Attack of the Zeros

Will the rise of a new class of Cold Warriors doom Obama’s nuke treaty?

BY JAMES TRAUB | JULY 16, 2010 | Foreign Policy

Earlier this week, I was invited to a screening of Nuclear Tipping Point, which makes the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. As polemical documentaries go, it’s an old-fashioned eye-glazer (unlike the far glitzier Countdown to Zero, which opens in theaters July 23). The film consists mostly of two old conservative Democrats — former Sen. Sam Nunn and former Defense Secretary William Perry — and two very old moderate Republicans — former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, now as slow and grave as an ancient sea tortoise — speaking against a black background while portentous kettledrums thump offstage. None of them cops to even the tiniest grain of guilt over the role he played in sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal prior to his conversion experience. But in a way, that’s the point: These old Cold Warriors, founders of the Nuclear Security Project, haven’t gone soft; they’ve realized that nuclear weapons are now more of a threat than a shield to America’s national security.

The essence of the movie’s argument is that, in a world of rogue states and suicidal terrorists, the Cold War dynamic of matching nuclear arsenals into the dizzying thousands — that is, deterrence — must give way to a new nonproliferation model focused on gaining control over bombs and nuclear material and then eliminating them over time. The case for zero has gained almost consensual status among strategic thinkers: Two-thirds of living U.S. secretaries of state and defense and national security advisors have endorsed the Nuclear Security Project. This is no longer a left-right issue — except in today’s Washington, where Henry Kissinger counts as a sissy. President Barack Obama’s administration is now fighting tooth and nail to find 67 senators willing to sign the new START treaty with Russia, an important step forward but a modest down payment on Obama’s own professed goal of creating a world without nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the entire Obama agenda on nonproliferation has been warped and blunted by the exigencies of catering to Senate Republicans — and to those elements of the military and nuclear-weapons establishment that cling to the old Cold War paradigm. In his nuclear policy review, issued in April after months of delay and last-minute editing, Obama consistently chose cautious formulations over the bold steps he had advocated during the campaign. The Four Armchair Warriors of Nuclear Tipping Point point out, for example, that removing U.S. bombers from the high-alert status mandated during the Cold War, when planes had to be airborne before Soviet missiles could take them out, is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit of strategic doctrine reform; but the Obama report concluded that “the current alert posture . . . should be maintained for the present.”

In a Q-and-A session after the film, Nunn said that he was “disappointed” with the posture review and that the caution on de-alerting “went beyond what I thought was rational.” You wouldn’t expect Barack Obama to position himself to the right of Sam Nunn; but, given the rabid political atmosphere, Obama was in no position to stand up to his own generals. What’s more, in February the administration announced that it would grant a 13 percent increase to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear infrastructure — the largest increase awarded to any agency. This was a ransom payment to Senate Republicans, who had written to the president in December asserting that further arms reduction would not be in the U.S. national security interest “in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.”

The Obama administration has paid, and paid dearly, to ensure passage of START, a win which officials were once foolish enough to think would be fairly painless. But they might not have paid enough to satisfy the right. In recent days, conservatives have begun priming the pump of opposition, including a Washington Post op-ed by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney so ludicrously ill-founded that Richard Lugar, the mild-mannered Republican senator, felt compelled to denounce it as a “hyperbolic” peddling of “misreadings and myths.” Lugar is the only Senate Republican to have pledged to support the treaty. Jon Kyl, the Republican whip and a leader of the arms-control refuseniks, has not yet revealed his view, though in his own op-ed he criticized the treaty in much milder terms than Romney and even cited several “sensible positions” adopted in the posture review (thus perhaps confirming Obama’s highly pragmatic calculations). A senior administration official told me that he remains optimistic that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote out the treaty before the Aug. 9 recess, but admitted that he still “didn’t have a good sense” of what would happen in the full Senate, or when.

The Senate may well confirm START, but the troglodyte position of many Republicans — as well as Obama’s political vulnerability on the subject — might doom the larger vision of transforming the nuclear debate. As it happens, several months ago I had a long conversation about nuclear issues with Kyl. The Arizona senator is not counted among the true GOP mossbacks, like Jim DeMint or James Inhofe, but I came away thinking that he really does view Kissinger and his ilk as wimps. Kyl told me that he considers treaties “to a large extent useless “because bad actors won’t honor them. The United States, he said, should be free to develop nuclear weapons as needed and should never agree to forgo nuclear testing, as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would require. Other countries may rail against America, but Kyl takes a dim view of them anyway.

When I asked Kyl about the central axiom of Obama and the Armchair Warriors, that states will not agree to restraints on proliferation unless the United States and other nuclear powers move toward disarmament, he snorted, “It’s a great theoretical argument if you’re up at 2 in the morning in the dormitory, but it has no application in the real world.” The actual problem, he said, is that countries eager to stick it to the United States refuse to sign on to U.S. efforts to stop nuclear malefactors. “Have any of these countries been effectively supportive of U.S. efforts to effect a regime change in Iran?” he asked. I didn’t know how to answer; I said that I hadn’t known the United States was doing that.

The refuseniks seem to think the Cold War never ended, and the United States needs to keep all those B-52s around lest it tempt the Soviets — sorry, the Russians — with its weakness. You can’t fight that kind of obscurantism. Nevertheless, Kyl’s objection to the “theoretical argument” cannot simply be dismissed. After all, dismantling the nuclear arsenal is a matter of urgency not because U.S. or Russian weapons represent an imminent threat to humanity, as they did a generation ago, but rather because disarmament is said to be the sole means of persuading the non nuclear states to take nonproliferation seriously. Although the Armchair Warriors tend to view this axiom as self-evident, an Obama administration arms-control official said to me last year, “These are propositions that have to be demonstrated.”

Indeed they are; and they can be. Last September, after intense U.S. lobbying, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1887 calling for strict controls on the export of nuclear materials and committing states to ratify the CTBT, negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material, and adopt protocols that would allow nuclear monitors to conduct intrusive inspections. At the U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May, states reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen nonproliferation standards and, no less significantly, isolated Iran, which came to play the role of spoiler. And there’s no question that it was Obama’s personal commitment to reducing the size and role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that persuaded states to adopt these measures. So it’s not, in fact, a theoretical argument.

As tough as the political environment for Obama is now, it will only get worse after the midterm election reduces the Democratic majority in the Senate. The prospects for the CTBT, or for a treaty mandating much deeper cuts between the United States and Russia, are marginal. From a political point of view, nuclear proliferation looks like global warming: The problem will have to get much worse before it becomes possible to summon the political will to act effectively. The one thing we can feel confident about is that the problem will, in fact, get much worse.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for, runs weekly.