National Security

Obama Embraces Big Nuke Cuts

Obama and his advisors agree the U.S. needs fewer weapons.

Senior Obama administration officials have agreed that the number of nuclear warheads the U.S. military deploys could be cut by at least a third without harming national security, according to sources involved in the deliberations.

They said the officials' consensus agreement, not yet announced, opens the door to billions of dollars in military savings that might ease the federal deficit. It might also improve prospects for a new arms deal with Russia before the president leaves office, the sources said, but is likely to draw fire from conservatives, if previous debate on the issue is any guide.

The results of the internal review are reflected in a draft of a classified decision directive prepared for Obama's signature that guides how U.S. nuclear weapons should be targeted in the future against potential foes, according to four sources with direct knowledge of it. The sources, who were not authorized to talk to a reporter about the review, described the president as fully on board, but said he has not signed the document.

The document directs the first detailed Pentagon revisions in U.S. targeting since 2009, when the military's nuclear war planners last took account of a substantial reduction -- roughly by half from 2000 to 2008 -- in the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. It makes clear that an even smaller nuclear force can still meet all defense requirements.

Although the document offers various options for Obama, his top advisers reached their consensus position last year, after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, U.S. Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, according to the sources.

Several said the results were not disclosed at the time partly because of political concerns that any resulting controversy might rob Obama of votes in the November election. Some Republican lawmakers have said they oppose cutting the U.S. arsenal out of concern that it could diminish America's standing in the world.

The new policy directive, which formally implements a revised nuclear policy Obama adopted in 2010, endorses the use of a smaller U.S. arsenal to deter attack and protect American interests by targeting fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China, and several other countries. This can be accomplished by 1,000-1,100 warheads, the sources said, instead of the 1,550 allowed under an existing arms treaty.

The 2010 policy called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, arguing that they are "poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." But many critics have charged that not much of the policy has been implemented. Obama himself even joked in a video message to the Jan. 26 annual dinner of Washington's exclusive Alfalfa Club that he could not recall why he won his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. (The Oslo committee attributed it partly to his stimulation of "disarmament and arms control negotiations.")

With the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama is finally prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a new dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons beyond those called for in a 2011 treaty, according to two senior U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.

"It is all done," said one. "We did so much work on that there is no interest in going back and taking another look at it." The second official said completion of the new directive would become public in coming weeks, when Obama may mention the issue in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, or in another speech specifically dedicated to the subject, similar to the April 2009 Prague address in which he promised to "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons."

Arms talks now being explored

While the draft directive opens the door to scrapping a substantial portion of the U.S. arsenal, it does not order those reductions immediately or suggest they be undertaken unilaterally, the officials said. Instead, the administration's ambition is to negotiate an addendum of sorts to its 2010 New Start treaty with Russia, in the form of a legally-binding agreement or an informal understanding. Officials said the latter path could be chosen if gaining the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to a treaty is not possible.

Preliminary discussions about this ambition occurred in Munich on Feb. 2 between Vice President Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and additional talks are slated in Moscow this month with acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. Obama "believes that there's room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that, of course, the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Jan. 31.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment on Feb. 6 on the draft directive.

The New Start treaty limits each side to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons by 2018, but uses a counting rule that misleadingly suggests strategic bombers carry only a single warhead, instead of up to 20. As a result, the actual arsenals after the treaty takes effect are likely to be closer to 1,900, a number that Obama's advisors now think is too high.

New Start also imposes no limits on nuclear weapons in each country that are held in storage or considered for "tactical" or short-range use -- a number estimated by independent experts as roughly 2,700 in the United States and 2,680 in Russia. Under the new deal envisioned by the administration, Russia and the United States would agree not only to cut deployed warhead levels below 1,550 to around 1,100 or fewer, but also -- for the first time -- begin to constrain the size of these additional categories.

Several officials said that as a result, the total number of nuclear warheads could shrink to less than 3,500, and perhaps as low as 2,500 -- or a bit more than half the present U.S. arsenal, without harming security or requiring a major reconfiguration of existing missiles or bombers.

A much steeper reduction, to around 500 total warheads, was debated within the administration last year, but rejected, sources said. Known as the "deterrence only" plan, it would have aimed U.S. warheads at a narrower range of targets related to the enemy's economic capacity and no longer emphasized striking the enemy's leadership and weaponry in the first wave of an attack.

