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Obama’s Nuclear Illusions

Why do I feel like I’m back in the 1970’s? Perhaps because a U.S. president is meeting with a Russian leader to sign a nuclear-arms reduction agreement.

I suppose you can argue that there is some merit to Washington and Moscow agreeing on anything. So if they can’t see eye to eye on Iran, Georgia, missile defense, or other contentious issues, why not sign an arms-control treaty they both want? There is a certain logic to this argument.

Certainly from the Russian perspective there is a desire to lock in reductions in America’s nuclear warheads and launchers because Russia’s warheads and launchers will naturally degrade over the course of the next few years. Moreover, Russia’s leaders enjoy the prestige that comes from bargaining as equals with the world’s sole superpower.

From our perspective, we can afford to give up a few nukes without losing the ability to deter our adversaries. As long as we don’t commit to giving up too many launchers (i.e., submarines, bombers, land-based ICBMs), the agreement won’t imperil our security. But does anyone really think that this piece of paper will somehow represent the “reset” button on the U.S.-Russia relationship? That we won’t have major differences with Russia the day after the treaty just as we did the day before?

And what exactly are we getting in return for going along with Russia’s arms-control desires? I suppose the administration can point to Russia’s granting of overflight rights for aircraft supplying our forces in Afghanistan. That’s something, although I can’t help thinking that is just one more stick that Russia can hold over our heads, threatening to revoke those rights the next time they want to put pressure on us.   Moreover, the strategic arms accord, however innocuous in and of itself, encourages the illusion that somehow the American nuclear arsenal is part of the world’s problem — rather than the greatest contributor to global peace since World War II. The Iranians, North Koreans, and other bad actors justify their nuclear programs by pointing to those of Israel, India, the U.S., and other democratic nations and saying, “If you guys have them, why shouldn’t we?” The answer is that the U.S., Israel, India, et al. are responsible democracies who won’t give nukes to terrorists or use them at all except in the direst circumstances of self-defense. It is a shame that Obama cannot or will not draw a distinction between our nukes and theirs. By pushing for this arms-control treaty with Russia (and, more importantly, by pledging to eventually eradicate nukes altogether), he is in fact playing, however unwittingly, into the propaganda line fostered by rogue regimes.

It’s not the weapons, it’s the regimes that matter. Personally, I don’t feel much safer knowing that Russia will have a few hundred fewer strategic warheads, especially when they still have thousands of highly portable tactical nuclear weapons that aren’t covered by this treaty at all. Russia will continue to be a destabilizing and dangerous influence as long as it has an unaccountable government with few, if any, internal checks and balances. That is the real source of American-Russian tension, and by further legitimating the existing Russian regime we are, if anything, slightly exacerbating that problem.



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