Shadow Government

Obama's nuke review: A deft compromise or a muddled middle ground?

After a very long and tortuous process, the Obama administration has started to roll out the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) -- a comprehensive statement of the role of nuclear weapons in providing for American national security. The New York Times obliged the administration for an apparent exclusive presidential interview by hyping the NPR as "a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation's nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China." The Washington Post, playing catch-up, offered a much more measured lede: "A year after his groundbreaking pledge to move toward a "world without nuclear weapons," President Obama on Tuesday will unveil a policy that constrains the weapons' role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas."

For my money, I think the Post's take will prove to be the more accurate one, and the New York Times's own reporting seems to bear this out. Despite the extraordinary pressure President Obama faced from his left flank to live up to his Nobel prize-winning post-nuclear/anti-nuclear rhetoric, in fact the NPR steers for the middle ground.  

The Times/White House claim that the NPR is a "sharp shift" that focuses the arsenal for the first time on rogue proliferators rather than the major nuclear powers is belied by the fact that the Bush administration's 2002 NPR did the very same thing. Moreover, as the Times story notes:

In shifting the nuclear deterrent toward combating proliferation and the sale or transfer of nuclear material to terrorists or nonnuclear states, Mr. Obama seized on language developed in the last years of the Bush administration. It had warned North Korea that it would be held "fully accountable" for any transfer of weapons or technology."


To be sure, the NPR shaves a little bit of the wiggle room that post-Cold War presidents had carved out concerning the conditions under which the United States would use its nuclear arsenal weapon.  But it did not chisel into stone an unambiguous "no first use" policy. On the contrary, the President reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first against states that are not in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- and presumably it is the President of the United States and not the IAEA or some other international body that gets to determine whether a state is in compliance.  

Similarly, while the Times story relays a White House talking point -- "For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack" --  it goes on to show that the White House was careful to walk that point back a bit: "White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike."  

The novelty of the new policy apparently resides in the difference between a "crippling" and a "devastating" attack and I do not expect the Obama administration to split that hair to anyone's satisfaction. In any case, the United States always has the option of reconsidering a no-first use policy (or any national security policy) if circumstances change.  The only reason for explicitly flagging that option in advance is to buy back some of the very deterrence that comes from the strategic ambiguity that the new declaratory policy was surrendering.  In other words, seeking a middle course of trying to have one's cake and eat it too.

The NPR left unresolved some thorny issues like the disposition of NATO's remaining tactical nuclear weapons. And while the NPR made it clear that the United States would not build a new nuclear weapon now, anti-nuclear activists noted that the NPR "will leave the door open to that option, essentially kicking that can down the road." The NPR calls for substantial investments in the nuclear weapons complex (the national laboratories and weapons storage facilities), making clear that the administration believes the president's vision of a post-nuclear world is many decades away from fruition.

On balance, the NPR seems to be a split-the-difference compromise between different factions among Obama's advisors. In this respect, it resembles the most important national security decisions President Obama has made thus far on Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics may complain that this results in a lack of strategic clarity -- and some of the confusion that has attended the Iraq and Afghanistan policies shows that this danger is a real one -- but perhaps it will come to be seen as a politically deft balance of competing desiderata. It is unmistakably a step away from the compromises struck during the Bush era, but I don't see much evidence that this is the bold leap that wins plaudits in academic seminar rooms, activist think-tanks, and Norwegian parliaments.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The end of engagement

The Obama administration continues to cling to its campaign mantra of engagement despite a year of diplomatic failure in the Middle East on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as well as on Iran and Syria. In his State of the Union speech in January, the president referred to "the leadership that we are providing -- engagement that advances the common security and prosperity of all people."

Perhaps realizing that engagement alone projects weakness, the administration has begun in some cases to turn to sticks. On the peace process, it is the Israelis who are now the recipients of President Obama's ire. On Iran, the administration is threatening sanctions and Secretary Clinton has stated that Iran is becoming a military dictatorship. On Syria, however, all indications are that the administration's engagement strategy is charging full speed ahead.

