The President Who Went Nuclear

How Barack Obama's fixation on ridding the world of nuclear weapons is transforming the Middle East.

In the wintry days of January 2009, as Barack Obama prepared for his inauguration, he was briefed on how to unleash the weapons that could destroy the planet many times over. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright conducted the briefing on the "nuclear football," the 45-pound briefcase containing the codes that allow the president to launch America's arsenal of over 5,000 nuclear weapons.

In the tumult before the inauguration - not to mention a global economy heading toward meltdown - Obama wasn't certain he would remember each step to launch the world's most dangerous weapons. Shortly after taking office as the 44th president, he contacted his defense secretary, Robert Gates. "You know that guy who scared the shit out of me?" he said, according to James Mann's The Obamians. "Can I talk to him again?"

Almost five years later, non-proliferation has emerged as the centerpiece of Obama's agenda in the Middle East. In Syria, he signed off on a Russia-brokered agreement for President Bashar al-Assad to gradually destroy his chemical weapons. In Iran, he inked a controversial agreement that will see the Islamic Republic stall its nuclear program for six months, in exchange for roughly $6 billion in sanctions relief. Such steps represent significant victories for the president's non-proliferation agenda -- but have also disappointed those who wonder if they come at the cost of America's other interests in the world.

The drive for a nuclear-free world, in fact, has been a central thread of Obama's foreign policy views for his entire adult life. It was the topic of his first public foray into the debate over America's role in the world as a university student, a subject that he turned into his calling card in the U.S. Senate, and an issue that he raised in his first months as president, where he told a crowd in Prague that he would work toward "a world without nuclear weapons." Now, it may just be the cause that defines his administration's foreign policy legacy.

Cartwright, speaking to Foreign Policy, said Obama has also come to grips with the fact that the proliferation of knowledge about nuclear technology has permanently altered America's options in combatting the spread of these weapons. Since you can't bomb knowledge, he says, military force can only delay, not stop, proliferation risks. "This is much of the problem we have with Iran today," he said. [If] a country wants these weapons, they can get them...So you have to start to think of alternatives to the threats of: ‘I'm going to attack you.'"

While the deal just signed in Geneva only temporarily stalls some aspects of Iran's nuclear program, non-proliferation experts hold out hope that it could pave the way sweeping reductions in nuclear warhead stockpiles in the world's most powerful states.

"In my view, Iran is a gateway issue," said Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization focused on nuclear weapons policy. "If Iran is seen as abandoning its [nuclear] approach...it opens the pathway to convincing North Korea to take a deal like this, to convincing others states not to start nuclear programs, and to give the countries with nuclear weapons greater confidence that they can safely reduce [their stockpiles]."

Obama came of age during the nuclear freeze movement, a grassroots attempt to halt the deployment of ever more destructive weapons by both the United States and the Soviet Union. As a senior at Columbia University, he enrolled in a seminar taught by Professor Michael L. Baron on foreign policy decision-making, where he wrote a long year-end paper on the arms reduction negotiations between the two Cold War rivals. That same year, he published an essay in the Columbia University magazine Sundial titled "Breaking the War Mentality," which noted the "flowering" of the nuclear freeze movement.

Obama's primary critique of the movement was that its goals were not sweeping enough, arguing that its narrow focus "suit[s] the military-industrial interests, as they continue adding to their billion dollar erector sets." His overall tone, however, was positive, as he suggested the freeze movement represented the public's "growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust."

While Obama certainly tempered his rhetoric about nuclear weapons between his early 20s and the beginning of his political career, his interest in the topic - and his fundamental views - do not appear to have changed. Upon beginning his career in the Senate in 2005, he turned to non-proliferation as the issue on which to bolster his foreign policy bona fides, and sought out the mentorship of Sen. Dick Lugar to do so.

As Obama recounts in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, the two senators traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe to inspect firsthand the efforts to secure what had been the Soviet Union's weapons of war. The future president wrote about "gazing in silence at the massive, sleek, still-active missiles" that had once been aimed at European cities, and noted with some horror coming across a freezer in Kiev, Ukraine, holding anthrax and the bubonic plague that was "secured by nothing more than a seal of string."

The trip, however, also highlighted the challenges of dealing with the Russians. As the two senators attempted to leave Russia, Lugar told Foreign Policy, they were detained for three hours as Russian security officials tried to search their plane. "You might as well take a nap, because we're going to be here for a while," Lugar remembers telling Obama.

For both Obama and Lugar, the trip underscored the difficulties - and also the urgent need - to secure nuclear stockpiles. "Whatever might have been your idea of the impact of mutually assured destruction, it certainly drove it home," Lugar said. "When you see the pictures and the targets [of Russian nuclear weapons], you understand the jeopardy the United States faced."

