Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Nuclear Sideshow

So Presidents Obama and Medvedev have signed a new nuclear-arms reduction accord. Big deal. The actual cuts called for under the treaty are modest because of accounting tricks that allow a B-52 bomber, which can carry 20 nuclear warheads, to be counted as one “weapon.” The treaty doesn’t affect at all the thousands of tactical nuclear warheads or strategic warheads in storage.

During the Cold War this no doubt would have been hailed as a “breakthrough” but today the treaty seems like an anachronism — a throwback to the world of rotary-dial phones, cars with tail fins, and superpower confrontations. What, one wonders, is the point?

Perhaps Obama hopes this will somehow push the “reset” button on U.S.-Russia relations. If so, I suspect he is deceiving himself; Russia is willing to sign the treaty but not sign off on truly tough sanctions on Iran. Perhaps Obama simply revels in diplomacy for its own sake. If so, this is one of the less harmful manifestations of that proclivity. And perhaps this is part of his larger project to eliminate nuclear weapons in general.

That is a superficially alluring proposition, which is simply impossible to implement in this imperfect world: How would you ever make sure that rogue regimes don’t hide nukes or build new ones in the future? The answer is you can’t, so the U.S. has no option but to keep its nuclear deterrent robust. I don’t think the recent moves by Obama, from the Nuclear Posture Review to the START treaty, jeopardize our deterrent — so I, unlike some on the Right, am not unduly alarmed by them.

I do think, however, that it would be good if he were to commit to doing more for modernizing our nuclear forces, including holding out the possibility of building new nuclear weapons in the future — something that he has rejected for the moment and that perhaps Senate Republicans can force him to reconsider as the price of START ratification. But as I have indicated before, I think all of this is basically a sideshow. The real action isn’t happening in Prague. It’s in Tehran, where the mullahs are getting ever closer to a nuclear weapon — and they won’t be convinced to give up their atomic ambitions because the U.S. is willing to cut is own arsenal. If anything, American concessions embolden Iran into thinking that we are a “weak horse” that can be defied with impunity.