New Strategy Unveiled Obama's Half-Hearted Nuclear Turnaround

With his new nuclear doctrine, Barack Obama wants to pave the way to a nuclear weapons-free world. For the first time, the US is abandoning its past threat of responding to conventional threats with nuclear weapons. But when it comes to the dangers posed by Iran, North Korea and terrorists, the president hasn't offered any new solutions.

US President Barack Obama, seen here with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has unveiled his new nuclear weapons strategy.
REUTERS

US President Barack Obama, seen here with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has unveiled his new nuclear weapons strategy.

By in New York


"Movie night" is a time-honored tradition in the White House. For decades, US presidents have invited hand-picked guests of honor to the plush red screening room in their residence. Generally, the repertoire includes the latest blockbusters or old favorites like "Casablanca" or the "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

But US President Barack Obama often goes beyond the multiplex in choosing his fare. On Tuesday night, for example, he offered a real mood dampener: "Nuclear Tipping Point," a documentary film about the threat of nuclear terrorism -- and the dream of a nuclear weapons-free world.

He invited four gray-haired luminaries of the US security policy scene: former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry and Sam Nunn, a legendary arms expert and former senator. It was no coincidence, either: "Nuclear Tipping Point" is partly based on interviews with the quartet, who together have been fighting for years for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

There was also no coincidence in the timing: On Tuesday, Obama presented the United States' new nuclear doctrine. The long-awaited, 72-page position paper represents the first step towards the implementation of a dramatic vision that Obama first spoke of one year ago on Prague's Charles Bridge. "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," he said in his speech set against the picturesque backdrop.

As has happened with so many of Obama's promises, though, initially the only thing to come out of this was a compromise -- one that doesn't really satisfy anyone. His adopted motto: a little peace.

Break with the Past

Still, the so-called Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) could represent a break with the past. With his new doctrine, Obama is seeking to reduce the global nuclear threat by strongly and declaratively limiting, for the first time, the US prerogative, dating back to the Cold War, that Washington can deploy nuclear weapons against any country at any time. From now on, Washington has pledged to no longer threaten other countries -- at least those states that do not possess nuclear weapons and are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- with a nuclear attack.

The new stance represents a renunciation of the view that the deterring power of nuclear weapons also keeps conventional opponents in their place. "Our nuclear arsenal also helps deter enemies from using chemical and biological weapons," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as recently as October 2008, in a speech given at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the time, he was still serving under Obama's predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush. Now, however, the terms are to be stricter: Conventional weapons must be deployed against conventional threats, and the specter of nuclear weapons can only be raised against a nuclear threat.

That potential threat is limited to a relatively small group of nuclear powers -- many of which are allied with the US. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the list of countries includes, in addition to the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and (though the government officially pursues a policy of ambiguity) Israel.

Obama Personally Edited Text

Reactions to Obama's nuclear shift were predictable. For some, the strategy isn't far-reaching enough. Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, said the moves represented an "unconvincing balancing act," adding: "There's no real indication of the deep shifts in thinking necessary to begin giving up the nuclear fix."

Others, though, complain that the policy has no teeth. "The president's dream of a worldwide liberal utopia is going to undermine the security of the United States," Peter King, the top Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in an interview with the New York Post newspaper.

But this polarization also mirrors the internal debate between the Pentagon, State Department and White House. The discussions were so heated than the release of the White House nuclear review was delayed by four months. Finding a formulation that everyone could agree to ultimately required 102 meetings. The White House even consulted with Congress and foreign partners. And Obama reportedly took the step of personally editing the text himself on numerous occasions. One member of Obama's government described the process as having taken "darn near forever."

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