During her confirmation hearings in January 2009, Secretary of State Clinton said that she and President Obama:

Believe that engaging directly with Syria increases the possibility of making progress on changing Syrian behavior. In these talks, we should insist on our core demands: cooperation in stabilizing Iraq; ending support for terrorist groups; cooperation with the IAEA; stopping the flow of weapons to Hezbollah; and respect for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence."

Yet, now, more than a year later, after repeated U.S. attempts to engage Damascus, it is difficult to see how progress has been made on any of these areas. Writing in The Weekly Standard last month, Elliott Abrams noted that the administration's "engagement" appears to be morphing into "appeasement" as its efforts to woo Bashar al-Assad are repeatedly rebuffed but the administration only tries harder.

Engagement in and of itself is not a worthless strategy. The key to engagement is deploying it effectively, using leverage, and making clear to the adversary you are negotiating with that in addition to backchannel messages and high-level diplomatic visits, you have sticks at your disposal as well. This, however, is not the Obama style, at least when it comes to foreign policy.

Instead, the Obama administration followed up a year of Syrian inaction by nominating a new U.S. ambassador to Syria, Mr. Robert Ford. Our last ambassador was recalled in February 2005 following the assassination, apparently with Syrian involvement, of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Mr. Ford, who spent much of the last five years serving at the embassy in Iraq, is a well-respected and capable diplomat. But there is a reason that the Senate entered its two week Passover/Easter recess without acting on his nomination.

A number of senators are rightfully concerned about the message returning an ambassador to Damascus sends to the Syrian regime, and expressed this concern in a letter to Secretary Clinton in early March. The administration's argument, put forward by Mr. Ford himself in his confirmation hearings, is that they have no illusions about the Syrian regime, but that the best way to deal with these issues is to confront the Syrians on a regular basis at the level possible with an ambassador in country. Assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs expressed the same sentiment in a letter responding to the senators' concerns, first reported by Josh Rogin, citing "small, incremental improvements on some issues in Syria recently."

For years, there has been a fascination in Middle East policy circles with the notion that the United States and Europe might somehow convince Assad to cut his ties to Iran, conclude a peace agreement with Israel, and halt his support for terrorism. This specious vision has little grounding in reality, but apparently continues to motivate this administration's Syria policy and that of some in Congress. Senator John Kerry visited Damascus again last week, roughly a year after his infamous dinner with Assad, at which he supposedly broke the logjam in U.S.-Syrian relations and according to David Ignatius, developed a relationship of "respect and friendship" with Syria's leader. Given the paucity of results we've seen in the last year, it is unclear what Senator Kerry thinks he achieved this time.

Over the last year, the Syrians have done little to rein in the foreign fighter networks that send militants into Iraq to kill American men and women in uniform. Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah continues unabated. Despite increasing international pressure on Iran, Syria has done nothing to cut ties with Tehran; instead Assad hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (with special guest Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah) less than 10 days after Mr. Ford was nominated.

Despite being forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, indications are that Damascus is trying to bring Beirut back into its orbit. Finally, Syria continues to stonewall the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into its covert nuclear program which was destroyed by an Israeli air raid in September 2007. This last issue may seem somewhat of a red herring given that all indications are that the surprising Israeli strike ended the immediate threat. But as was the case with Saddam Hussein and is currently the case with Iran, Middle East despots do not give up their weapons of mass destruction ambitions easily. Having suffered next to no repercussions other than a destroyed reactor, there is a real danger that Mr. Assad might conclude that he can make another try, perhaps this time with the assistance of Iran.

Mr. Ford noted in his confirmation hearing that "The diplomacy of engagement is a long-term investment." The unfortunate fact is that with a country like Syria, engaged in international terrorism, counteracting our efforts to stabilize Iraq, deepening ties with Iran as it continues its illicit nuclear program, and stonewalling an investigation into its own efforts to go nuclear, it is not clear that we have the time to invest.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images