Fumbling the Nuclear Football

President Obama finally has a chance to make good on his pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons. So why is he so afraid of making history?

In the first major foreign-policy speech of his tenure, President Barack Obama told a wildly cheering audience in Prague that the United States would commit itself to "a world without nuclear weapons" and then described in detail the "trajectory" required to get there. In the almost three years since that euphoric moment, the Obama White House has done what it so often does -- forthrightly acknowledge the complexity of its visionary goal, issue nuanced documents that compromise that goal even while reaffirming it, and accept half-measures, then quarter-measures, in the face of utterly unreasonable partisan opposition, surrendering more than planned to get less than expected.

Obama now has the chance -- perhaps his last chance -- to finally make good on his Prague pledge. He has ordered a review of the U.S. strategic arsenal, to be delivered to him in the coming weeks. The president must decide how many nuclear weapons the United States really needs. Arms control advocates think that this time, finally, Obama will grasp the nettle and accept that the country needs far fewer deployed warheads than the 1,760 or so it now has. I hope he does. But the mottled history of the last three years should give any disarmament advocate pause.

According to the extraordinarily ambitious strategy Obama laid out in Prague, the United States would adopt a new policy to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," pursue arms reduction in treaty negotiations with Russia, pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to control the production of enriched uranium and plutonium, and strengthen the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of all these measures, the only one wholly within Obama's own powers was the new policy statement, to be embodied in a document called the Nuclear Posture Review. I followed this debate closely throughout 2009; then, administration officials told me that the document would furnish a clear "narrative" of a fundamental, directional change toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Advocates inside the administration hoped that the new document would change "declaratory policy" to stipulate that the United States would only use nukes against a nuclear threat rather than, for example, against a rogue state or a terrorist group that it feared might obtain weapons of mass destruction (as current policy now foresees); that it would end the terrifying but archaic Cold War requirement that hundreds of warheads be available for launch "on warning"; and that it would eliminate one leg of the nuclear "triad" of bombers, missiles, and subs (probably bombers). None of those things happened. As I noted at the time, even Sam Nunn, the hawkish former U.S. senator, said that he was "disappointed" with Obama's caution and specified that the unwillingness to "de-alert" the nuclear force "went beyond what I thought was rational."

The Nuclear Posture Review, published in April 2010, was blunted by skeptics in the Pentagon and perhaps the White House, as well as by opposition in the nuclear laboratories. The disarmament negotiations over the New START agreement, however, faced external resistance -- first from the Russians, who dragged out the talks over months, delaying Obama's planned trajectory, and then from Senate Republicans, many of whom treated the modest agreement to limit each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads as a radical act of unilateral disarmament. To win them over, the administration had to promise to make exorbitant investments in the nuclear labs in Los Alamos and elsewhere.

We live with that decision today: The Energy Department's 2013 budget includes a 5 percent increase for refurbishment of the equipment that produces warheads and their nuclear "pits," upkeep of the weapons themselves, and training for nuclear scientists and the like, at a time when discretionary spending is frozen. Over the next decade, the United States is now projected to spend over $180 billion on nuclear modernization.

The administration had been prepared to offer such a deal for Republican acceptance of much tougher agreements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But once it had to pay that price for New START, there was no currency left for the future; in any case, Republicans weren't about to accept anything beyond the nuclear reductions agreement. Opposition from Pakistan and several other states then took the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty off the table. Spirited American diplomacy did salvage a consensus document at the 2010 conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There, as elsewhere, the Obama administration has taken what the market will give and has very good excuses for what it hasn't achieved. But a transformational president doesn't wish to be judged by the quality of the rationales he can furnish.

Now, however, the market may have shifted in Obama's favor. Thanks chiefly to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama is no longer under the onus of proving his toughness on national security issues. Voters preoccupied with the economy don't care that much about foreign threats. And with half a trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts scheduled for the next decade, senior military officials are engaged in triage, and they will be prepared to get rid of weapons they never expect to use in order to preserve ones, like aircraft carriers and new-generation fighters, they believe they need. It is possible, in short, that the very economic crisis that has bedeviled Obama's entire presidency will afford him the opportunity to achieve the historic change he has sought.

Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide him with options for reducing the number of warheads below the 1,550 stipulated in the New START agreement. Administration officials won't talk about the highly secret document now apparently moving through the interagency process; none of the congressional staffers or arms control experts I talked to had seen it or heard a reliable account of its contents. A Feb. 14 Associated Press article made the startling claim that the administration was considering options ranging from a low of 300 weapons to a high of 1,100. This is almost certainly wrong, or misleading. One expert I spoke to said that he would be "staggered beyond belief if the president were seriously considering going to 300" -- a figure that would put U.S. forces at about the level of France. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly told a House committee that "the status quo" -- 1,550 -- "is always an option and one that is in play." (The view inside the arms control world is that a Republican staffer leaked the story in order to give conservatives a target to attack.)

What is the "right" number of warheads? (See today's article by Joseph Cirincione.) Of course, the "right" number depends on the threats that can be deterred only by the reciprocal threat of a nuclear attack. At a recent panel discussion, Morton Halperin of the Open Society Foundations sarcastically asked whether we believe the Russians will wake up and say, "Oh, it's Easter Sunday; the Americans are at rest. We can launch a surprise attack, and it will be successful." The answer, save perhaps to some Republican members of Congress who haven't yet acknowledged the end of the Soviet Union, is obvious. The country's targeting strategy, which foresees the simultaneous obliteration of 250 industrial centers across Russia and China, is a grotesque relic of the Cold War. Obama has the chance to finally put it to rest.

The numbers matter, but the underlying doctrine matters just as much. In a recent article, arms control expert Hans Kristensen listed the policy choices Obama could make to justify a smaller nuclear force: He could, among other things, reduce the category of targets or "the number and diversity of strike options," change the declared mission to one of responding only to nuclear threats, take warheads off high-alert status, eliminate one leg of the triad -- or do all of the above. In short, Obama now has the opportunity to review the decisions he made in the Nuclear Posture Review and thus make the sharp break with the Cold War that he vowed to do in Prague. He has, in short, a second chance.

Will he take it? Republican hawks have already begun to warn of the "reckless lunacy" of deep cuts. Obama could take any number of exit ramps from the transformational highway, for example by insisting that any additional cuts be negotiated with the Russians in a new treaty -- which the Senate would almost certainly reject. He might postpone the decision until after the election -- which would be fine, so long as he wins. But he must choose between making perfectly reasonable excuses for the half-measures he adopts and taking the risks that come with historic change.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

A Loss We Can Live With

The endgame in Afghanistan isn’t 2013 or 2014; it’s already happened. The only thing now is to make sure that the retreat is not a total disaster for those we leave behind.

"It was Leon being Leon." This is the take you get when you ask Obama administration officials exactly what it was that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meant when he said last week that the administration wanted to move troops in Afghanistan from "a combat role to a training, advise and assist role…hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013." Panetta, that is, was just blurting something out, as is his wont. The administration didn't so much walk back Panetta's remark as frog-march it. CIA director David Petraeus complained in congressional testimony that Panetta's comments had been "over-analyzed." White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that the Pentagon chief was speaking of what "could happen," not what had been decided. A senior NATO official told me that Panetta's comments should be understood in an "aspirational" light. And so on.

It's true that NATO's decision at the Lisbon Conference last year to turn over all combat operations to the Afghan army by the end of 2014 did not stipulate the pace of that transition; that was to be decided according to facts on the ground. The transition began last year when the Afghan military took the lead in several of the country's most peaceful provinces. And as Petraeus helpfully pointed out, if you're going to be done by the end of 2014, "Obviously somewhere in 2013 you have had to initiate that in all of the different locations." But Panetta announced that the transition would end (or perhaps that he hoped they would end) 12 to 18 months before the terminal date. Have the facts on the ground changed for the better? I asked an administration official privy to intelligence on Afghanistan if he had any reason to believe that the much-maligned Afghanistan National Security Force had made big gains in professionalism. "No," he said, flatly.

So what's going on? Nothing, possibly. But it's likely that the administration is sending a signal. The chief audience for that signal is the American public, which has had it up to here with the grandiose foreign ventures that Obama inherited from George W. Bush. This process began last June when Obama announced that "the tide of war is receding," and thus that he was accelerating the timetable for the withdrawal of troops. But politics matters too: In the aftermath of Panetta's statement, the White House made it clear that it would be delighted to pick a fight with the hawkish Mitt Romney on the subject.

