administration", prompting one Fox host to describe the administration as a bunch of "crybabies". In the interviews, Obama reprised the same themes - healthcare, Afghanistan and the need for a strategic review, race, the economy and prospects for resumed growth, Kim Jong-il and his apparent revival. ("He's reasserted himself".) Obama hasn't finished re-asserting himself though. His attempt to seize back the initiative will culminate tomorrow night in an encounter with the late night chat show host David Letterman, his first appearance on the show as president.