Obama Will Have Opening on Arms Initiatives, Expert Says

(Nov. 18) -An arms control expert has called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to undertake several major nuclear-weapon initiatives (Saul Loeb/Getty Images).
(Nov. 18) -An arms control expert has called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to undertake several major nuclear-weapon initiatives (Saul Loeb/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Few experts in Washington are more steeped in their disciplines than arms control advocate Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and an expert adviser to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of Energy and Defense James Schlesinger. Though he also served as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, Cirincione stressed that the opinions shared in this interview are strictly his own (see GSN, Nov. 10).

National Journal: Do you agree with those who argue that the Obama administration should move quickly to open negotiations with Russia on further reductions in nuclear arms, as he suggested during the campaign?

Joseph Cirincione: Absolutely. Transforming U.S. nuclear weapons policy would accomplish numerous goals for the new president. First, it would represent an early political victory, because there is now a broad, bipartisan consensus for fundamentally changing our nuclear posture. That includes drastically reducing the size of our nuclear arsenal, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and reining in nuclear proliferation. Secondly, such an initiative would make our country more secure, not less. Finally, it would save tens of billions of dollars that could pay for some of the other military bills coming due.

NJ: You say there is a broad consensus, but aren't there still strong opponents in Congress for ratifying the CTBT and reducing our nuclear arsenal dramatically?

Cirincione: There is a core of between 20 to 25 percent of congressional Republicans on the very right who will go nuts over anything [Barack] Obama does to address our nuclear posture. The good news is there is somewhere between 75 to 80 percent of those in Congress who will support each of the steps I just outlined, including a significant number of more moderate Republicans. Remember, as a presidential candidate Senator John McCain also supported many of these same steps.

NJ: What accounts for that increase in support?

Cirincione: The "Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse." Last year, [former Senator] Sam Nunn, William Perry and [former Secretaries of State] George Schultz and Henry Kissinger all co-authored an article calling for the United States to reclaim its leadership position on nuclear nonproliferation by further steep reductions in our arsenal and by recommitting to the pledge in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move towards eliminating nuclear weapons.

That opened huge political space on the issue that will give a President Obama much more maneuvering room than President Clinton had on these issues. Clinton was always playing defense on arms control in order to protect his domestic agenda from the right wing of the Republican Party. I believe a President Obama will be just as interested on international issues as domestic, and he will not be looking for tactical positioning. I think transformation is part of his world view.

NJ: The Russians have made clear that as part of any arms control deal, they will insist on the U.S. scrapping its planned missile defense system in Poland and Europe. Won't that prove a very contentious issue?

Cirincione: I don't think a President Obama will cancel that system, but he has already said that we shouldn't proceed with it until the system is known to work. We're at least two years away from that point. So I think we should put missile defense more on a scientific basis and less of an ideological one, and take it off this artificial fast track the Bush administration put it on. That would give the next administration time to reduce U.S.-Russian tensions.

NJ: With those tensions running very high in the aftermath of the Georgian conflict, do you really think we can strike an arms control deal with the Russians?

Cirincione: I've been in Moscow twice in the past year, and the message I heard from a wide variety of actors there is that nuclear arsenals, missile defense, global strike and NATO expansion are all linked and that any deal must address each of those complex issues. I think we should send a message back that we will proceed slowly in erecting the missile system in Europe, and that in the meantime we're willing to discuss their legitimate concerns. Now that oil prices have plummeted, I also think we may have more leverage with Russia than we did before.

NJ: Do you agree with experts who argue that Obama could build positive momentum by taking U.S. nuclear weapons off of "hair trigger" alert, making an accidental launch less likely?

Cirincione: Yes. I think there is a high probability that early on an Obama administration will move to reduce the number of our nuclear weapons deployed overseas, and to take them off of hair-trigger alert status. The question is whether the United States should do that as part of broader arms control talks with the Russians, or whether it should do it unilaterally with the understanding that the Russians would follow suit. That's the way that George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev reduced deployed nuclear arsenals in 1991.

Either way, Barack Obama has been very clear almost from the beginning of his campaign that taking nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert was near the top of his list of things to do in this area. The others are deep reductions in nuclear arsenals, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and signing a treaty limiting fissile material.

NJ: And you don't think such an ambitious arms control agenda risks significant political blowback?

Cirincione: Barack Obama can make real transformational changes that will represent a net plus for the United States both internationally and domestically, changes that actually save money and make the country more secure. So I think you would see the opposite of blowback.

November 18, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- Few experts in Washington are more steeped in their disciplines than arms control advocate Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and an expert adviser to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of Energy and Defense James Schlesinger. Though he also served as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, Cirincione stressed that the opinions shared in this interview are strictly his own (see GSN, Nov. 10).