National Security Network

Obama Continuing What Reagan STARTed

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Report 2 April 2010

Non-Proliferation Bush administration George H.W. Bush John F. Kennedy Ronald Reagan russia START


Monday, April 5, marks the one year anniversary of President Obama's historic unveiling of his 21st century nonproliferation agenda.  The week of the anniversary will be marked by significant steps.  First, the signing in Prague of a New START Treaty that provides binding, verifiable limits on Russian nuclear weapons - reducing both sides' arsenals to levels not seen since the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations while improving U.S. intelligence on Russia's nuclear capabilities.  Second, the Administration will unveil a Nuclear Posture Review that communicates both how this Administration views the limited but important role of nuclear weapons in ensuring our security, and how it intends to keep our arsenal safe and effective.  Third, in ten days Washington will welcome forty world leaders for a ground-breaking summit on the safety of nuclear materials - in an age of terrorism, the most important security threat we face.

This ambitious agenda seeks to make up for eight years of neglect from President Obama's predecessor.  From stonewalling and even withdrawing from established arms control treaties to support of tactical nuclear weapons and ineffective missile defense systems, the Bush administration undermined global support for controlling and limiting nuclear weapons at every turn.  Today's agenda enjoys broad bipartisan support, from Senators Dick Lugar (R-IN) and John Kerry (D-MA), to former Secretaries of State and Defense Shultz, Perry and Kissinger.  But today's fringe conservatives are seeking to undermine the President's agenda even before the ink on the treaty is dry.  These ideologues and political critics not only undermine America's security, they undermine the legacy of arms control advocates such as Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush.

Rhetoric becomes reality. One year after President Obama's Prague speech introduced nonproliferation as an administration priority, Washington heads into a nuclear April: 

Signing of the New START. Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association writes, "Wrapping up a year of intense negotiations and missed deadlines in which the presidents of Russia and the United States reportedly met or spoke on the telephone 14 times, President Barack Obama announced March 26 at a White House press briefing that "a pivotal new arms control agreement," the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), was finished and would be signed April 8 in Prague. Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Obama said the two countries had just agreed to ‘the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades.'" [ACA, 4/10]

Release of the Nuclear Posture Review.  George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains that, "The Nuclear Posture Review serves multiple purposes. It describes for potential adversaries the lines they must not cross if they want to avoid being destroyed by U.S. nuclear weapons... It seeks to reassure allies and non- nuclear-weapon states that the United States is a sober, responsible provider of security, and at the same time is doing its best to make possible a world without nuclear weapons. The Posture Review also signals the U.S. nuclear weapon complex and its beneficiaries and congressional patrons that the administration is a robust defender of America, and that a strong America requires a well-funded and appreciated nuclear complex." [Carnegie Endowment, 3/31/10]

Nuclear Security Summit. April 12-13, heads of state from 40 countries will gather in Washington, at the Obama administration's invitation, to focus on the threat of nuclear terrorism and the security of nuclear materials.  The Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation explains that, "The Global Nuclear Security Summit will focus on safeguarding against nuclear terrorism by bolstering international cooperation and improving security for nuclear materials worldwide. The summit will provide an opportunity to discuss practical ways to identify and disrupt illicit trade in nuclear materials." [Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 12/9/09]

Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Pete Souza of TIME magazine writes today that, "in May, the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in New York for the treaty review conference held every five years. Major nuclear powers such as the U.S. and Russia hope to strengthen the floundering treaty, which seeks to prevent new countries from acquiring nuclear weapons by getting those who already have them to begin disarming." [TIME, 4/2/10]

The Bush administration's policies severely eroded the nonproliferation regime, one of the most successful instances of international cooperation.  There is a strong, bipartisan history of American presidents working to bolster the nonproliferation regime.  Kennedy, Reagan, George H. W. Bush - each of these presidents understood the risks of the spread of nuclear weapons, and committed their administrations to reducing that risk.  Sadly, the Bush administration broke with this legacy, and pursued policies which undermined the work of its predecessors and had specific costs in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere:

The Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  In 2001 the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to build a missile defense system, a move that "has already provoked Russia to increase its nuclear capabilities and may well provoke China to do the same." [Center for American Progress, 8/9/04]

Failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty sent a dangerous signal to the rest of the world.  The Bush administration made clear that it had "no intention of seeking ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," a move that helped to "paralyze one of the most hopeful products of the post-World War II era: the global arms control and disarmament movement."  [San Francisco Chronicle, 4/06/03]

President Bush's support for tactical nuclear weapons encouraged other countries to pursue nuclear weapons. The Bush administration continually sought funds to develop tactical nuclear weapons or "bunker busters," a plan that then-Rep. Ellen Tauscher called "a waste of money on a weapon commanders in the field have not asked for," which "may trigger a new global nuclear arms race." [Washington Post, 2/09/05]

Collapse of efforts to end the production of nuclear weapons materials.  In 2004, the Bush administration reversed itself and announced that it no longer thought a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty could be verifiably enforced, contradicting the negotiating mandate and leading to the talks' collapse.  [Conference on Disarmament, 7/29/04]