Nuclear weapons experts have long considered the latter "warfighting" goal destabilizing because it arouses fears among all the combatants of a decapitating, preemptive strike that could obstruct a significant retaliation, but it has been a salient feature of the U.S. nuclear policy for half a century. China, in contrast, has adopted a "deterrence-only" strategy, keeping only a minimal arsenal of missiles aimed partly at targets in or near large cities.

Some officials at the State Department, and on the NSC staff and Vice President Biden's staff urged consideration of the smaller arsenal and new targeting policy, officials said. But "a small brake" was applied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who worried that making such a major policy change was too risky at a moment of upheaval in conventional military strategy, and would create too much uncertainty among allies.

Obama, who followed the deliberations intermittently, "decided we did not need to do deterrence-only targeting now," but did not rule it out, the source added.

Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, who as head of Global Strike Command oversees the operations of bombers and land-based missiles capable of carrying more than a thousand nuclear warheads to foreign targets, said at a breakfast with reporters on Feb. 6 that if asked, "can you go below 1,500 [treaty-accountable weapons]," his response is, "Yeah, I think there is some headroom in there." But he warned that shrinking the force to well below 1,000 would require "major structural changes in how we do this business."

Additional cuts will save billions of dollars

The financial savings from even the modest reduction now being contemplated could be substantial, according to officials and independent experts. Already, to comply with New Start, the Pentagon has been pulling warheads from land-based missiles and making plans to decommission some of the missiles themselves; it is also planning to reduce the number of missile tubes aboard its Trident submarines.

By pushing the arsenal size even lower, it could close perhaps two of its three land-based missile wings and cut at least two of the 12 new strategic submarines it now plans to build -- saving $6 billion to $8 billion for each one. Eliminating a single wing of 150 missiles would save roughly $360 million a year, or more than $3 billion over a decade, according to Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, a non-profit research group in Washington. Modernization of the remaining land-based missiles might also be deferred, bringing additional savings.

Russia, meanwhile, has been phasing out three older missile types that loomed large during Cold War tensions -- the SS-18, the SS-19, and the SS-25 -- and is replacing them with a more modern missile, the SS-27, in three forms. It is also planning to build a costly, larger missile, capable of carrying multiple warheads. Pentagon officials are not alarmed by that possibility, but say that a new arms deal could give Russia reason to scale back its own spending.

"The Russian Federation...would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario" because it cannot destroy U.S. missile-carrying submarines at sea, the Defense Department said in a May 2012 classified report to Congress, partially declassified and released last month to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

Three participants in the targeting policy review said Russia nonetheless remains the sole U.S. target that still requires the potential use of a large number of nuclear warheads to achieve damage that military planners deem adequate, even though Obama famously said last September at the Democratic National Convention that "you don't call Russia our number one enemy -- not al Qaeda, Russia [laughter] -- unless you're still stuck in a Cold War mind warp."

U.S. nuclear targets include China, North Korea, and Iran, officials have said. But the list of predictable enemies has been steadily shrinking: Iraq was once on the list -- as recently as 1997, the Defense Department studied radioactive fallout distribution patterns from a potential U.S. attack there -- but it now poses no threats, and Syria -- another perennial listee -- is in the midst of imploding and unable even to muster a response to Israel's recent bombing of an arms factory in its capital.

Russian arms reductions taken to date make U.S. targeting revisions feasible now, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at FAS. A decade ago, the U.S. military was targeting 660 Russian missile silos with multiple warheads, he said; now, the number of such silos is less than half that, and in a decade, it is unlikely to exceed 230. Several officials also pointed out that Russia presently fields a smaller and weaker conventional military force than it once did, also allowing U.S. targeting to be scaled back.

Obama's new appointees are on board

Key members of Obama's new national security team are on board with the reduction strategy.

"There's talk of going down to a lower number," Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 24. "I think, personally, it's possible to get there if you have commensurate levels of -- of inspections, verification, guarantees about the capacity of your nuclear stockpile program, et cetera."

