The custom is for every American president to put together a working paper that re-examines the government's stance on nuclear weapons. The document is in effect a summary of the main principles of the incoming administration's nuclear policy and a statement of the new president's intentions on the future of America's nuclear stockpile. Two presidents have produced such documents since the end of the Cold War: Bill Clinton in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2002. Now it's Barack Obama's turn to publish a statement that will set out his nuclear policy.
Expectations are especially high this time around. Since the beginning of his term, Obama has repeatedly declared his intentions to inaugurate a new and secure nuclear age. He laid out his plans last April in a speech to an enthusiastic audience in Prague. His statement that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility ... to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," was greeted with applause. America must "put an end to Cold War thinking," he said, hinting at his predecessor's path.
But whoever expects Obama to lead the United States and the world into a new and optimistic nuclear age will be disappointed by the working paper's details. A world without such weapons is a long way off, and despite announcements and promises, Obama's policy is a direct continuation of Bush's.
Paradoxically, the goals of U.S. strategy for using nuclear weapons actually widened after the Cold War, instead of narrowing. Clinton and Bush enlarged the aims of a nuclear attack to include the prevention of chemical or biological warfare on American soil, and even to target extra-governmental organizations.
While Obama said he intends to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," his government retains the right to use such weapons first. That is, just like his predecessors, Obama will not promise that the United States will not use nuclear force first. "Make no mistake," Obama told the crowd in Prague. "As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."
Nonetheless, Obama committed the United States "to begin the work of reducing our arsenal." But even a reduction of several thousand nuclear warheads will not bring him much closer to the goal of a nuclear-free world. The Americans have 9,400 such warheads, of which 2,126 are strategic (intercontinental). In the negotiations between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a follow-up agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons, the Americans agreed to cut the number of strategic weapons to around 1,500, but just a third of this amount is enough to destroy any potential Russian target.
This agreement does not include the 15,000 nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia have in storage as backup for weapons which are ready for operation. And the future of the approximately 480 nuclear bombs the Americans have put in six European NATO countries is unclear at this point. In addition, the Obama administration plans to budget $7.3 billion in 2011 for laboratory work connected to the American weapons stockpile, which does not seem to indicate an intention to disarm.
Whatever is written in the working paper that Obama signs, it seems that U.S. nuclear policy will not change and a nuclear-free world will remain a utopian vision for years to come. While Obama has good intentions, in a world with 23,000 nuclear bombs in the hands of nine states, good intentions will not suffice.
Regarding Iran, Obama does not intend to change the current policy of using diplomacy and sanctions to block Iran's nuclear plans. This of course will not stop Iran; the American answer as it appears in the working paper is a defensive anti-missile system against the ayatollahs' nuclear threat.
The American statement does not bode well for Israel.
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