That Team Obama might have seen a need to reassure was understandable. After the inspiring rhetoric of Prague, many arms-control advocates expected that the administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a broad statement of nuclear strategy that the last few administrations have produced, would be similarly bold. Instead, when it came out in April of last year, it re-stated the goal of zero but then went on endorse the status quo in several key areas.
Among other issues, the NPR declined to state, as arms-control advocates had urged that it should, that the sole purpose of the U.S. arsenal was to respond to a nuclear attack -- instead leaving open the possibility that the U.S. could be the first to use nukes in a conflict. And it recommended maintaining the U.S.'s traditional three-pronged combination of air-based, land-based, and sea-based missiles, disappointing those who think we could safely eliminate one of those with no cost to our global reach. Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, says the decision was "yet another shortcoming" of the NPR.
Opponents of reductions, by contrast, could barely contain their enthusiasm. Gen. Kevin Chilton, then the commander of Stratcom, called the NPR "a tremendously good-news story" for advocates of traditional Cold-War-era deterrence, adding that his team was "intimately involved" with the document's production. Schlesinger declared: "It is something of a gift that the NPR turned out to be as strong as it is."
Obama's team argues that moving more quickly could have backfired. "A very bold, overly aggressive arms-control agenda is one the Russians are not prepared for, is one our allies are not prepared for, and therefore isn't practical," one administration official says. The official refers to Obama's "balanced approach," designed to "take practical steps toward the long-term goal, while ensuring that deterrence remains effective."
But as Obama has at times discovered on domestic policy lately, when you're facing adversaries intent on thwarting you, a balanced approach can mean you end up conceding a lot. Traditionally, Senate ratification of major arms control treaties has been little more than a formality. But in exchange for Republican support for New START, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has been deeply skeptical of arms reductions, demanded that the White House put up $85 billion -- at a time of massive concern over the federal deficit -- to maintain and modernize some of the very weapons systems that many see as outdated and obsolete.
Not all arms-control advocates think that's a bad thing. "I think it actually helps you get to zero," Acton says. "It makes a world of low numbers a safer place, because it's harder for Russia to win an arms race."
But it certainly creates some strange optics, if nothing else. The new funding means that despite the president's call for a nuke-free world, we'll spend more under his administration to maintain our nuclear warheads than we did under President Bush -- a situation that Kimball, calls "incongruous."