Inside Story

Obama versus the Pentagon

The cold war still hangs over efforts to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal, writes Andy Butfoy

Andy Butfoy 25 September 2009 2080 words

Barack Obama during his first visit as president to the Pentagon early this year. US Army

Barack Obama is learning that opponents can be found in many different places, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the corridors of the Pentagon. His enemies in Afghanistan are well known, but this week it was reported that some American defence officials are opposing Obama’s promise of a radical reshaping of US nuclear weapons policy. His reaffirmation of the promise in the United Nations Security Council on Thursday suggests we may be in for some interesting Washington in-fighting.

The basic problem seems to be that the president believes the Pentagon hasn’t fully woken up to the end of the cold war – that it seems incapable of shaking off an anachronistic over-reliance on nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the more conservative Pentagon officials feel that some of the strategies inherited from the old days remain vital to national and security.

Clearly, some historical context is needed here. During the cold war Washington’s vision of world order was partly defined by nuclear weapons. Although there was an obvious need to deter the Soviet Union from using the bomb against American cities, the nuclearisation of US thinking went beyond this narrow view of deterrence. Other factors, which still resonate in Washington, affected nuclear policy.

Most importantly, politics dictated the need for “extended deterrence”, which is jargon for the US nuclear umbrella covering alliances such as NATO. This involved more than the threat of nuclear retaliation to dissuade Moscow from using its nuclear forces; it also explicitly rested on the possible first-use of nuclear weapons to deter or defeat conventional attacks in Europe and Asia. Extended deterrence had other advantages for Washington as well. For example, it reduced pressures for nuclear proliferation in allied countries, especially West Germany and Japan: the more Washington reassured them they would be looked after, the less their need to develop their own deterrents. It was assumed this network of deterrence and reassurance injected stability into the system. Another plus was that US control of the west’s nuclear button underlined its leadership status; it was one of the things that made it a superpower.

The end of the cold war required a rethinking of the link between US nuclear forces and world order. This was complicated by uncertainty about what the emerging order was going to look like. No one knew how Russia would turn out five or twenty years down the track. Pentagon officials also seemed resistant to radical change for more bureaucratic reasons, reinforced by a feeling that since the US cold war strategy had apparently been vindicated, why fix a policy that wasn’t broken?

But some sort of re-examination was inevitable. This was conducted during the Clinton presidency in a 1994 Nuclear Posture Review that embraced a policy of “leading and hedging.” “Leading” was about advancing arms control; “hedging” referred to the need to maintain powerful nuclear forces in case the scene took a turn for the worse. Clinton’s supporters tended to advocate leading, as this looked more in keeping with the changed times. But a hard core of defence officials emphasised hedging, which suited their professional concerns and fitted well with a conservative, or “realist,” world view. On balance, hedging won out. This was illustrated by the fact that the first-use option was kept despite the evaporation of its original cold war rationale; in addition, many thousands of nuclear weapons were retained, far more than made sense (even though many thousands were also cut, which showed just how much overkill there had been all along).

So the old pros in and around the Pentagon outflanked the reformers. This was easy to do because in the 1990s three concerns shaped American nuclear planning. First, there was the need to retain some insurance in case of the emergence of militant Russian nationalism. Second, there was a need to maintain superiority over Beijing, to deter and perhaps defeat Chinese power (in the event of things going badly over Taiwan, for example). Third, there was the question of how US nuclear weapons could help in dealing with rogue states in the Third World. During the cold war US nuclear forces were a type of equaliser, offsetting Soviet numerical superiority in conventional forces. But after the cold war, it was Third World nuclear forces, and sometimes biological and chemical weapons, that were seen as equalisers to US conventional superiority. A type of role reversal had occurred.

The weapons of mass destruction in these rogue states posed a threat to regional stability and a constraint on US policy premised on the possibility and plausibility of American intervention. If American nuclear weapons had deterred cold war Soviet adventurism, why couldn’t rogue state WMDs deter post–cold war US adventurism? In response to this changed setting, US nuclear strategy was adjusted to deter rogue states from using WMD against US troops and allies. US nuclear threats would keep the field open for using conventional power in places like the Middle East. In theory, Washington could deter hostile states from using WMD even while the US military defeated them on the conventional battlefield.

This thinking was reinforced by a particular reading of the 1991 Gulf War – that Saddam Hussein accepted a conventional defeat rather than escalate to the use of chemical weapons because he feared US nuclear retaliation. (An alternative explanation is that Saddam feared that if he used chemical weapons then Washington would broaden its war aims to include regime change in Baghdad.)

