Keeping a finger on the nuclear trigger

April 14, 2010

The U.S. has repackaged its strategy--but the terrible threat of nuclear war remains.

THE OBAMA administration is out to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal and pressure world leaders into imposing sanctions against countries--like Iran--that allegedly harbor ambitions to develop nukes of their own.

That's the agenda behind the Washington summit on nuclear security, which followed the announcement of a supposedly less belligerent U.S. nuclear strategy and the signing in Prague of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

The START treaty was billed as a first step toward fulfilling President Barack Obama's call a year ago to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In fact, START would leave the U.S. and Russia with the means to blow up the world many times over.

If Washington is willing to make a deal with Moscow to cut the number of nukes today, it's because politicians in both countries--especially the Russians--want to minimize the prohibitive cost of building such weapons. So the total number of warheads will be limited under the treaty to 1,550 apiece.

Or maybe not. As Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists noted:

Barack Obama stands with other world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Barack Obama stands with other world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. (Alfredo Guerrero)

In fact, the treaty contains a peculiar counting rule that increases the importance of bombers: each bomber counts only as one nuclear bomb, although the B-52 can carry 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles and the Russian bombers, for example, the Backfire and Blackjack, have similar payloads.

If we define corn as a type of tree, then suddenly Iowa would be covered in forests. If we define a bomber with 20 bombs as a single bomb, then suddenly we get a substantial reduction in the number of nuclear weapons.

In any case, the deal does nothing to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war. Aircraft are still flying, armed with nukes, and missiles remain minutes away from launch.

And the U.S. is pressing ahead with its Reliable Replacement Warhead program, in which scientists will use existing materials to modernize the weapons. So while the U.S. won't be able to build new nukes if START is ratified, it can still create a more technologically advanced nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, the new START agreement won't revive the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty scrapped by George W. Bush in 2002. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the old USSR, the ABM treaty was seen as an important part of arms control. The theory was that if neither country possessed the technology to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles, neither would be tempted into making a nuclear first strike.

Thus, the Russians were infuriated--not only by Bush's decision to scrap the ABM, but his moves to install a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Although ostensibly designed to protect Europe from Iranian missiles, everyone beyond kindergarten understood that Russia was the real target.

To ease relations with Moscow, Obama did cancel plans for such a system to be placed in Eastern Europe. But the U.S., no longer constrained by the ABM, has a free hand to develop other, much more sophisticated missile defenses elsewhere. In fact, the Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review explicitly calls for "avoiding limitations on missile defenses."

The Russian leaders, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have no choice but to accept the end of the ABM treaty. And Russia, hard hit by the economic crisis, is unlikely to be able to match U.S. nuclear weapons modernization efforts--therefore, START appears as a reasonable deal to them. While Russia's weapons systems may be aging, they still confer superpower status on the country.

THERE'S ALSO less than meets the eye in Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, which was released days before Obama went to Europe to sign the START.

Certainly the U.S. pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states sounds different from George W. Bush's crude doctrine of pre-emptive war. And the Republican right is screaming that Obama has gone soft on rogue states.

But the Nuclear Posture Review is, in fact, a threat to use nuclear weapons on countries that fail to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Since that's exactly what the U.S. accuses Iran of doing, Obama is essentially putting Tehran on notice that it could find itself in the U.S. nuclear crosshairs.

Liberal defense specialist William Hartung, who is actually sympathetic to Obama's policies, pointed out in the Huffington Post that "going forward, the two nations cited as the greatest potential nuclear threats to the United States--Iran and North Korea--would also be liable to nuclear threats from the United States under the Obama policy."

Meanwhile, Israel, which has an estimated 200 nuclear weapons--the country's government will neither confirm nor deny their existence--was discretely allowed to opt out of the summit on nuclear security in order to avoid the kind of scrutiny reserved for Iran.

At the summit, Obama and other world leaders trumpeted agreements about limiting the spread of "loose nukes" and the material to create them.

To sell the effort, Obama resorted to Bush-style scaremongering: "Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history--the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of [a] nuclear attack has gone up," he said. In fact, there's no evidence whatsoever that al-Qaeda or any other group has attempted to obtain nuclear materials, much less figure out how to make a bomb.

Certainly anyone opposed to the horrors of nuclear war wants to see the use of such weapons banned. But what the Pentagon has in mind is something fundamentally different: the preservation and extension of the nuclear domination by the U.S. and its allies.

So while the U.S. threatens sanctions--and worse--against Iran, it is helping India, which is not a signatory to the NPT, expand its civilian nuclear program. The U.S.-India effort will include the production of separated plutonium, something that will directly benefit India's military.

Even John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, admitted the contradictions in U.S. policy: "I think one of the concerns is that, by definition, as you have expansion of nuclear programs, peaceful programs, there is going to be an increase in the nuclear byproducts that come out of those facilities, as well as the expertise that is available to run them."

In other words, the U.S. is using nuclear weapons to bribe India and bully Iran and North Korea. Essentially, Obama is trying to reorganize what Bush called the "coalition of the willing" to isolate Iran and other "rogue states," and bend them to Washington's will.

By organizing a summit outside the parameters of the United Nations, the U.S. hoped to use its many allies and clients to maneuver Russia and China into accepting tougher restrictions on the spread of nuclear technology. That, in turn, will be used by the U.S. to press for sanctions on Iran or any other country that stands up to U.S. dictates.

Obama said as much to reporters when he described his conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao about the need for sanctions against Iran. Obama said he told Hu, "Words have to mean something. There have to be some consequences" for any country--meaning Iran--that flouts the NNP.

THESE U.S. double standards about nuclear weapons shouldn't be surprising. It was Obama, in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, who basically declared that war actually means peace--as long as the right people are pulling the triggers and dropping the bombs. The U.S. is out to ensure that it will continue to have the most guns and biggest bombs.

Obama's nuclear policy fits in with that of his predecessors in the White House, going back to the days when Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the military to drop two atom bombs on Japan in the closing weeks of the Second World War. As authors and activists Joseph Gerson and Walden Bello wrote in their book Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World:

Without an understanding of U.S. history, especially the growth and development of its empire, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Washington's subsequent practice of nuclear terrorism are incomprehensible. In fact, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been the "big stick" used by three generations of leaders to enforce U.S. global dominance.

Whatever Barack Obama's promises about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear war will remain a linchpin of U.S. military power.

Rather than add to the applause that has greeted the White House new nuclear policies, antiwar activists should step up their efforts against the U.S. military machine--from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Pentagon's latest repackaging of nuclear war threats.

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