Why The Nuclear Review Is Delayed

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Confirming: the release of the long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review will be delayed well into March because the basic issue -- when, and why, the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, remains a contentious subject of debate.

"There are intense internal divisions over the core thrust of the NPR," an administration official said.

ForeignPolicy.com's Josh Rogin reported that Vice President Biden is at odds with Defense Secretary Robert Gates over the country's "declaratory policy," with "State somewhere in between."

Rogin is right. The State Department's nonproliferation shop, headed by Undersecretary Ellen Tauscher is in sync with the Vice President, while the regional bureaus, in particular the European and Eurasian affairs shop led by Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon and the East Asian/Pacific desk led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, are siding with the Defense Department, which wants little change to the declaratory policy.

Ironically, senior officials in the governments of countries like Japan and Germany have, in public and private, called for the U.S. to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in providing threat deterrence for their countries. But they face internal opposition from their defense establishments, and the U.S. State Department's regional desks are worried that changing the language would lead to a rapid deterioration in U.S. alliances with the countries.

It had been hoped that the NPR would be ready by March 1, a week and a half after Vice President Biden delivered a strong speech on nuclear security, purportedly highlighting the administration's unity. (The White House declined to comment.)

Currently, U.S. declaratory policy reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first -- to deter a significant and imminent threat, to the U.S. and its allies.  President Obama is said to want to declare that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons first -- and might not use them to counter to an attack by a country with only conventional weapons.

The complications are manifold, and the declaratory policy must account for the rapid upscaling of the effects of conventional weapons, as well as the potential use of chemical and biological warfare for first attacks. Arms control advocates want the administration to adopt a "sole purpose" declaration. That is, the administration would promise only to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks against itself or allies.

Even if an agreement is reached on language, it will be moot unless it results in changes to the nuclear force readiness structure -- war plans, targeting scenarios, and the like -- all of which will be classified, even though the review itself will be published.  The debate may well be about how the Defense Department will operationalize the declaratory policy changes that President Obama's National Security Staff seeks.

For many, this is akin to "how many angels dancing on a pinhead" type of theological debate, but it carries important signals to the international community on the value we place on our nuclear weapons and whether or not we are moving toward policies that de-emphasize their utility -- which can pave the road for further reductions.

The news of the delay comes on the same day that President Obama and his Russian counterparty Dimitry Medvevev spoke to try and resolve lingering differences about a strategic arms reduction treaty that is overdue for re-ratification. Russia wants to connect reductions -- these have been agreed to -- with promises by the U.S. to reduce its missile shield defenses in Europe. But the U.S. and Russian legislatures are not likely to approve a treaty that links the two -- hence the delay. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed a compromise -- a joint missile defense program for Europe. Russia does not seem to be enthusiastic about the idea.

Thumbnail photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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