Stonewalling the 2005 review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty discouraged  global cooperation. "Though President Bush repeatedly declared that nuclear proliferation, including the risk of terrorists' obtaining a nuclear weapon, is the biggest single threat to the United States, the Administration decided against sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the conference, leaving arguments to midlevel diplomats," a move that helped doom the talks to failure. [NY Times, 5/28/05]

This cavalier attitude toward international cooperation and preference for confrontational unilateralism had real consequences for the spread of nuclear weapons.  In Iran, the Bush administration's approach undercut its legitimacy, doing nothing to check Iran's pursuit of a nuclear break-out capacity.  By the end of the Bush administration, Iran was spinning as many as 5,000 centrifuges at its central enrichment plant at Natanz.  This steady progress caused former IAEA head Mohammed El Baradei to call the Bush administration's Iran policies "a failure."  On North Korea, for the first 6 years of his administration, President Bush reversed the Clinton-era policy of engaging directly with the Hermit Kingdom- a policy that was working.  By the time the Bush administration had belatedly opted to re-engage, North Korea had developed enough material for approximately 10 nuclear bombs and even tested a device in 2006. [AP, 11/26/08. LA Times, 12/06/08.Washington Post, 10/9/06]

Today's extreme conservatives have moved away from the legacies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, putting our national security at risk. The New START agreement that will be signed April 8 represents the most comprehensive arms control agreement in two decades.  Some fringe conservatives see this as an opportunity to deny President Obama a victory or pursue their own agendas with irrelevant or incorrect talking points on missile defense, national sovereignty and arcane counting rules.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, the never-confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, absurdly proclaimed on Tuesday that the New START agreement would impede U.S. sovereignty.  According to the Washington Independent, "Bolton also scoffed at the President's statement that the U.S.-Russian reduction in their countries' nuclear stockpiles, which represent over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, would strengthen global arms control efforts, and instead suggested that it would spur rogue-state nuclear proliferation." Bolton later told the New York Times that the treaty didn't make sharp enough reductions, a complete reversal of his claim that the treaty would infringe on U.S sovereignty.  "If tomorrow after this treaty is ratified we're still basically at the level we were at yesterday before it was ratified, what does it do for all our soaring rhetoric about getting rid of nuclear weapons and getting others to do the same?" asked Mr. Bolton, who negotiated the Treaty of Moscow for Mr. Bush. "You can't have it both ways."

Technical critiques of counting rules - before treaty provisions have even been released - have ignored the historical context.  The George W. Bush Administration's Moscow Treaty did not establish counting rules, nor did the three-page agreement contain a single verification provision - yet this did not alter the support of those who are now critiquing the new treaty.  SALT I contained no limits on bombers; the Reagan administration's first START proposal contained no limits on bombers; and START ended up discounting the number of weapons on bombers. Securing favorable treatment for bombers has been a cardinal tenet of U.S. arms control policy for 40 years and the provisions the Obama administration has described mark a step forward toward stability and verifiable accountability. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl have also alleged that the treaty will inhibit U.S. missile defense programs.  As in previous U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements, the START follow-on will only contain a provision in the preamble that acknowledges the "the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms." After meeting with President Obama and Senator John Kerry last week, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Republican explained, "'Missile defense will not be part of the treaty, but in the preamble both parties will state their positions and there will be a mention of offense and defense and the importance of those.' He added that because the missile-defense statements were outside the main text, ‘they are in essence editorial opinions.'"  Secretary Gates has also confirmed, "Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty." This treaty makes a vital contribution to transparency and predictability in the U.S.-Russian context, as is urgently needed, and is essential to our national security. [Washington Independent, 3/30/10. NY Times, 3/30/10. White House Fact Sheet, 3/26/10. Senator Lugar via The Cable, 3/24/10]

What We're Reading

President Hamid Karzai delivered a stinging criticism of the foreign presence in Afghanistan, accusing the West and the United Nations of wanting a "puppet government" and of orchestrating fraud in last year's election.

Israeli warplanes struck at least four times across Gaza on Friday, damaging a number of structures that the Israeli military said were sites for weapons manufacturing or storage.

Senator John Kerry met Thursday with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Cuba's foreign minister held a meeting with a senior U.S. official - in one of the highest level contacts between the two countries for years.

Drug traffickers fighting to control northern Mexico turned their guns and grenades on the Mexican army, authorities said, in an apparent escalation of warfare that played out across multiple cities in two border states.

A U.S. Navy warship exchanged fire with suspected Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean early Thursday.

Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to attend this month's nonproliferation talks in the United States.

South Korea has not ruled out blaming a torpedo strike for sinking one of its navy ships in waters near a contested sea border with North Korea, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said.

A boycott by opposition parties in Sudan has thrown next month's elections into chaos. 

Kenya's Parliament has unanimously passed a draft constitution that is one of several key reform steps needed to avoid a repeat of political violence that shook the country after the disputed 2007 elections.

Commentary of the Day

Tim Judah argues that though stopping short of defining Serbian acts at Srebrenica as genocide, the resolution condemning the massacre of Bosnian Muslims is a political landmark.

The Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board recognizes President Obama's political compromise in permitting domestic offshore drilling, but thinks that his decision complicates what should be a clear national policy to leave oil behind.

Kenneth Roth believes that President Obama's rhetoric on human rights is commendable but that more action is needed to match the rhetoric.


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