WASHINGTON — With the new nuclear arms strategy he unveiled on Tuesday, President Barack Obama aims to prod the world toward disarmament and stronger anti-terrorism efforts by rallying disparate interests — arms controllers, U.S. allies, nuclear- and non-nuclear nations and Republicans and other military hawks back home.
Experts across the spectrum agreed that the Nuclear Posture Review represents a significant retreat by the U.S. from its traditional posture of reserving the right to use nuclear force against other nations, even as it maintains a robust arsenal to check Russia and retains Iran and North Korea as potential targets.
Still, as is characteristic of many of Obama's major policy initiatives, the new strategy isn't as far-reaching as liberals had hoped, nor as conservatives had feared. It contains initiatives sought by both sides, including Republican senators whose votes he needs to ratify the new arms reduction treaty that he's to sign Thursday with Russia.
"It's not a radical document, not at all," said Sharon Squassoni, the director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right Washington research group. "It reduces the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. And it doesn't shy away from uncertainty."
While the review says that the U.S. won't develop or test new nuclear weapons, it allows what some experts see as a back door for expanding warhead production capacity if circumstances change or if a future president wants to shift course.
The strategy also calls for a major program to modernize the country's aging nuclear weapons facilities, some of which date back to World War II, at a cost of about $5 billion over the next five years, acknowledging but not entirely satisfying a key Republican demand.
It also raises the prospect of billions in new spending on long-range conventional weapons, improved missile defenses to protect U.S. allies and advanced radars and sensors intended to give the president more time to decide whether to launch a nuclear strike.
While it says that the U.S. would no longer threaten nuclear force against non-nuclear powers that launched biological or chemical attacks, they would have to be in compliance with their obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, the administration reserved the right to change that policy in response to advances by U.S. foes in biological warfare technology.
The review was overseen by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush administration holdover who'd advocated as recently as two years ago a resumption of underground nuclear testing. Gates also had supported development of a new nuclear bunker-buster bomb.
Obama, in a statement, said that "the greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states."
He asserted that the overwhelming U.S. superiority in conventional weapons and improved missile defense capability were sufficient to deter attacks on the U.S. and its allies by non-nuclear nations.
Two senior Republican senators criticized Obama's plan.
Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl, a top GOP spokesman on nuclear weapons policy, and John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement that the administration was planning to spend too little on modernizing the country's dated nuclear weapons facilities.
They also said that Americans expect that no option, including nuclear retaliation, would be excluded if the country or its allies were attacked with chemical or biological weapons.
"The Obama administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies," they said.
On the other hand, the Nuclear Posture Review didn't go as far as many arms control advocates had sought, as it declined to state explicitly that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S., its forces overseas, and its allies.
"The continued belief that there is value in nuclear deterrence we think is not justified," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"The U.S. nuclear arsenal cannot prevent a Russian nuclear attack on the U.S. Nor can it prevent nuclear terrorism. If a terrorist has a nuclear bomb on a boat in New York Harbor, it can't be stopped by U.S. nuclear weapons. Nor do U.S. nuclear weapons stop Iran or North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons."
"This review begins to recognize those realties, but doesn't go as far as it should down that road," Young said. "I would have loved him to say the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks."
At the same time, Young gave the administration credit for "a major change in U.S. policy," saying: "They have basically indicated they want to move toward a world in which they can state the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S. or its allies."
Russia expressed concern with the new policy even before its official release.
Speaking in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the U.S. that moving ahead with plans to replace nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on long-range missiles would jeopardize Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world.
Lavrov also reiterated an earlier warning that Russia could withdraw from the new arms reduction treaty if it felt that its strategic nuclear forces were threatened by advances in U.S. missile defenses.
The Nuclear Posture Review maintains a U.S. force of hundreds of deployed warheads whose core mission remains to deter nuclear attack by Russia, the only nuclear-armed nation whose arsenal represents an existential threat to the U.S.
The strategy also maintains an estimated 150 to 200 U.S. tactical — or short-range — nuclear weapons in Europe, leaving it up to the 28-nation NATO alliance to decide by consensus whether they should be withdrawn, as proposed by Germany.
In a show of bipartisan support, Obama arranged for a Tuesday night screening at the White House of a documentary on global nuclear dangers featuring the so-called Four Horsemen — two prominent Republicans and two prominent Democrats who've been calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. They are former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn. All four were to join Obama for the screening, along with narrator Michael Douglas and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican.
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