Obama also used his time in the Senate and the 2008 presidential campaign to assemble a team of non-proliferation advocates, who would be integral in pushing the issue during his administration. Then Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, for example, was integral to shepherding the New START treaty, which led to joint nuclear weapons reductions with the Russians, through the Senate in Obama's first term. In 2012, Chuck Hagel, who had retired from the Senate and gone into academia, co-authored a report with James Cartwright that called for sweeping reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Other members of Obama's transition team dealing with non-proliferation -- such as Ivo Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Robert Einhorn, and Ashton Carter -- went on to serve in high-ranking positions within the administration.

Obama's non-proliferation agenda got off to a fast start in its first year, as the administration negotiated the New START treaty; held the Nuclear Security Summit, which included delegations from 47 countries across the world; and released a new Nuclear Posture Review, which called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. In some of the global hotspots that concerned the United States, the focus on nuclear non-proliferation also took precedence over concerns about human rights or democracy promotion.

In Russia, Obama prioritized non-proliferation over concerns about Vladimir Putin's crackdown on his domestic political opponents. "The nuclear issue is really important to his background," Michael McFaul, the current U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told Mann for The Obamians. "He thinks you need a New START treaty, no matter whether the Russians are a democracy or an autocracy, because these are dangerous weapons and we've got to control them-and in a way, that's a legacy from this 1980s era."

When it came to Iran, nuclear non-proliferation also clearly took precedence over human rights, or the Islamic Republic's support for terrorist groups across the Middle East.

"I don't think [Iran's nuclear program] was a high priority to the exclusion of everything else, but it was clearly a kind of ‘first things first' approach," Dennis Ross, who served as a key Obama advisor on Iran and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Foreign Policy. "[Obama] saw we were living an in age of terror, and I think he saw the possible linkage of the worst weapons in the worst hands as something that was really unthinkable."

But while most U.S. officials recognized the potential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, some were willing to contemplate the possibility that the president's pursuit of non-proliferation goals elsewhere was coming at the expense of other American foreign policy goals. The most obvious example of that came in Syria, where the administration's pursuit of an agreement to dismantle Assad's chemical weapon's stockpile has arguably granted a degree of legitimacy to his regime as the international community's interlocutor on this effort.

"I think there's some validity to the argument that the chemical weapons deal gives a boost to Assad," said Robert Einhorn, who served as the secretary of state's special advisor for nonproliferation during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. However, he noted, that hasn't stopped the United States from offering modest amounts of military and humanitarian support to the Syrian rebels, or attempting to organize a peace conference that would remove Assad from power. U.N. officials announced that the conference will be held in Geneva on Jan. 22, and both the regime and the mainstream opposition have stated their willingness to attend.

However, the administration has appeared to disconnect its aims in Syria's chemical stockpile from its larger goals in the country. "Chemical weapons were always treated as something different than the political fate of Syria," said Ross. "You've had chemical weapons as an issue that almost stood alone in terms of what we were responding to."

With the wind at the back of the president's nuclear agenda, the stakes could extend far beyond Damascus or Tehran. The one notable exception to Obama's non-proliferation agenda -- so far - has been Israel, where this administration's refusal to push for nuclear disarmament has led to charges of hypocrisy among both Arabs and Iranians. Could a non-proliferation breakthrough really serve as a gateway issue - reordering America's alliances in the Middle East, paving the way for the dismantling of thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, and bringing the world closer to Obama's goal of "nuclear zero"?

Those fresh out of government, cognizant of the tenuous nature of progress on non-proliferation -- not to mention the many minefields of negotiating with Iran - are cautious. "Whether this is a good arrangement [with Iran] will depend on where it leads, and whether it does get us to a final deal," said Einhorn.

In other corners of the nation's capital, however, a few people are beginning to allow themselves to think big.

"It's not very often that you get to see the hinge of history move," Cirincione said. "We are in one of those moments."



Imperfect Union

From protecting pandas to chucking nukes, inside the heated debate over whether Scotland should be independent.

GLASGOW — In the United Kingdom's recent history, few government publications have been as keenly awaited as the Scottish government's "White Paper" on independence -- that is, a document outlining the case for Scotland stepping out on its own on the world stage. Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, who favors independence, has said it will "resonate down the ages." His deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, has promised Scottish voters that it will "answer all your questions."

On Nov. 26, the White Paper, all 670 pages of it, was finally unveiled in Glasgow. Standing in front of a background proclaiming "Scotland's Future" and surrounded by media, Salmond and Sturgeon outlined their pitch to the Scottish people.

There would be many benefits of independence, according to the White Paper: Scotland would become a European Union member and disavow nuclear weapons, but the country would also keep its currency (the Sterling) and still recognize the queen as head of state. The Scottish government would also improve public services, which would include building a new national broadcasting service and inaugurating a "revolution" in childcare.

Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP), which he has led for more than two decades, hope that the White Paper will convince people to vote "yes" in next September's referendum on ending Scotland's 306-year-old union with England. To date, Scots have been skeptical of independence; a poll issued just before the White Paper was released showed the "no" side of the referendum with a 9-point advantage.

There is disagreement over whether the White Paper will end up turning the tide of support. But in reality, the "yes" versus "no" debate might not be as clear-cut as many pundits and policy-makers say. Indeed, even if the independence campaign doesn't succeed, some argue that Scotland is likely to continue to diverge politically from the rest of the United Kingdom -- and, in the process, demand more autonomy.

Historically, Scottish independence has been a marginal feature of British politics. The SNP, which has always stood for an independent Scotland, was founded in 1934 but only made its first significant electoral breakthrough in 1967. And even then, the party struggled to make significant gains in the decades that followed. The 1997 creation of a devolved parliament for Scotland -- a legislative body with limited powers -- proved a turning point in SNP fortunes. With the charismatic Salmond at its helm, the party first won a minority administration in the devolved parliament in 2007 elections. Then, in 2011, the nationalists achieved the once seemingly impossible: an absolute majority and, with it, the chance to realize the long-held dream of a vote on independence.

Now, the SNP is the driving force behind "Yes Scotland," the campaign for independence that also draws support from the Scottish Greens and a number of smaller socialist parties. "Better Together," which advocates staying in the United Kingdom, is supported by the three largest parties in London: Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. It is led by Alastair Darling, erstwhile chancellor of the Exchequer under Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister.

Critics from Better Together have attacked nationalist claims that independence would require minimal institutional changes. "What currency would we use? Who will set our mortgage rates? How much would taxes have to go up? How will we pay pensions and benefits in future?" Darling has asked. Better Together, which has been dubbed "Project Fear" by some because of its negative messaging, has also warned that pandas would be taken away from the Edinburgh zoo under independence, and that England would be forced to bomb Scotland if the northern country were invaded by a foreign power that, in turn, threatened its southern neighbor.

In seeking to answer these charges with detailed proposals like those in the White Paper, Scottish nationalists are understandably defending their position. But some say they could also be fashioning a data-heavy rod to break their own backs. "They have fallen into a unionist trap," David Torrance, journalist and author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, says of the SNP. "If you issue a detailed policy document, by its very nature, it will be picked over by friends and foes alike. It will produce questions, which will in turn need answers. The White Paper could end up being more trouble than it is worth."

 James Maxwell, a Scottish writer and contributor to the left-leaning New Statesman, says that while nationalists and unionists battle over the White Paper, the document is unlikely to set the heather on fire for Scottish voters. "The White Paper holds no interest for ordinary Scots, who are already swamped under an avalanche of statistics and supposedly neutral ‘expert opinion,'" he argues.

Support for independence is closely aligned with income and social status: In general, poorer Scots are more likely to say they will vote  "yes" in the upcoming referendum than their more affluent compatriots. The White Paper is unlikely to change this, says Maxwell. "Professional Scots are simply unwilling to gamble on radical constitutional change, even if the alternative is prolonged austerity and falling living standards inside the U.K."

But if Scots do reject independence next year, in the long run, the unionists could still find themselves on the wrong side of history, says Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University and author of The Independence of Scotland. Politically, Scotland will continue to chart a distinct path within the United Kingdom, a process that began 50 years ago and sped up after devolution in 1997. Keating envisages a situation similar to that in Quebec, where regionally based parties with little or no ties to U.K.-wide organizations dominate the local political scene and the issue of independence remains unresolved.

Calls for independence in Scotland are a product of broader tensions pertaining to both the ties that bind the United Kingdom and the very notion of the nation-state, says Keating. "The context for all these discussions is the transformation of the state, a process of rescaling the state upwards and downwards," he adds. Even without full independence, demands for greater autonomy in Scotland are likely to grow.

What's more, the inclusive notion of "Britishness" that has long held the union together is fraying and will only continue to do so. In Scotland especially, this fraying began with the 1980s government of Margaret Thatcher, which lacked legitimacy over England's northern border, and only accelerated with Gordon Brown's more recent, failed attempts to rally citizens around British patriotism. "Unionists have started setting Scottishness against Britishness," says Keating. "[But] they can no longer weave a story about the union as encompassing all these different identities."

So while polls show that the unionists are likely on course to win next year's referendum, the future of Scotland's place in the United Kingdom is anything but certain. Meanwhile, Yes Scotland is holding out hope that the White Paper will disrupt everything, sooner rather than later: The SNP government has already set a date for formal independence after a "yes" vote -- March 24, 2016.

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