President Obama's appearance in Berlin on Wednesday marked roughly both the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's famous speech in which he declared Ich bin ein Berliner, as well as the fifth anniversary of then-candidate Obama's first major foreign performance. The speech was not particularly remarkable, except that the president announced that, in concert with the Russians, he was prepared to further reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by one-third below the 1,550-warhead limit established by the New START treaty.
The result was pretty much what you'd expect. The president's defenders were moved to tears. So bold. So visionary. He's JFK, just without the floozies and painkillers. And then there was his legion of detractors, who took a break from screaming about birth certificates and death panels to accuse Obama of unilateral disarmament. (Though, sadly, not one Republican flack was clever enough to break out "Ich bin ein Unilateral Disarmer." Do I have to write jokes for both sides, now?) Never mind that a reduction undertaken with another party is, by definition, not unilateral.
You will not be surprised to learn that I find the proposal to reduce the deployed force by one-third to be neither particularly bold nor a harbinger of the end of Western civilization. But what might surprise you is that I suspect, whether the president or anyone in Congress knows it, we are headed way below 1,000 warheads one way or the other.
You see, thanks to the goat rodeo that is the U.S. Congress, the current fiscal austerity gripping Washington may drive the United States to levels far below the modest cuts Obama proposed in Berlin. Want to know what unilateral disarmament really looks like? Flip on C-Span and pull up a chair.
Here is what the president actually said:
After a comprehensive review, I've determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.
The text is a little ambiguous about whether the reductions would be taken unilaterally or only after negotiation with Russia. Fortunately, the White House gave a nice, long story to the New York Times explaining that the administration anticipates negotiating reductions with Russia, but not submitting them for the advice and consent of the Senate. The White House also released a new fact sheet on the new nuclear weapons employment guidance signed by the president, as well as a report to Congress on said-same document. These texts aren't exactly For Whom the Bell Tolls in terms of clarity, but they contain enough jargon to get the gist of what's going on here.
As far as I can tell, the reduction offered by the president -- from the current limit of 1,550 to 1,000-1,100 -- is, more or less, the same offer that the United States made five years ago during the negotiations that led to the New START treaty.
In case you don't recall, Obama took office in January 2009 inheriting two deadlines: The United States and Russia needed to negotiate a replacement to the original START treaty, which was set to expire in December 2009. And Congress had also directed the president to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review at the same time. Now, you might ask yourself: How does the president negotiate nuclear arms reductions before finishing his Nuclear Posture Review? I mean, won't that look bad? Doesn't that appear like the president's desire for cuts is driving the review? Yes, that was precisely what it looked like, even if it was just bad luck in terms of timing.
The Obama administration, hamstrung by this schedule, ordered a "mini" nuclear posture review by July 2009 that asked how low it could go using the existing nuclear weapons guidance signed by President Bush. (NSPD-14, in case you're wondering.) That review concluded that Obama could go as low as 1,300 warheads without changing his predecessor's policies. Elaine Grossman, working from interviews and the odd document compromised by Wikileaks, reported that 1,300 warheads was the offer that the United States made to Russia in 2009. The Russians, on the other hand, pushed for a higher number -- around 1,700.