Obama's pragmatic stance on N-arms

Business Times - 16 Apr 2010

Obama's pragmatic stance on N-arms

His proposals reflect the new global strategic realities and show he is no dreamer as his opponents make him out to be


LISTENING to Republican politicians and conservative pundits bashing US President Barack Obama's proposals to limit and eventually eliminate the use and supply of nuclear weapons, one would have to reach the conclusion that the current occupant of the White House is a naive and sentimental peacenik.

In their view, he lacks a basic grasp of US national security interests and is pursuing a policy that will weaken American power worldwide. In short, Mr Obama is so much unlike President Ronald Reagan and other US presidents who have never been caught day-dreaming about a nuclear-free world or who would sign comprehensive arms control deals with the Russians.

Hence, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and a 2008 Republican presidential candidate described Mr Obama's proposals to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons as a liberal fantasy.

'A nuclear-free world has been a 60-year dream of the Left, just like socialised healthcare,' Mr Giuliani told the conservative magazine National Review. 'This new policy, like Obama's government-run health programme, is a big step in that direction,' he concluded, adding that 'President Obama thinks we can all hold hands, sing songs, and have peace symbols.'

Oh yes, Mr Obama is nothing more than a radical hippie, like you know, Presidents Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H W Bush, and George W Bush who had all signed arms control agreements with the Russians (or the Soviets) that set limits on US nuclear weapons. 'The hope of civilisation lies in international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb, and directing and encouraging the use of atomic energy and all future scientific information toward peaceful and humanitarian ends,' President Truman, who had laid the foundations for the Cold War strategy, told the US Congress on Oct 3, 1945. If that sounds very much like Mr Obama during his speech in Prague last year, in which he talked about getting to nuclear zero, it's really your imagination.

And then there was that famous left-wing radical, the pacifist Ronald Reagan who called for the abolition of 'all nuclear weapons', describing them a 'totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilisation'.

In fact, during his last year in office as he negotiated nuclear arms control deals with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Reagan reiterated his strong commitment to ridding the world of all nuclear weapons, sounding more of a dreamy idealist than the determined realist that Mr Giuliani and other Republicans now make him out to be.

'For the eight years I was president, I never let my dream of a nuclear-free world fade from my mind,' Reagan wrote in his memoirs. Perhaps the right wingers have not read his book. As author James Mann recalls in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (Penguin, 2010), during his 1986 negotiations with Mr Gorbachev, President Reagan actually agreed to eliminate the entire US nuclear arsenal despite the fact that the Soviets had a massive advantage in conventional arms, an idea that Mr Obama would probably reject now as 'naive'.

Mr Obama, however, did embrace the suggestion first raised by Republican President and retired general Dwight Eisenhower (and World War II military leader) in 1957 to rule out waging nuclear war against non-nuclear states.

But unlike Eisenhower, Mr Obama does not exclude the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used against non-nuclear states that have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and/or are engaged in selling nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. By introducing a formulation that carves out exceptions for terrorist groups and for countries such as Iran and North Korea, Mr Obama, it seems, demonstrates that he does not believe that 'we can all hold hands, sing songs, and have peace symbols'.

Moreover, Mr Obama's recent strategic arms agreement with Russia, and his Nuclear Posture Review that sets the goal of reducing both the number of US nuclear weapons and US reliance on its nuclear capability, reflect the same bipartisan approach towards arms control embraced by his predecessors as well as by a group of former Republican and Democratic national security officials - George Shultz, secretary of state in the Reagan administration; Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations; William Perry, secretary of defence in the Clinton administration; and Sam Nunn, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who three years ago outlined similar ideas for a US arms control strategy.

If anything, the new Obama strategy does not go far enough to fulfil his campaign promise or his speech in Prague and calls for maintaining the US nuclear arsenal. This is a disappointment for advocates of a more aggressive disarmament approach that would have proposed that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons was deterrence.

Mr Obama does not endorse that proposition; and, in fact, his nuclear strategy seems to leave enough loopholes that could permit the US to reverse course and decide under certain circumstances to use nuclear weapons in the future. But the new Nuclear Posture Review, the new arms control treaty with Russia, and the just concluded nuclear security summit in Washington with several dozen heads of state, suggest that while Mr Obama may not be a sentimental peacenik, he is clearly an innovative and pragmatic thinker who is trying to adjust US nuclear policies to the new global strategic realities.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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