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel drew fire from Republicans at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing for signing a report last summer that said current stockpiles "vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence" and that nuclear weapons are arguably "more a part of the problem than any solution." An appropriately modernized force, the Global Zero report said, would consist of just 900 total strategic weapons on each side, not 5,000, and get rid of land-based missiles subject to accidental or unauthorized launch.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told Hagel that cuts of that magnitude would "create instability, rather than confidence and stability; create uncertainty in the world among our allies and our potential adversaries." He said the current U.S. arsenal projects "an image of solidity and -- and steadfastness" to citizens around the globe.

Hagel responded at the hearing that the report simply provided illustrative scenarios, not recommendations. But he affirmed the report's conclusion that "we have to look at" the value and cost of continuing to keep land-based missiles and made no promise to build all 12 new missile-carrying submarines sought by the Navy.

The United States is not the only nuclear weapons state considering retrenchment. A senior British treasury official told the Guardian several weeks ago that given fiscal pressures in London, the country needs a wide debate "over the approach we take to nuclear deterrence" and should consider scaling back either its purchase or deployment of costly new nuclear missile-carrying submarines. Michael Portillo, the defense minister under Conservative Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s, told the Financial Times last month that Britain maintained its arsenal "partly for industrial and employment reasons, and mainly for prestige." He called it "a tremendous waste of money."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is among those urging a major shift. In a speech last month in California, he called for all nuclear-armed states to "reconsider their national nuclear posture," and said the United States and Russia had a special obligation to undertake deeper cuts. "Nuclear disarmament is off-track," he said. "Delay comes with a high price tag. The longer we procrastinate, the greater the risk that these weapons will be used, will proliferate or be acquired by terrorists."

Some senior U.S. officials are skeptical that Russian president Vladimir Putin would agree to a new treaty because his government claims to depend more heavily than Americans on nuclear arms for security; others worry that Republican opposition in the Senate may obstruct ratification of any new treaty. But there remains high interest, officials said, in at least exploring a new joint, lower limit.

Library of Congress/Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Argument

The End of the Latin American Left

Will Hugo Chávez's revolution die with him?

The exact condition of Hugo Chávez continues to be a Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Venezuelan president, who won his third reelection last October and has been hospitalized in Cuba for many weeks with cancer, missed his own inauguration in January. In his absence, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's hand-picked successor, has been left in charge of the government indefinitely. But Maduro is no Chávez, lacking both the charisma and the power base of Venezuela's mercurial leader. And it's not just a problem for the chattering classes in Caracas: The question haunting the Latin American hard left, which Chávez has dominated in the last decade, is who will take his place.

In explaining the rise of the political left in Latin America over the past decade, Chávez's persona looms large. Politicians like Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Chávez for laying the groundwork toward a renewed form of populism, Latin America's version of socialism. Chávez's illness has only served to highlight that debt. "The issue of the health of brother Chávez is a problem and a worry not just of Venezuela, but of all the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist people," Morales said in January, speaking from behind a podium reading, "We Are All Chávez." But Chávez's charisma and ruthless political genius fail to explain why he has been able to achieve such regional clout. Through a canny use of petrodollars, subsidies to political allies, and well-timed investments, Chávez has underwritten his Bolivarian revolution with cash -- and lots of it. But that effective constellation of money and charisma has now come out of alignment, leaving a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez's political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.

Several Latin American leaders would like to succeed him, but no one meets the necessary conditions: Cuba's blessing, a fat wallet, a country that carries enough demographic, political and economic weight, potent charisma, a willingness to take almost limitless risks, and sufficient autocratic control to allow him or her to devote major time to permanent revolution away from home.

What will happen is partly in Cuba's hands. Because Cuba has made Venezuela into its foreign-policy proxy, the Castro brothers need Caracas to remain the capital of the movement for it to retain any vitality. While Cuba is dependent on the roughly 100,000 barrels of heavily subsidized oil Chávez's regime supplies to Cuba daily, the island nation has a grip on Venezuela's intelligence apparatus and social programs. Chávez himself acknowledged last year that there are almost 45,000 Cuban "workers" manning many of his programs, though other sources speak of an even larger number. This strong connection allows Cuba to exercise a vicarious influence over many countries in the region. Caracas's clout in Latin America stems from Petrocaribe, a mechanism for helping Caribbean and Central American countries purchase cheap oil, and ALBA, an ideological alliance that promotes "21st century socialism." The combination of the two gives Caracas, and therefore Havana, some authority over the politics of 17 other countries.