Panetta was probably also signaling his own generals, who objected to the accelerated withdrawal last year and want to keep carrying the fight to the Taliban, including in the east, which NATO has largely vacated. Panetta appears to be telling his commanders: We are making the transition now. This policy swerve was almost eerily prefigured by "The Next Fight," a report issued last December by the Center for a New American Security. After extensive battlefield interviews, the authors wrote, "We are not confident that most U.S. and NATO commanders have come to grips with the reality of the impending U.S. and allied transition." (Not true, insists my NATO source: "We're pretty well synched up and we want to get that transition down.") Field commanders were taking the fight to the Taliban and leaving their Afghan counterparts to mop up afterwards, the report noted. Many Afghan units had no embedded U.S. or NATO advisors; few were remotely prepared to lead the fight in fiercely contested provinces like Helmand or Kandahar. This almost guaranteed that whatever gains the American military made would prove unsustainable. The report recommended an immediate change of mission from combat to "security force assistance."

That appears to be what Panetta was talking about, though in order to become formal policy the change would have to be endorsed at the NATO conference this May in Chicago. And it makes a great deal of sense: Commanders have to be prepared to sacrifice some tactical gains in order to prepare Afghan forces to take over at the end of 2014. But "makes sense" is very different from "will work." The premise of the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy that Obama agreed to adopt in 2009, at the urging of Petraeus, then the overall commander for the region, was that U.S. forces would clear out the Taliban from Afghan territory, train Afghan forces to take over, and help build a sufficiently effective government that would encourage the Afghan people to choose the state over the insurgents. That enterprise has largely failed, and since the White House knows very well that it has failed, officials cannot expect that even adequately trained Afghan forces will be able to sustain the fight against the Taliban. The "transition" is thus an exercise in kabuki as much as it is in counterinsurgency doctrine.

Leaks from two classified reports have confirmed what is already obvious. A January National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan drawn up by the CIA and other intelligence agencies concluded that the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government, along with the resilience of an insurgency sheltering across the border, could make it impossible for the Afghan state to survive on its own after U.S. and NATO support dwindles after 2014. And a NATO report based on the interrogation of some 4,000 Taliban prisoners asserted that Afghan security forces are collaborating extensively with the Taliban, and that Afghan civilians "frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government." (Critics have noted that Taliban prisoners may not be the most reliable sources.)

Still, senior military officials appear to be sincerely convinced that the battle is tipping towards the NATO alliance and away from the Taliban. Perhaps they'll be proved right; but based on current trends, the Taliban is all too likely to fill the vacuum created by the departure of U.S. and NATO forces. The best chance to avoid such a debacle is not a successful hand-off to the Afghan military but a successful negotiation which persuades the Taliban to lay down its arms in exchange for a significant role in the Afghan government. The White House is increasingly focused on that goal. The effort, based in Doha, is being led by Marc Grossman, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But so far, Pakistan's intelligence service -- which, the NATO report noted, exercises almost total control over the Taliban -- has opposed the talks. Even Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has spurned the effort, preferring to conduct his own alleged negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The boys at Ladbrokes are probably laying long odds on this outcome, too.

And this brings us to the endgame of the endgame. Afghanistan is a relic -- though one that keeps reaching out from the crypt. We've already moved on. The Pentagon's "strategic guidance" issued last month stated that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" -- read, Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the United States will not be leaving the Middle East, it "will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region." Washington is pivoting from the Middle East to Asia, and from an immensely frustrating decade of regime change, occupation, nation-building, and counterinsurgency to a much more familiar and, dare we say, rational era of great-power deterrence. The president, and the American people, would like to see the back of Afghanistan.

And the harsh truth is that the West can afford to fail in Afghanistan. The real threat was al Qaeda; and al Qaeda forces in the region were seriously degraded even before the killing of Osama bin Laden. National security officials worry less than they used to that the Taliban would invite jihadists back into Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden, who has long argued that the threat was overblown, recently reiterated that, "The Taliban per se is not our enemy." At this point, the greatest threat that Afghanistan poses to the West is probably not a renascent al Qaeda but a civil war that would reduce the country to howling chaos. That's what a negotiated settlement would seek to avoid.

So, if all goes well, Afghanistan will be a mess, but not a mess that threatens U.S. national security. That turned out, in the end, to be the story of Vietnam. I would just say one thing, and I think it is something that anyone who has spent time in that woebegone country would feel: The Afghan people deserve better. We invaded their country and we raised their expectations. Perhaps we were wrong to do so; we couldn't make their government better than it was. But we have an obligation to do what we can -- not, chiefly, anymore with soldiers but with aid, trade, diplomacy, and all the other tools of American power. Let us not, in a fit of imperial forgetfulness, abandon Afghanistan as we execute our grateful pivot to Asia.

Johannes Simon/Getty Images