See update at bottom!
- U.S. allies unite to block Obama’s nuclear ‘legacy’ [i.e. against no first use] Aug. 14, 2016 (Rogin, WaPo)
The president wants to roll out announcements on nuclear policy in September to coincide with his final appearance at the U.N. General Assembly, officials said. One administration official told me that, in part because of allied concerns, the internal push on “no first use” was not gaining traction.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told me that the administration is “always looking for additional ways to achieve progress” on Obama’s Prague agenda — named for the disarmament aspirations the president set out in his April 2009 speech in the Czech capital — “while maintaining a credible deterrent for the United States, our allies and partners.”
Given the powerful opposition by key U.S. “allies” (a bad term but one almost universally used; the complement of “adversaries”), by the military and its corporate allies, by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and by the majority Republicans in both houses of Congress, a substantive no first use (NFU) policy appears unlikely, especially at this late stage in Obama’s presidency.
Of course we would like to see a real, concrete, enduring NFU policy — but only if it is part of a larger change in U.S. foreign and nuclear policy, including a no second use policy.
By itself a NFU statement or policy is just a piece of paper, ephemeral, subject to reinterpretation and modification, while nuclear weapons are “used” all the time, 24/7, to condition foreign relations, affect domestic politics, and so on. NFU has precious little to do with “global zero” and is not necessarily a step toward nuclear disarmament, let alone abolition.
Perhaps Ben Rhodes will write a nice speech for the president to give at the UN, like he did for Prague in 2009. I am sure it will be stirring to the gullible, and the U.S. elite press will recognize which themes they are supposed to expertly discuss, qualify, and disseminate. The speech will be designed to protect the empire, lull disarmament advocates, quiet domestic opposition, calm the contractor cartel and its congressional protectors with coded language which will be missed by those who “want to believe,” and it will avoid foreclosing too many options, lest “deterrence” be “damaged.”
Thus by far the most likely outcome of the internal discussions about Obama’s nuclear legacy and a possible NFU policy lie in the field of propaganda and political theater.
But regardless of all this, we at the Study Group have two immediate questions about any possible NFU policy.
First, what would a NFU policy cost, politically, in terms of other nuclear policies? For example, would a NFU policy mean that all the weapons programs and factories go forward with Obama’s renewed blessing? Would continuation of NFU bind President Hillary Clinton to the whole modernization “package” as well? Every so-called “step” in U.S. disarmament achieved by Democratic presidents since 1995 has come at a terrific cost. (See “Stewards of the Apocalypse: an abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989,” this blog.) In disarmament it has been “two steps forward, one step backwards” since 1995 — except, ironically, for G.W. Bush’s substantial weapons retirements.
And now the administration has resurrected the Russian bogeyman, the better with which to stomp down anything smelling of nuclear disarmament and slightly less belligerence worldwide.
Second, how real and permanent would a NFU policy really be, and what else would be involved in implementing it? Cartwright and Blair wrote this past Sunday in the NYT (emphasis added):
Although a no-first-use policy would limit the president’s discretion by imposing procedural and physical constraints on his or her ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, we believe such checks on the commander in chief would serve the national interest.
OK, but what are these intriguing “procedural and physical constraints” on the president’s “ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons?” And who, exactly, would place “such checks on the commander in chief?” A military leader, perhaps? Who else could? A committee, exerting powerful psychological pressure? Meeting where, composed of whom? Who would set up this decision-making process right now? What discussions with the rest of the U.S. are they going to have? (Answer: none.)
All these discussions are secret. They have to be. But would this create, or perhaps ratify the present secret existence, of a power above the president? Would this negative NFU power come with a de facto permissive power as well, the power to OK the use of nuclear weapons? Who would really be making decisions and how precisely would this new system work? This could be quite a can of apocalyptic nuclear worms.
In this regard, it is very far from clear to us how nuclear use decisions are or might be made. We do not fully believe much of anything we have heard or read on this topic of late, including what we heard in a briefing in 2015 from a very senior STRATCOM nuclear war planner and Rose Gottemoeller about this topic at a side event at the United Nations. With the exception of Bruce Blair, we do not think even the most knowledgeable U.S. NGO experts understand this clearly. At some point in a nuclear war, if the president is dead from the outset as he or she is likely to be, plans for nuclear decision-making may become part of Continuity of Government (COG) planning, which is shrouded in enduring mystery. For example, we do not believe that only civilians in the line of presidential succession can authorize the use of nuclear weapons, which is what Ms. Gottemoeller and her co-briefer insisted to us was true. STRATCOM told us they knew the whereabouts of every individual in the presidential line of succession at all times. We doubt this. We also doubt that every one of these individuals would have truly independent decision-making power in the event of nuclear war. What does the Secretary of Agriculture know about nuclear war? Answer: what he would be told.
Again, we are sympathetic but wary and skeptical about NFU as an Obama “legacy.” We have written a number of colleagues in the U.S. and abroad about this in greater detail than we can go into here. We said:
I rather imagine there have been a lot of discussions in the White House about how to have change without really changing, e.g. a NFU without roots or fruits. That’s “how they roll,” up there in the White House.
An NFU without concrete changes in deployments and investments falls into the reality parodied by one of our advisors:
“Trust us, we won’t use nuclear weapons first.” I can’t help but see this as another hypocritical “legacy-saving” move by Obama. Never mind that he brought back the Cold War and rebuilt the entire nuclear weapons manufacturing infrastructure in the US . . . really, he wants to have a world free of nuclear weapons….Sadly, we all want to succeed desperately enough to sometimes convince ourselves that we can compromise our way to nuclear disarmament.
Leaving the main issue, we take issue with this comment (emphasis added):
Those missiles [ICBMs] are mainly for first-use; they are a risky option for second-use because they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack. Eliminating these weapons entirely would be the best option.
Well, maybe. Maybe also be that ICBMs are really for no use at all. Their sole “use” might (secretly) be as targets, to absorb a Russian strike. We’d be the last to know, of course. Secrecy and ambiguity is an essential aspect of any such strategy, coupled with the necessary touch of madness. Especially Cartwright could not say this if he wanted to.
Phasing out land-based missiles and shifting to a reliance on submarines and bombers would save about $100 billion over the next three decades. The elimination of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons would save billions more. President Obama could begin the phaseout of land-based missiles before he left office by instructing the Department of Defense to remove 550 weapons [sic — 431 and slowly falling] from the operationally deployed category and transfer them to long-term storage, thereby reducing the operationally deployed inventory to about 1,000 strategic warheads. These missiles are surplus weapons no longer needed for deterrence.
Eliminating the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence is an excellent idea. Do it.
The most recent State Department figures for deployed ICBMs (fact sheet of July 1, 2016, current as of March 1), are: 431 deployed ICBMs and silos, 255 non-deployed ICBMs, 23 non-deployed silos, and 4 test silos.
It appears that the prospects for a NFU policy are approaching nil.
- “Why Trump Is Right to Raise Questions About Nuclear Weapons: The GOP candidate has a point: If we have them, we’re probably going to use them someday.” Bruce Blair, August 11, 2016 (Politico)
“Obama plans major nuclear policy changes in his final months,” Josh Rogin, WaPo, July 10, 2016
- “How Obama Could Revolutionize Nuclear Weapons Strategy Before He Goes,” Bruce Blair, June 22 2016 (Politico)