Obama’s nuke deal with Russia: unprecedented but incomplete

As Politico has pointed out, the Obama administration has a tendency to describe their every action as "unprecedented." In the case of the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, this is actually true. Theoretically, the treaty agreed to by the Obama administration limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons. In practice, it will allow least 200 nuclear weapons in excess of the U.S. and Russian stockpiles permitted under the 2002 treaty signed by the Bush administration. The administration is laying claim to a 30 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons while actually permitting an increase in the force. This is unprecedented. 

The discrepancy comes from what each treaty actually limits.  The earliest treaties (SALT I and II) limited but did not reduce stockpiles, and established "counting rules" on the basis of how many warheads each system could deliver. The 1992 START Treaty was structured to give the Russians incentives to shift from fast-flying missiles to bombers. In the theology of nuclear deterrence, it is believed that "slow-flying" bombers are more stabilizing because a leader could reconsider the decision after launching, and the target country would have greater warning of an impending attack. So the 1992 Treaty gave generous discounts to bombers, counting the newer B-1 and B-2 bombers as a single weapon although they have the capacity to carry up to 20 warheads. The older B-52s that carry air-launched cruise missiles were counted at half their true capacity, so tallied as 10 warheads each. The Obama administration's new START treaty counts all bombers as a single nuclear weapon, leading the Federation of American Scientists to conclude that 450 U.S. warheads and 860 Russian warheads will be excluded from the count.

The administration sensibly wanted greater confidence the Russians are in control of their weapons and not cheating on the deal, but the Russians were evidently unwilling to agree to verification of their actual bomber warheads. The Obama administration very much wanted a strategic nuclear agreement in advance of the president's nuclear security summit, or at the very least, to demonstrate progress in advance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's review in May. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been holding out since December 2009 hoping the administration would make further concessions, so even if the administration were surprised by Medvedev's announcement that a deal had been reached, they were certainly relieved.

I'm tempted to cheer an arms control agreement that succeeds in increasing our latitude to retain what is already a small nuclear force, and to expand it modestly. We conservatives should commend the Obama administration for producing an advance in arms control agreements that no Republican president had achieved: An agreement that gives us more latitude than its predecessor! Except that there are two significant problems the Treaty doesn't deal with that our approach ought to address:

No. 1: Unlimited short-range nuclear weapons. As Frank Miller, George Robertson and I have written elsewhere, the Obama administration is missing a huge opportunity to engage the Russians in negotiations to reduce short-range nuclear weapons, which are wholly unconstrained. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has unilaterally reduced its nuclear forces by 90 percent, down to about 200 weapons, with no corresponding reductions in the Russian force. The Russians retain 5,400 tactical nuclear weapons. Yet some Obama administration officials have even encouraged the German government's irresponsible proposal for further unilateral NATO reductions (yet one more effort to shift greater burden from Germany onto other allies), without linking those reductions to any action to reduce the far larger Russian force.  Some even claim entering into TNF negotiations would make Congress less likely to ratify START. But this is exactly wrong -- as we move down to such low levels of strategic nuclear forces, the 5,400 tactical nuclear weapons in Russia's arsenal loom even larger as a circumvention of the strategic limits. Controlling tactical nuclear weapons would increase confidence in strategic nuclear reductions. The administration could help itself and the NATO alliance, and gain more of the credibility it so deeply desires at NPT conference, by proposing such a negotiation at the Talinn NATO Ministerial this spring.

No. 2: Constraints on conventional strike capability. Counting delivery vehicles rather than warheads themselves is also problematic because it places limits on some bombers and missiles we might use in conventional strikes. DOD's planned expansion of our non-nuclear "strategic" strike force plans to use long-distance precision strike to greater effect. It could be that nuclear-capable bombers are not envisioned to be used in conventional roles; but since the administration's nuclear posture review is not yet completed, it's impossible to tell. The administration needs to clarify its intentions on conventional strike. Constraints on delivery systems should not be allowed to impede U.S. conventional operations -- the canonical example of old weapons used to unexpected purposes being Eisenhower era bombers providing air support to special forces troops operating in small units in Afghanistan. Innovation is a crucial part of what makes the U.S. military so dominant, and it is questionable whether the limits imposed on nuclear forces in START outweigh the possible limits on our freedom of action for conventional strike assets. 

The Senate should strongly press the Obama administration on these issues as they determine whether or not to ratify the START treaty.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

National security policymaking in the White House ain't easy -- for anyone

Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.

The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:

  • On the one hand, a senior Obama official claims that the focus of the administration in the first year was fixing a broken system that allowed Vice President Cheney to circumvent the bureaucracy; money quote, "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."  On the other hand, my FP colleague David Rothkopf is quoted in the story as noting that: "Fairly or not, [NSC Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough has been perceived as representing a process that was taking place in another room, among the inner circle, at a table to which most weren't invited." McDonough is technically junior to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, but is widely viewed as much closer to the President and, as one official put it, "Instead of Jim Jones telling McDonough what the president thinks, it is the other way round."
  • On the one hand, a senior Obama official praises the process and Obama's due diligence: "When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment." On the other hand, the article reports a very different process for Obama's signature foreign policy priority of last Spring, the confrontation with Israel over the settlements issue: "In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama's demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama" I cannot recall a similar foreign policy issue that was handled in this fashion in the Bush era and, as a general matter, Karl Rove (Axelrod's Bush-era counterpart) played a far less prominent role on national security.

I was especially drawn to one further point in the story, a point that has not been contradicted in anything I have read or seen first-hand: the pace is grueling and it takes a personal toll on the national security and White House staff. This is not unique to the Obama administration and is something of a hardy perennial in Washington. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point, however, and the system has run at breakneck speed ever since. Even though President Obama has been more focused on domestic policy over the last year, the pace for the national security staff has not eased.  

A recent trip to Washington with the dual purpose of attending a reception honoring my former boss, Steve Hadley, and separately meeting with current national security officials put this issue in sharp relief for me. My friends from the Bush era, looking much better rested and healthier than I remember them appearing before, swapped stories of our time in the fox-hole. And my friends from the Obama era shared eerily similar stories with some of the very same complaints: outsiders just don't get it or get distracted by secondary trivialities. One current insider confided to me that when he reads outsider critiques of the Obama team, he is reminded of similar critiques he offered of the Bush team when he was in the shadow government. He thought some of my own analysis missed the boat and conceded that perhaps the same was true for some his earlier analysis of Bush decisionmaking.

That is a wise cautionary to remember. Those of us in the loyal opposition may have a better understanding than most about the travails and triumphs of the current team, but our perspective is limited. We should not be surprised to read internally contradictory accounts of what is going on behind the scenes. And we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt from time to time.