Flanking the Right on Nuclear Policy

Ponder the highlights of the Nuclear Posture Review, and you can't help but wonder: is there all that much that Republicans can complain about? Obama embraces the concept of missile defense as a deterrent against aggression in Europe (albeit as a way of reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent); his budget spends billions to modernize the nuclear stockpile; he did not significantly change America's so-called "declaratory policy" about when it will use nukes, and he resisted pressure from his left to make any bold unilateral concessions.

During the presidential campaign, Senators McCain and Obama were of one mind on nuclear policy: both supported a START follow-on treaty with Russia, and both supported Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.

Why does McCain matter? He jointly issued a statement with the Senate's hawkiest nuclear hawk, Sen. Jon Kyl, that tries to find objections to Obama's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

One by one, here is what McCain and Kyl have to say:

First, we are concerned about how the NPR will affect the nuclear modernization program that is required by law at the time the START follow-on agreement is submitted to the Senate. This plan must bring our nuclear weapons complex, our warheads, and our nuclear weapons delivery systems up to 21st century standards. The NPR appears to make it more difficult to use the 'spectrum of options' (i.e., refurbishment, reuse, and replacement) recommended by the Perry-Schlesinger Commission to enhance the reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. We expect the Administration will not take any option off the table to ensure the military and the directors of the national laboratories are able to maintain the safety, security and reliability of the current stockpile. We will evaluate this carefully in the coming weeks, including when we see the modernization plan required by law at the time the START follow-on treaty is submitted to the Senate.

Actually, the Obama NPR does the opposite. Even though Obama has declared the so-called "Reliable Replacement Warhead" program dead, his NPR resurrects it as an option. Each weapons system and warhead will be evaluated individually and a solution that draws from one of the three options -- refurbishment, reuse, or replacement -- will be utilized.

Thomas D'Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and keeper of the nation's weapons, said that the "replacement" option would not include new warhead designs, warheads that would support new missions or provide enhanced military capabilities.  But that's status quo ante; the Senate wouldn't fund any program that did that. In fact, Obama's NPR makes it possible for the one design that was approved under the now-dead "RRW" program to be utilized in the future, provided that they don't enhance the productivity of a weapon.

Moreover, the amount of money committed to this in the FY11-15 budget window - the $5 billion budget transfer referenced by Defense Secretary Gates, spread over five years - is woefully inadequate to bring our Manhattan Project-era facilities up to date and do the work necessary to enhance the reliability and extend the life of our warheads, all while maintaining the current stockpile. This funding insufficiency must be corrected. 

This is spurious. No one would have anticipated that the administration would be spending a billion dollars a year to modernize its stockpile. The folks who actually do this stuff requested more money, and they got it -- a lot more.

Second, the U.S. has had a longstanding policy, embraced by administrations of both parties, of retaining all options to respond to an attack on it or its allies by any state using weapons of mass destruction. In fact, one reason that we got rid of chemical and biological weapons is that we were told that we would always have the nuclear deterrent available. Unfortunately, the NPR released today confuses this longstanding policy. The Obama Administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies. 

The administration explicitly retains the right to put the nuclear option back on the table if a non-nuclear country violates its treaty obligations, or it stands up its conventional, biological or chemical weapon capacities in a way that threatens the U.S. and its allies. The NPR contains that self-exonerating flip. The nuclear option remains on the table.

"Third, the NPR states 'today's most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism. Today's other pressing threat is nuclear proliferation.' We believe that preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation should begin by directly confronting the two leading proliferators and supporters of terrorism, Iran and North Korea. The Obama Administration's policies, thus far, have failed to do that and this failure has sent exactly the wrong message to other would be proliferators and supporters of terrorism."

Number one, North Korea does not support nuclear terrorism. A minor point, but a distinction that matters. (It does support proliferation.) Number two, the administration is convening a summit next of 47 nations who will work on precisely this problem. The NPR's reliance on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is predicated on strengthening the Treaty's penalties for non-compliant states. Number three, it is actively pressing China and Russia to support sanctions against Iran and hasn't ruled out imposing tougher sanctions with Europe alone (whatever that would accomplish). Number four, "directly confronting" means -- what, exactly? War? Say it aloud, senators, if that's what you intend.

Whether the administration should have taken a tougher position against Iran, in particular, is a legitimate point of debate. But it has nothing, really, to do with what the NPR says now -- which would very much seem to imply that nothing but hard positions will be taken by the administration in the future.

The RRW program isn't being revived, but the administration is giving weapons scientists a significant degree of leeway -- far more than Republicans would have expected, though quite in keeping with the overall political objectives of the administration: get START and the test-ban treaty ratified. (They won't have the votes unless Congress is convinced that the deterrents we have now are credible -- that is, the weapons we have now are able to be used for their missions.)

Objection two: