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Nuclear posture

Politics | The Obama administration stays the course, with one important departure

The Obama administration has released a document defining U.S. policy toward nuclear weapons, and its middle-of-the-road approach has left both sides dissatisfied.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) defines the United States nuclear weapons policy and strategy for the next five to 10 years. The Obama administration has stressed the goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy. To that end, the NPR promises that the United States will not develop more nuclear warheads or conduct nuclear testing. Further, in a departure from the previous administration, it states that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations. The Bush administration did not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the case of a chemical or biological attack. Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl have criticized the change, saying it "confuses this longstanding policy" of retaining all options to respond to attack.

However, the NPR does not rule out using nuclear weapons against nations that have nuclear weapons and are in defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That wording displeases disarmament advocates. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, director of the Two Futures Project, a Christian organization that advocates for multilateral and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, called the NPR "a hawkish document." He says the document is trying to balance two tricky objectives-long-term goals with immediate threats: "It's trying to balance the need to deal with immediate crises like North Korea and Iran while pointing us in the direction where nuclear weapons have less utility, are less desirable as a means for countries that are looking to ensure their security." A long-term strategy of multilateral, total disarmament is the only one that will ensure the world's safety, Wiggs-Stevenson believes, and the Obama administration has acknowledged that.

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Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the upcoming Necessary Secrets: National Security, The Media, and the Rule of Law, said when it comes to North Korea and Iran, "There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in this document that obscures the fact that our policy towards those two countries remains essentially unchanged."

According to Schoenfeld, the NPR may reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, but it carves out an exception for the two countries that really matter. While the United States has agreed with Russia to reduce its nuclear warheads to 1,500 each, one nuclear weapon in the hands of North Korea and Iran is a greater threat than 1,500 in the hands of Russia; and the U.S. stance towards North Korea and Iran has not changed. "They're falsely advertising a sharp shift but when you look at the details, there's much more continuity than one would glean from the press releases and the spin," he said.

"It's a clear case where false advertising is a good thing," Schoenfeld added, saying he favors this continuity with previous policy, along with a much tougher approach towards North Korea and Iran: tougher sanctions that don't rely on Russia or China's support, efforts to effect regime change in Iran, and if necessary, striking Iran's nuclear facilities before they reach the "point of no return."

On April 12-13, Obama will convene a nuclear security summit in Washington, D.C., attended by 47 heads of states. Russia and the United States will also sign the New START Treaty on Thursday, limiting their nuclear warheads to 1,500.

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