Obama's Troubles Won’t Derail Nuclear Arms Control Push, Experts Say

President Obama, shown Thursday while boarding Air Force One, is likely to face major obstacles in Congress to his second-term nuclear arms control agenda, experts said (AP Photo/Paul Beaty).
President Obama, shown Thursday while boarding Air Force One, is likely to face major obstacles in Congress to his second-term nuclear arms control agenda, experts said (AP Photo/Paul Beaty).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s recent well-publicized embarrassments are not likely to derail its nuclear arms control agenda, if only because any advancement would already have to occur without assistance from hostile Republicans on Capitol Hill, experts said.

Persuading the Senate to approve a new treaty will not be “any harder because it wasn’t possible beforehand,” nuclear policy specialist James Acton said. It is “highly unlikely” that a sufficient number of Republicans could be persuaded to vote in favor of a new arms control treaty, he added.

Still, Acton and other issue watchers noted in interviews that President Obama has the authority to make changes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal without authorization from Congress. Senior Defense officials have said the president possesses a Pentagon report that reportedly could set the stage for another sizable reduction.

Obama could also skirt lawmakers via informal understandings with Russia on nuclear drawdowns or collaboration on ballistic missile defense -- though Moscow’s real interest in such measures is also open to question.

There is no avoiding Congress in all cases. The Senate would have to sign off on the administration’s long-stated plans to secure U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. However, there are no signs that a push for a vote is imminent; it could happen long after the latest controversies have faded from attention, if at all.

Just months into his second term, Obama is faced with heavy Republican blowback on his administration’s response to the terrorist assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

Additional headaches have come via findings that the Internal Revenue Service gave undue scrutiny to conservative groups pursuing tax-exempt status and that the Justice Department seized two months of phone records of Associated Press reporters while probing suspected national security leaks. The department also seized e-mails and phone records of a Fox News reporter in a different news leak case.

As of this month, the administration was reported to be under investigation for a host of matters by one-third of House of Representatives committees. The House, though, has no say in approving treaties, and the Senate for now remains led by Democrats far more likely to support Obama policy.

It is hard to say whether these “issues du jour” will still be in play when the president brings his next nonproliferation proposal to Congress, said Tom Collina, research director for the Arms Control Association.

Added Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund: “These kinds of scandals have a very short half-life.”

“I would say [the situation] makes the national security agenda more attractive to the president. He needs to change the subject; from a purely political point of view, he needs to have a new discussion in Washington,” Cirincione said.

An Unfinished Agenda

Obama came to the presidency with an ambitious nuclear arms control agenda that he outlined in an April 2009 speech in Prague that contributed significantly to his subsequent Nobel Peace Prize.

Components of that plan included a new nuclear stockpile reduction deal with Russia, securing vulnerable nuclear materials across the globe, Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and curbing nuclear arms developments by Iran and North Korea.

Moscow and Washington by early 2011 had approved a treaty requiring them by 2018 to field no more than 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads and 700 delivery vehicles. The Obama administration in 2010 also hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit, beginning a process in which leaders from dozens of nations gather every two years to make plans for keeping atomic and radiological materials out of terrorists’ hands.

Progress, though, has slowed in the last few years, Cirincione said. There has been talk but no negotiations on further nuclear cuts with Russia and no dedicated campaign on the test ban. Pyongyang and Tehran continue to shrug off international efforts to curb their nuclear work.

“After approval of the [New START] treaty, the staff just stopped. You heard people talk about arms control fatigue,” Cirincione said. “They didn’t think it was going to be this hard. And they just stopped in place and nothing got done for two years. It’s time to light a fire again and get them moving.”

The president must combine the kind of “visionary speech” he delivered in 2009 with a sustained effort to ensure his plans can survive contact with a government bureaucracy that is resistant to major change, he added.

Nuclear policy is an issue where Obama can achieve a large gain with limited political investment, according to Cirincione. Opposition here “pales in comparison” to the resistance to changes in policy on climate change, gun control or immigration reform, he argued.

In a statement to Global Security Newswire, White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas said “the administration remains dedicated to advancing this agenda in the second term, with a focus on the additional concrete steps we can take, as well as the need to keep working on the most pressing challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

She did not provide specifics of the administration’s plans or discuss how it would deal with Republicans in the Senate.

Thirteen GOP senators in late 2010 voted in favor of the New START treaty. Since then, though, two key backers have exited the upper chamber -- John Kerry to become secretary of State and Richard Lugar in a 2012 primary election loss. Conversely, Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who over the years orchestrated opposition to the test ban treaty and New START, also retired last year.

