U.S. President Barack Obama's conservative opponents in the media and on Capitol Hill whacked him hard this week after someone leaked details of a classified Pentagon-led review of options for reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as 80 percent. The Associated Press story published late Tuesday, Feb. 14, claimed that the review contained "at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400."
"Can you believe that the American people will stand by for this … so clearly putting the nation's defense at risk?" said Liz Cheney on Fox News. Radio host Rush Limbaugh called it "downright scary" and a shift in the balance of power toward Russia "by design." Equating reducing nuclear weapons with reducing American power, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "The idea that making ourselves weaker will somehow lead to increased global security and stability is ridiculous."
The administration has responded with a procedural defense. "This was all part of a nuclear posture review mandated by law," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "There are a number of options. One is to maintain the status quo. It is a process of discussion within the national security team."
Officials have thus far not discussed the strategic basis of any new policy. But it's worth asking, would it really be so crazy to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 300 deployed weapons?
First, a few numbers. There are an estimated 20,500 nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia hold over 95 percent of them, or about 19,500 weapons. (The United States has about 5,000 weapons in its active stockpile, with 1,790 counted under the New START treaty as deployed strategic weapons, plus about 3,500 weapons waiting to be dismantled.) The other seven nuclear-armed states together account for about 1,000 weapons, with only one -- France -- having more than 300. North Korea, a potential adversary, has fewer than 10. China, the only other conceivable adversary, has about 200, only 30 to 40 of which are on missiles capable of hitting the continental United States.
Since 1986, global arsenals have declined from their Cold War peak of some 65,000 weapons, reflecting changing global threats. Historically, Republicans have taken the initiative on making some of the biggest nuclear cuts. Ronald Reagan, working with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, cut intermediate-range weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union by 100 percent, retiring thousands of missiles. George H.W. Bush reduced the total stockpile by 50 percent, thanks primarily to his unilateral decision to retire all the nuclear weapons deployed by the Army and the Navy's surface fleet. George W. Bush also intended to make unilateral reductions, but was convinced by Congress to negotiate a treaty with the Russians instead. By the time he left office, Bush, like his father, had cut the total stockpile by another 50 percent.
"I don't recall too many Republican complaining or fretting about those reductions, the latter of which took place during a period when we were fighting two wars, when North Korea conducted two nuclear tests, and when Iran expended its nuclear operations, " Stephen Schwartz of the Monterey Institute of International Studies told me.
Today, there is widespread consensus among policymakers and experts on both sides of the aisle on the need to refocus U.S. nuclear policy from the permanent maintenance of an immense nuclear arsenal with multiple missions to the reduction and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. It is based on a growing bipartisan consensus of former security and military officials. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn are the leading proponents of this shift, embodied in their series of Wall Street Journal editorials calling for "a world without nuclear weapons."