News & Politics

Obama Takes on the Nuclear Neanderthals

President Obama supports a nuclear free world, but he faces a high noon showdown in the form of his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

With George W. Bush back in Texas and President Barack Obama--an advocate for a nuclear-free world--in the White House, there is reason for hope that the frayed and shredded arms control regime will be rebuilt. But President Obama also faces a looming, high noon showdown over such a move towards real security and peace--in the form of Bush holdover, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.


Gates is a relentless supporter of building the next generation of nuclear weapons--the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. He praises the RRW as "a more reliable deterrent." At this moment--when we need the Obama Administration to push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and negotiations to get the US and Russia's nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert while also reducing the countries' stockpiles--a Gates-led policy would be a real defeat for arms control and a sane security and foreign policy.


Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, told me this about Gates' views: "Secretary Gates has to decide whether he will support the President's considered policy that the United States will not develop any new nuclear weapons or whether he will continue to align himself with the small band of nuclear neanderthals clinging to obsolete cold war policies. All scientific studies show our existing stockpile of over 5,000 weapons are certifiable safe and reliable with minimum care for another 80-100 years. Even if we reduce to 1000, as many experts advocate, we will have enough hydrogen bombs to reliably destroy the world--or any nation therein--many times over.... There is a general consensus across party and ideological lines that the US and Russia can safely and quickly reduce to hundreds of warheads."


Indeed a recent New York Times editorial suggests that the US and Russia could "easily go to 1,000 weapons each in this next round," and that "if the United States is going to have any credibility in arguing that others must restrain their nuclear ambitions, it must restrain its own." In contrast, adopting Gates' position and producing new weapons "will be read by other nations as a US push for nuclear supremacy, even as Washington urges the rest of the world... to do without the weapons."


The abolition of nukes--once marginalized as idealistic and unrealistic when The Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent, Jonathan Schell, helped launch the idea in our special issue calling for abolition--is now part of the new political center with advocates such as the soon to be US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Jan Lodal. (See "The Logic of Zero" and their detailed plan here.) Global Zero--a coalition of more than 100 prominent military, political, faith and business leaders working for the elimination of nuclear weapons-- was recently written up in Parade magazine (you can't get more mainstream than that!). And, of course, there are the authors of the high-profile, Wall Street Journal op-ed endorsing abolition--former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn.


A story in the London Times  reports that the Obama administration will establish a non-proliferation office and is moving to convene talks with Russia aimed at reducing nuclear warheads to 1,000 each. According to Politico, the administration says the "story has unspecified flaws." Let's hope those flaws aren't around a renewed arms control effort, and that President Obama is making it clear to Secretary Gates that he has a new boss and a new policy he needs to support.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
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