Republicans are disenchanted with what they see as Obama’s failure to follow through with his pledge of $85 billion over 10 years for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. They are also wary of possible Obama administration moves to share ballistic missile defense data as a way of addressing Russia’s concerns about threats to its long-range nuclear forces and jump-starting new stockpile reduction negotiations.

“After the breach of promises that were contingent upon New START entering into force, I think it will be very hard for the Senate to trust any guarantees or anything that the administration could offer to make it a good arms control treaty in the view of the Senate,” said Michaela Dodge, a Heritage Foundation analyst on defense and strategic policy.

More broadly, Republicans are not interested in allowing Obama any major victories and remain skeptical of using treaties as a tool of arms control, experts said. Acton noted that the Senate in December rejected a U.N. treaty that would prohibit discrimination against the disabled.

“They couldn’t even ratify a treaty that was motherhood and apple pie, based on the Americans With Disabilities Act,” said Acton, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program.

The Senate Republican leadership did not respond to requests for comment regarding its position on new arms control measures.

What Next

For more than a year, there have been reports that the Pentagon had produced an implementation document for the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that would suggest the United States could ensure its security with 1,100 or fewer deployed strategic warheads. Obama, though, has not acted on the findings or even made them public.

Should he pursue the apparent recommendations, Obama is likely to avoid seeking authorization from Congress, Collina said: “I think there’s a strong possibility that nuclear cuts will not go to the Senate.”

There are precedents for taking action without congressional approval in such efforts, notably the 1991-92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in which then-President George H.W. Bush unilaterally offered major pullbacks of U.S. tactical nuclear arms deployments, which led to reciprocal actions by the Soviet Union and then Russia.

President George W. Bush had hoped for an informal deal on stockpile drawdowns before agreeing to the 2002 Moscow Treaty, Collina said.

“The key to the nuclear policy agenda lies more in Moscow than it does in Washington,” Cirincione said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, though, is not necessarily interested in a new treaty.

Significant strategic discord between Moscow and Washington on missile defense and U.S. development of rapid-response precision conventional weapons could not likely be ignored in a new treaty, Acton said.

The Russian government enjoys the prominence it gains through arms control negotiations, but might not want to accept further arsenal cuts that could play poorly domestically, he added. Others take a different view, saying Moscow might want to codify smaller nuclear arsenals in a treaty so that its numbers do not slip significantly lower than Washington’s.

Both Acton and Cirincione could not say whether Obama might make any unilateral moves without corresponding steps by Russia. The U.S. stockpile of thousands of reserve weapons is both a possible and “obvious” place for reductions, Acton asserted.

Republican lawmakers are not likely to sit still should Obama do an end-run around the Senate.

The Heritage Foundation’s Dodge noted that the 1961 Arms Control and Disarmament Act bans the president from making major adjustments that affect U.S. military capability absent congressional authorization or connection to the chief executive’s treaty-making powers.

“The Senate could point to that law and examine whether such unilateral changes, if they’re significant enough, are a breach of the law,” she said.

Congress also has “the power of the purse,” according to Dodge. Lawmakers could simply prohibit any funding from being spent on nuclear reductions.

Obama would need a friendly Senate to secure ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There are 55 Democrats and Independents in the upper chamber, but 67 votes are necessary for legislative advice and consent.

The United States is among eight nations that still must deliver CTBT ratification before a global prohibition on nuclear explosive testing can enter into force. Backers say an affirmative move by Washington could help to persuade nuclear-armed holdouts China, India and Pakistan to join the regime; others are skeptical.

The Senate rejected the pact in 1999. The administration has spent years on a campaign to show lawmakers that the national nuclear arsenal will remain viable without explosive testing and that other nations would be caught if they tried their own secret blasts. It has not shown any public sign of moving for an actual vote.

Officials are still working to determine their course forward, Collina said. Any action could be dependent first on Senate confirmation of key office-holders, including moving acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller into the position on a permanent basis, he added.

Democrats will not advance the treaty until they are sure it can succeed, Acton said.

Cirincione said there is a national security argument that could persuade Senate Republicans to back the treaty -- that the United States already has the “best nuclear weapons” even absent testing, while failure to achieve entry into force would allow the three Asian nations to continue advancing their arsenals.

“It’s a simple, cheap way to stop the most dangerous arms race on the planet,” he said. “That’s the way I would go on this.”

May 31, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s recent well-publicized embarrassments are not likely to derail its nuclear arms control agenda, if only because any advancement would already have to occur without assistance from hostile Republicans on Capitol Hill, experts said.