Thursday, February 26, 2009

Obama's Nuclear Leadership Opportunity

This piece was originally posted at The Moderate Voice:’s-nuclear-leadership-opportunity/

Obama’s Nuclear Leadership Opportunity

February 26th, 2009 By Guest Voice


The Truman National Security Project bills itself as “the nation’s only organization that recruits, trains, and positions a new generation of progressives across America to lead on national security.” The following essay (the first in a series for TMV) is from Robin Walker, a Project fellow. As with other “guest voice” posts, this and future contributions from the Truman Project do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the TMV editorial board or writers.

By Robin Walker, Truman National Security Project

Of the various challenges President Obama mentioned in his Tuesday evening address to Congress — two wars, a housing crisis, energy, healthcare, education, the deficit, etc. — one challenge got little attention but represents an opportunity for serious progress: nuclear weapons.

By law the President has to produce a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by the end of 2009. If properly handled, the NPR could improve our security, reduce the deficit, improve the United States’ standing in the world, and increase security in one of the most dangerous regions of the world, South Asia.

The 2001 NPR set a fairly aggressive goal of reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal from Cold War levels down to a range of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by 2012. President Obama could set a nuclear agenda as aggressive as his campaign rhetoric by establishing a new goal of 1,500 or even 1,000 warheads in that timeframe, which would in turn establish the United States as a leader toward a world of the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons, ideally zero. Leading by example would encourage the rest of the world to reduce or at least stop enlarging their nuclear arsenals. The United States and the international community could take additional steps to increase both the security and reliability of established nuclear powers’ arsenals, hopefully reducing the need for backup weapons.

The longstanding India-Pakistan rivalry is frequently described as the most likely nuclear war scenario in the modern world. Since both countries demonstrated their nuclear capabilities with tests in 1998, three crises have narrowly averted escalating to the level of nuclear exchanges: the 1999 Kargil war; the 2001-2 military buildup; and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Anything the United States can do to minimize the risk of these countries using nuclear weapons is clearly in the interest of the United States and the international community.

Pakistan feels threatened by India’s overwhelming size and conventional military superiority. Current estimates of Pakistan’s arsenal range from 65 to 110 nuclear warheads. Command and control of Pakistan’s weapons is shaky, and one scholar even reported that Pakistani leaders contemplated giving command of one or more nuclear weapons to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a hedge against India during the 1999 war. Pakistani leaders also believe the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal will allow India to produce many more nuclear warheads, thus prompting Pakistani leaders to feel they need to “catch up.”

India has stated policies of “no first use” and “minimum credible deterrence,” in other words, a robust second-strike capability. It is unclear just what quantity of warheads is needed for such a capability: 50? 100? 300? Recent estimates put India’s arsenal in the range of 70 to 120 warheads, which will likely increase as India continues to experiment with submarine-launched nuclear weapons. India has overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority over Pakistan; establishing and declaring a limit would not reduce that edge but would provide some measure of stability for the region.

India wants to be a great power and a leader in the region. The United States needs to re-establish its image as a force for good in the world after eight years of the Bush Administration. President Obama should set an example by ordering aggressive reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the 2009 NPR, and work to leverage that good example to get India and Pakistan to declare and implement limits to their own nuclear arsenals.