THE 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 led the Bush administration to stretch US nuclear strategy to help deal with the so-called “Axis of Evil,” which was short-hand for the idea of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea teaming-up with terrorists. This provided part of the context for Bush’s Nuclear Posture Review, which was completed at the end of 2001. According to the Review, Washington wouldn’t allow arms control to constrain US strategy, it would retain the first-use option, and states of interest (Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya) would be monitored by American nuclear war planners. Emphasis was also given to “adaptive planning” for nuclear attacks, which called for greater weapons accuracy, an improved capacity to target weapons rapidly, enhanced command and control arrangements, and weapons able to “hold at risk” (or blow up) a wide spectrum of targets. Adaptive planning implied the need for a new generation of nuclear weapons as well as a program for testing them.

The idea was that hostile states would recognise it was hopeless and dangerous to compete with Washington. Not only would they realise this was a no-contest, but they would also be sobered by the risk that their WMD program could be a lightning rod for an American attack.

Critics worried that the Review reflected a militarisation of policy and “lowered the nuclear threshold” – in other words, that it made nuclear weapons more usable, and thus more likely to be used, in a wider range of circumstances. This overlapped with a worry that Washington was blurring the line between nuclear and conventional forces, that it wanted to normalise or “conventionalise” nuclear weapons. Bush’s often negative stance on arms control, his 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his implicit threat to extend “pre-emptive” war to Iran and North Korea, provided a context for the Nuclear Posture Review’s implementation that alarmed observers. American nuclear strategy became implicated in an approach to global security (including a refusal to rule out nuclear first-use against Iran) that many found unsettling rather than reassuring.

Obama came into office promising to change all this. Suddenly multilateralism was back in fashion, which meant paying more attention to the views of the broader membership of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty, or NPT. Under the terms of the treaty well over a hundred non-nuclear states agree not to acquire the weapons if the members of the nuclear club (the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain) promise to limit their nuclear strategies and move towards complete nuclear disarmament. But the nuclear club has never been sincere about their side of the bargain. The United States saw nuclear weapons as too useful to surrender and the goal of global nuclear disarmament as a naive and reckless basis for policy development.

Obama claims this has changed. He says he wants a world free of all nuclear weapons (an objective that has gathered significant global support recently, as illustrated by the work of Gareth Evans’s International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament). But Obama also says he will be prudent and adopt a step-by-step approach; in particular, the United States will maintain a robust nuclear deterrent until complete nuclear disarmament arrives – which, of course, may never happen. In the meantime, Obama recognises there is much that can be done to move things forward, such as ratifying a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons and making more cuts to the numbers of nuclear weapons. Then there is related policy that can positively affect the political atmosphere, such as his decision to shelve Bush’s scheme for a missile defence system based in central Europe.

But what about the guidance the Obama administration gives to the military about the purpose of the nuclear weapons stockpile and how it might be used? In particular, what about first-use? Most of the NPT membership want a clear statement of no-first-use. They want all nuclear threats de-legitimised, and they have no time for Washington’s old claim that its first-use option is a foundation of world order. They have had enough of what they see as American hypocrisy.

Pentagon hardliners, and their allies in conservative think-tanks, don’t like what they are hearing. Old-school analysts fear a policy of no-first-use would unravel the world order that has evolved since the 1950s. They worry the result would be to encourage rogue states to push their luck, and possibly to spook countries like Japan into building their own nuclear weapons. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Obama or anyone else. Although the Pentagon is required to follow presidential instructions, it isn’t the Department of Defense’s job simply to assume that a benign security environment will emerge and make radical disarmament sensible. And part of the Pentagon sees its core business as protecting an existing nuclear order which it views as essential for stability.

Where does all this leave us? For Obama, making large cuts to nuclear force levels will be easy, as everyone agrees the arsenal is too bloated. Just how far the cuts should go is a matter of opinion, although the precise numbers needed are a second-order issue. But abolishing nuclear weapons is impossible for many years to come, so Obama will not invest his limited political capital trying, although he will stress elimination as a long-term aspiration.

The most interesting area of potential change concerns the missions assigned to nuclear weapons. This is where the real fight could be. Deciding on the role of the weapons is a more profound issue than whether Obama leaves office overseeing an arsenal of 1000 or 4000 nuclear warheads. The central question is whether or not these weapons should be reined in and kept only to deter nuclear attack by others. Or should they continue to have a wider purpose? Should they continue to be seen as a tool for managing world order, which has meant using them to threaten countries like Iran as a way of underlining US hegemony and, supposedly, providing additional discipline to the system?

Obama apparently believes business as usual is unwise, immoral and unsustainable. One reason for this is that inaction could contribute to the NPT’s disintegration. The treaty is already under pressure, partly because of the collapse of US credibility under the previous administration. Today there is enormous hope that Obama can repair the damage; the sense is that it requires someone of his standing to restore faith in American non-proliferation diplomacy.

But this could require knocking into line anyone in the Pentagon continuing to insist that it is useful for the United States to threaten to start a nuclear war. Only time will tell whether Obama has the political room and stamina to do this while also addressing the financial mess, healthcare reform, global warming, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. •