After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.
Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama's report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.
Those arguing to keep the number secret said it was too dangerous to reveal, offering states or terrorists seeking to build their own weapons a clue to the amount of fissile material necessary for a bomb. The fear was they might be able to calculate this by comparing the warhead total with previous statements on stocks of fissile material. (Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation disclosed this debate in a blog post that pointed out that the amount of plutonium needed for a weapon is already declassified.)
In the end, by the time the Nuclear Posture Review was unveiled April 6, a decision had been made to keep the warhead total under wraps. This choice offers a small clue about the president and the process that created the document, only the third such review since the end of the Cold War and described by the administration as a "foundation" of U.S. policy on nuclear weapons for years ahead.
Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world met the reality of a commander in chief's world; his campaign for change ran into the inertia and complexity of governing. This account of Obama's choices -- where he intervened, and where he chose not to -- is based on interviews with several senior administration officials and outsiders familiar with the deliberations.
They described Obama as cautious and pragmatic. The end result was a document that declared a reduced role for nuclear weapons, but eschewed dramatic overhaul of concepts and institutions lingering from the arms race with the Soviet Union. The land-sea-air strategic triad will remain, even though questions have been raised about whether it is necessary any longer; the alert status of nuclear forces will be unchanged, despite Obama's campaign promise to take missiles off alert; the future of short-range or tactical weapons in Europe, which no longer have military utility, will be left up to a decision later in NATO.
In drafting the review, the administration seems to have paid close attention to politics, with an eye toward winning Senate ratification of the new strategic arms treaty with Russia. Obama avoided decisions that could become possible targets for treaty opponents, and appears to have been especially careful to court all the fractious interests involved, including Congress and U.S. allies.
The making of the posture review suggests that, on nuclear issues at least, Obama is not brimming with ideology. He pointed to the future, with his feet planted firmly in the status quo. This is entirely in keeping with his actions on other issues, and in line with his speech last year on nuclear issues in Prague, where he combined a pledge "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" with a qualification that "this goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."
In the posture review, Obama framed goals, but left ambitious action for later. He abandoned a campaign promise with hardly a whimper. He won consensus among competing interests and institutions, but the outcome was not as far-reaching as some had hoped.