Calling Dr. Strangelove
US conservatives, or at least their blog- and Fox-based simulacrum, have predictably gone ballistic over President Obama's preferential option for a reduced nuclear weapons stockpile, but there is not all that much new for either conservatives or social progressives to get too excited about. Obama is actually moving along the moderate path toward stockpile reduction followed by U.S. presidents for decades.
Re-STARTing arms reduction was a campaign pledge of then candidate Obama, who apparently is methodically, if not as spectacularly as many hoped, working through his campaign check list, and this long farewell to nuclear arms has in fact been pursued with even alarming vigor in the past by such conservative heart-throbs as Ronald Reagan.
In 1986 Reagan famously startled Mikhail Gorbachev, then the premier of an entity known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, into a Cyrillic stutter by casually tossing out the notion during unpromising talks in Iceland that Russia and the United States reduce their ballistic missile stockpile all the way to zero by 1996 instead of tinkering with the machinery of death via incremental reductions. Gorbachev, not to be outdone, then proposed, the complete elimination of all nukes before aides to these abrupt pacifists pulled them away from their impromptu nuclear disarmament bidding war and back to Cold War hard realities. Net result then was nil for both sides.
In addition to restoring a moribund arms reduction regime between the two global nuclear super-powers, the more sober and diplomatically strategic Obama has tinkered with the nation's nuclear posture, moving it a half-step closer to a firm commitment, long sought by progressives, to not use nuclear weapons as a first-strike option. That has disappointed some supporters, but Obama, erroneously criticized as a lithesome idealist, again shows an astute grasp of the hard political possibles not wannbes by merely revising, rather than rewriting, the official U.S. position on nuclear weapons. The new posture commits the United States to not use or threaten to use nukes against non-nuclear-armed nations or signatories of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty while retaining the option to use nuclear weapons in response to a major non-conventional weapons attack or in dealing with nations, most pointedly Iran or North Korea, who have not signed on to the non-proliferation treaty.
Obama's moderate adjustments move the United States, and by extension the rest of the globe, to a nuclear free future we may not see, as he pointed out, in our lifetimes. Unlike Reagan in Reykjavik, Obama is not seeking a dramatic, but futile gesture toward nuclear disarmament. His methodical, patient approach on nuclear weapons is not unlike the compromising, but determined path on health care reform.
The global nuclear summit meeting in Washington today is more evidence of that methodical style toward audacious goals. Obama is not looking for radical shifts that will likely prove politically impossible or geopolitically unsustainable. He's hoping to merely adjust the geopolitical path toward the goal of global nuclear materials containment and disarmament, recognizing that as it took decades to reach our current minute on the doomsday clock, it will take decades to wind down toward a sustainable non-nuclear status quo that all players, whether compelled or persuaded to accept, can trust.
Obama has his eye on more than just the U.S.-Russia standoff. There are micro-versions of Mutually Assured Destruction cropping up around the world: India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, Israel and a player to be named later. He is attempting to build a model than can be deployed in other nuclear hot-spots around the world, and he knows that the United States can only lead by example.
But Cold War nostalgists should not feel too disheartened. With 1,500 nukes still at our disposal (and many more in ready access in storage), the U.S. and Russia, despite this renewed commitment to sanity and reduced weaponry, will still have enough fire power to reduce the planet to a Cormac McCarthyian nightmare in just under 30 minutes.