What does this mean for the future of the left? Essentially that Cuba will do its utmost to prop up Maduro. Chávez's chosen man will never be a revered figure -- his talents as a politician are lackluster -- but with Havana's backing and control of the money funneled to the region's leaders, he will retain some of Chavez's stature. In recent months, he and what might be called the civilian nucleus of the Venezuelan government have been a constant presence in Havana, where they have relied on the information supplied to them by Cuba about Chávez's real condition. This clique is comprised mainly of Rosa Virginia, Chávez's eldest daughter; her husband Jorge Arreaza, who is also a minister; Cilia Flores, Maduro's wife and the prosecutor general of the regime; and, finally, Rafael Ramírez, the head of the oil giant PDVSA.

Maduro has made most of his key political announcements from Havana, often flanked by some of these people as a way to consolidate his legitimacy inside the Venezuelan military, where he has rivals, and of course the Latin American left writ large. It seems to have worked for now: The region's left lent him dutiful support through various regional bodies when the opposition denounced the arrangements that have turned him into an acting president indefinitely. In a statement put out by Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, the Organization of American States supported the constitutional arrangements in Venezuela in the wake of Chavez´s absence -- and incurred the ire of MUD, the united opposition.

Critical in all of this is the money at Maduro's disposal. The sales of PDVSA, the state-owned oil cash cow, amounted to $124.7 billion in 2011, of which one-fifth went to the state in the form of taxes and royalties, and another fourth was channeled directly into a panoply of social programs. This kind of management makes for very bad economics, a reason why the company needs to resort to debt to fund its basic capital expenditures, and for decreasing productivity, but it remains crucial for the regime and the Latin American left. Funding social programs at home and subsidizing oil shipments abroad, as well as giving cash to various foreign entities, is in good part what makes Caracas the epicenter of the left. Consequently, the support Maduro enjoys from Cuba and the money at his disposal offsets his lack of Chávez-like charisma.

Although Venezuela's current economic debacle has had a debilitating effect on the system described above, as has Chávez's ill health, China has helped mitigate the impact. The China Development Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China have lent Caracas $38 billion to fund some social programs, a bit of infrastructure spending, and purchases of Chinese products and services. Another $40 billion has been promised to fund part of the capital expenditures needed to maintain the flow of oil committed to Beijing. The oxygen provided by Beijing gives Caracas some ability to grease the regional machinery despite the domestic crisis.

Cuba's support for Maduro and his oil money notwithstanding, there will still be a vacuum of sorts at the top of the Latin American left after the vice president takes over from Chávez on a permanent basis -- assuming he is able to consolidate his own power internally and fend off his military rivals. Other Latin American leaders will clearly see an opening at least to enlarge their role if not lead the left outright.

Argentina's Kirchner is already trying. As she has further radicalized in response to an acute economic crisis at home and the rise of an opposition both within the ranks of her party and among the large middle class, in looking for a major Latin American role she has departed from traditional Peronismo. In the last year, she has made her country's claim to the Falkland Islands, now under British control, a focal point of her foreign policy, obtaining explicit support at Mercosur (the South American common market) and UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations). Until recently, she limited her rapport with Caracas to business and occasional gestures rather than ideology -- Buenos Aires sold sovereign bonds to Caracas a few years ago and was later able to import fuel cheaply and sign trade deals. Now she makes trips to Havana too and has raised her voice in denouncing the usual imperialist suspects -- certain liberal democracies, foreign investors, international courts, and the IMF. By adopting this tone, she hopes to rally the base at a difficult time. She is currently barred from seeking reelection in 2015 but is aiming to change the constitution to allow her to seek another term, a move laden with certain Chávismo overtones.

There are, however, limits to her potential role as a leader of the Latin American left. The most important one is economic. The statist, populist Argentine model is now bankrupt. Economic growth was minimal in 2012, a year that also saw record inflation and the expansion of capital controls to prevent a stampede of dollars. This would not be an insurmountable political obstacle were it not for the fact that a majority of Argentineans are now opposed to her -- her approval rating is down to 30 percent -- and that her own party is fractured. It is one thing to fight the "fascist right" as the head of a united Peronista front. But it is quite another for Kirchner to be denounced more stridently by her leftist base than by the center-right. Apart from the fact that she lacks the funds to finance regional revolution -- despite running the largest populist economy in Latin America -- Kirchner can ill afford to devote her attention to foreign matters. Last but not least, Argentina is too large and too proud a country for it to accept near-subordination to Cuba, a key condition for leading the Latin American rebels.

