Senate could sink Obama’s ambitious plan for reducing nuclear arms

By John Grula 08/26/2010

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The recent 65th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9) present a timely opportunity to evaluate the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

President Obama came into office promising change, and in terms of his rhetoric about nuclear weapons he has certainly provided a welcomed breath of fresh air that is a radical departure from his predecessor, George W. Bush. In a remarkable speech delivered very early in his term, Obama clearly articulated a vision for ridding the world of all nuclear weapons, something no other US president has ever done with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy in his historic commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963.

 Obama’s speech, given April 5, 2009, in the Czech Republic capital of Prague, committed the US to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  He went on to say, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act” toward achieving this goal.

As audacious as Obama’s speech may perhaps seem, it is noteworthy that the idea of eliminating all of the world’s nuclear weapons has come to have currency even with some conservative Republicans. Two examples are George Shultz, who was secretary of state during most of the Reagan administration, and Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In January 2007 and January 2008, these former hawks co-authored guest editorials in The Wall Street Journal which called for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons. Since then, Shultz and Kissinger have been joined by other former hawks in embracing this objective.

Besides the end of the Cold War, the other factors driving this sea change in attitudes about nukes is the fear that certain “rogue states” (for example, North Korea and Iran) may acquire these weapons. Perhaps even more disturbing is the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state terrorists. While there are probably good reasons to think the leaders of North Korea and Iran are not totally irrational, and would be restrained by nuclear deterrence (which supposedly prevented the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War), non-state terrorists are a completely different matter.  Thus, the argument goes, the only way to prevent non-state terrorists from acquiring and using nukes is to get rid of them all.

A recent important initiative toward the goal of securing and then eliminating nuclear weapons and nuclear-bomb-making materials was a first-of-its-kind Nuclear Summit, which Obama convened in Washington, DC, on  April 12 and 13. At this summit, the leaders of 47 nations that possess nuclear technology agreed to a four-year plan to clean up and secure fuel from nuclear power plants, ban any further production of weapons-grade nuclear material, strengthen the monitoring capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and take other measures to secure nuclear materials. A follow-up summit will be held in Seoul, South Korea, in 2012.

Another important initiative toward eliminating nuclear weapons is the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty, which President Obama and the president of Russia signed on April 8 in Prague. This treaty will replace the START I Treaty of 1991, which expired at the end of 2009. When fully implemented, each side will retain no more that 1,550 strategic (long-range) nuclear warheads. This compares to a ceiling of 6,000 strategic warheads on each side as set by START I. Furthermore, the new treaty will reduce by half (from 1,600 to 800) the number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (manned bombers, land- and submarine-based missiles) as specified by START I.

Another very important feature of the new treaty is a broad set of effective verification measures. For example, human inspectors will be on the ground in Russia (and the US) with the purpose of conducting on site inspections to detect any treaty violations. Unless the new treaty goes into effect, such inspections will not occur.

Currently, the new START is being considered by the US Senate, which must ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. This will require a two-thirds “yes” vote.  In other words, at least 67 senators will have to vote in favor of ratifying the treaty, which means at least eight Republicans will have to join the entire Democratic caucus to ensure the treaty’s ratification. Even though ratification of the treaty has been endorsed by old-guard Republicans such as James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, it is by no means certain at this point there are enough Republican votes to ratify the new treaty.

Here in California we can be proud that both of our senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are strong supporters of the treaty. However, if the senate fails to ratify the new treaty, then President Obama’s ambitious agenda for ridding the world of nuclear weapons will be dealt a serious blow, and the prospect of nuclear terrorism will loom ever larger.

John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.


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