Nuclear Disarmament: Not What He Promised

It’s been an active year so far in the rhetoric of nuclear disarmament. First, the "nuclear posture statement" of the Obama administration put out in early April. Then the non-proliferation meetings, then the START negotiations with the Russians. What do they add up to, in terms of material reduction of the threat of nuclear Armageddon? The answer is: nothing.


Looking back on it, could there ever have been a glimmer of hope that the United States would adopt a "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons; concede that there is zero reason to maintain a full arsenal of strategic missiles and a fleet of bombers, on full alert to repel a Russian invasion of Europe; and start winding down the nuclear-industrial-scientific complex? Not really. It would be like expecting the single-payer approach to health care reform or strenuous regulation of the banking industry.


But for those who cheered President Obama’s commitment, made in Prague a year ago and at the U.N. in September, that "we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review, released April 6, was a savage disappointment. The administration did not merely reassert the essential premises of U.S. nuclear strategy, but used the publication of the review and the subsequent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington as occasions to intensify the threats against North Korea and Iran.


In the case of North Korea, Obama doomed any positive advances and reminded its leaders that America’s preferred method of negotiation takes the form of eight nuclear submarines in the North Pacific within a 12-minute range of Pyongyang. The crucial sentence in the review, insistently repeated by Obama, states that "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations." This is great news for the Holy See, Venezuela and Yemen, which along with 180-plus other nations have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And no, the president was not threatening to attack Israel, which has nuclear weapons but has not signed the NPT.


The U.S. position is that the biggest nuclear threat in the world today comes from those who do not have nuclear weapons, or whose nuclear armory is diminutive to the point of invisibility, and that global security is properly vested in the hands of those who have substantial nuclear arsenals, starting with the only country that has actually dropped nuclear bombs — and indeed lost them (11 in the case of the United States since 1945).


Here’s how the ongoing commitment to "first use" is expressed in the review: "In the case of countries not covered by this assurance — states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations — there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW (chemical or biological weapons) attack against the United States or its allies and partners. The United States is therefore not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons."


The U.S. strategic nuclear triad will remain on action stations, ready to destroy the planet. The review concluded that "the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces — with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time — should be maintained for the present." Forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe will remain.


Though Article VI of the NPT famously commits its signatories to "negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament," heading toward a "Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control," the United States remains dedicated to "NATO’s unique nuclear sharing arrangements under which non-nuclear members participate in nuclear planning and possess specially configured aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons."


As of 2005, the United States was providing about 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs for use by Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey under these NATO agreements. Articles I and II of the NPT prohibit the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states. So why should countries under threat be asked to surrender the nuclear option when states under no such risk are supplied with nuclear bombs or missiles?


The deals extorted by the nuclear-industrial-scientific complex are starkly on display: "The U.S. nuclear stockpile must be supported by a modern physical infrastructure — comprised of the national security laboratories and a complex of supporting facilities. … Increased funding is needed for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory to replace the existing 50-year old facility, and to develop a new Uranium Processing Facility … in Oak Ridge, Tennessee."


What does this bode for START negotiations? The Russians, who are being asked to reduce their nuclear-force levels, point not only to NATO’s ongoing aggressive moves to establish bases surrounding their country, but to the fact that this rehabbing of the U.S. processing facilities is enhancing its capacity to produce plutonium and thus swiftly multiply its nuclear arsenal with a change in regime and hence of nuclear posture.


The cause of nuclear disarmament has sustained a very serious, albeit predictable, defeat. The news will only get worse. Ahead lies the impending redraft of NATO’s strategic concept, last reformulated in 1999: "The fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political … to fulfill an essential role by ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor. … The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance."


Ironic, is it not, to read these invocations of "security" amid the impending bankruptcies of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, the destruction of the euro and, as the unemployment lines grow steadily across the United States and Europe, oh-so-safe beneath the nuclear umbrella?


Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.

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