President Obama’s Twisted Nuclear-Weapons Legacy

The new National Nuclear Security Administration plant in Kansas City. (Photo: NNSA)

The Obama administration’s nuclear policy was on the receiving end of a one-two punch from the New York Times. First, on September 22, in a piece titled U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms, William Broad and David Sanger wrote about a new nuclear manufacturing facility in Kansas City and upgrades to the Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos national laboratories, as well as at the Pantex manufacturing facility (among others). It’s all “part of a nationwide wave of atomic revitalization that includes plans for a new generation of weapon carriers. A recent federal study put the collective price tag, over the next three decades, at up to a trillion dollars.” A useful infographic outlining the upgrades can be found five paragraphs into the Times article. 

If you don’t follow nuclear weapons policy, your reaction may be: “Wait, what? I thought Obama was the disarmament president.” He was — for a brief shining moment. In the first major foreign policy address of his presidency in Prague, President Obama proclaimed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Awarding him the Nobel Prize was an attempt to get him to stick to his words. Apparently Obama didn’t see it that way. Broad and Sanger write:

… that modest rebuilding of the nation’s crumbling nuclear complex would speed arms refurbishment, raising confidence in the arsenal’s reliability and paving the way for new treaties that would significantly cut the number of warheads.

Instead, because of political deals and geopolitical crises, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.

The authors revisit how, after trading nuclear modernization for Republican support the New START treaty, it’s been constant backsliding for the Obama administration. Broad and Sanger write that

… to win Senate approval of the treaty, Mr. Obama struck a deal with Republicans in 2010 that would set the country’s nuclear agenda for decades to come.

Republicans objected to the treaty unless the president agreed to an aggressive rehabilitation of American nuclear forces and manufacturing sites. Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, led the opposition.

… Under fire, the administration promised to add $14 billion over a decade for atomic renovations. Then Senator Kyl refused to conclude a deal.

Facing the possible defeat of his first major treaty, Mr. Obama and the floor manager for the effort, Senator John Kerry, now the secretary of state, set up a war room and made deals to widen Republican support. In late December, the five-week campaign paid off.

Gary Samore, who served as the president’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction from 2009 to 2013, explains the most recent obstacle to preventing the growth of the nuclear-weapons complex.

“The most fundamental game changer is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, … That has made any measure to reduce the stockpile unilaterally politically impossible.”

If arms control and disarmament are always the first initiatives thrown overboard when tensions run high between the United States and Russia, progress will always be one step forward and two steps back. Periods of low tension are few and far between the two powers and, besides, as New START can attest, much less progress in arms control and towards disarmament is achieved during quiet periods than you might expect. In spite of that, write Broad and Sanger

The Obama administration says it sees no contradiction between rebuilding the nation’s atomic complex and the president’s vow to make the world less dependent on nuclear arms.

“While we still have weapons, the most important thing is to make sure they are safe, secure and reliable,” said Mr. Poneman, the deputy energy secretary. The improvements, he said, have reassured allies. “It’s important to our extended deterrent,” he said, referring to the American nuclear umbrella over nations in Asia and the Middle East, which has instilled a sense of military security and kept many from building their own arsenals.

The “safe, secure and reliable” argument has become as tiresome as “extended deterrent.” Both would be immaterial if the United States showed genuine leadership on disarmament instead of always trying to make nonproliferation the horse that pulls disarmament’s cart, instead of the other way around as spelled out in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The second punch was a Times editorial the next day titled Backsliding on Nuclear Promises. The editorial board wrote that

… investing tens of billions of dollars in modernizing and rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal and facilities [and after making] good progress in making nuclear bomb material more secure around the world, Mr. Obama has reduced his budget requests for that priority. [It’s] a shortsighted and disappointing turn.

The board referred to the deal that President Obama made with Republicans to procure their votes for New START as “a Faustian bargain, promising to spend $84 billion to upgrade aging nuclear weapons over the next decade, a $14 billion increase over the regular $70 billion modernization budget.”

Furthermore

Not only is this spending unwise and beyond what the nation can afford, multiple studies by the Government Accountability Office have described the modernization push as badly managed.

… Worse yet, the administration is making a foolish trade-off — pouring money into modernization while reducing funds that help improve security at nuclear sites in Russia and other countries where terrorists or criminals could get their hands on nuclear materials.

It’s gratifying that the New York Times — especially Broad and Sanger, notorious for propagating the conventional wisdom on Iran’s nuclear program — has chosen a moment when relations between the United States and Russia are inflamed to remind us that modernizing nuclear weapons and building and upgrading facilities will only fan the flames.