What about Bolivia's Morales? Given the symbolism of his indigenous roots, he seems a strong prospective candidate. But he is geographically too far from Havana -- Chávez´s constant pilgrimages to Cuba would be hard for Morales to replicate. He too has mounting problems at home, where his social and political base is now severely split. Unlike Chávez, who has been able to group his different supporters under a socialist umbrella organization, Morales's party, MAS, has become isolated from the myriad social movements that once backed him and now claim he is not delivering on promises of social justice. His main fights have not been with the right but with these organizations, which have paralyzed the country at various times.

Like other populists, Morales has some cash at his disposal through the sale of natural resources. But private investment is tiny in Bolivia, and Morales has doubled the proportion of the economy directly under government control. Because he needs to pour resources into populist economic programs to keep his enemies at bay, Morales cannot afford to fund foreign adventures. In fact, his need for cash is forcing him to charge Kirchner, a close ally, about four times more for Bolivia's natural gas than the going rate in Argentina's own gas-producing region, the Neuquen Basin. Lastly, Bolivia's economy is tiny, amounting to just 8 percent of Venezuela's.

Correa, who as president of Ecuador heads an oil-producing country, is another possibility. He certainly has the ambition and is the intellectual alpha male of the pack. His inevitable reelection this month will give him renewed vigor. But his country produces five times less oil than Venezuela and, with an economy less than a fifth the size, is in no position to command leadership regionally. After tripling government spending since he came to power in 2007, Correa's coffers face a fiscal deficit of 7.7 percent of GDP. And because it defaulted on part of the national debt in 2008, Ecuador is barred from capital markets. If not for the $7 billion-plus lifeline China has thrown Correa in advance payments for oil and credits, the country's financial situation would be dire. Given that 80 percent of Ecuador's oil exports have been pledged as guarantee against these loans, Correa would never be able to subsidize other countries.

That leaves Brazil, the single most powerful Latin American country and a symbol of ideological moderation that may well hold the key to the destiny of the Latin American left -- if only it wanted to. Until now, Brazil has deliberately given Chávez the space to play a disproportionate role in the neighborhood. Since former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had Marxist roots and a radical base to please, he made up for his responsible domestic policies by tolerating, and sometimes encouraging, Chávez's leadership of the regional left. In foreign policy, Lula preferred to spend his time cementing ties with the other BRIC countries and collecting allies in Africa, partly with a view to building up support for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council. The rest was spent cozying up to the United States's adversaries, including Iran, and proposing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian question (an initiative for which he teamed up with Turkey).

Dilma Rousseff, the current Brazilian president and Lula's political heir, has moderated her country's foreign policy but is conscious of the fact that her overbearing predecessor and the party base want close relations with the left. This is a major reason for having kept Marco Aurélio Garcia, a man umbilically connected with the regional populists, as a foreign policy advisor.

But Dilma is not personally interested in leading Latin America's left. Her country's main economic tool in Latin America, the Brazilian development bank BNDES, funds mostly domestic companies investing in the region, not other governments, and its disbursements in Latin America totaled a mere $1 billion last year. An initiative for integrating South America's infrastructure led by Brazil, known as IIRSA, lacks a political or ideological imprint. Dilma also confronts an economic challenge that Lula was spared. Growth has stalled (it barely cracked 1 percent last year), and some serious soul-searching is underway about why the emerging star of the last decade is now facing the prospect of a mediocre future if new reforms are not undertaken.

All of this points to the Cuba-Venezuela connection continuing to play a pivotal role through Maduro. That said, Maduro will have considerably less ability to project influence than when Chávez was at the helm. Presumably, the vacuum partially left by Chávez will see various forces vying for an increased role, including Kirchner as the radicalized Peronista running the largest populist economy, while Morales and Correa, as well as Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, call attention to themselves without the necessary power to back their chutzpah. Brazil will arbitrate among these leftists and wait to see what emerges before throwing its lot with anyone.

With no viable leader to take up Chávez's mantle, the future portends disarray for the Latin American left. Fearful that this may spell the end of the movement, there is but one miracle the left can cling to -- that Chávez finds a way to rise from his Havana deathbed.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images