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Steve Weissman: Obama's Nuclear Gambit

Obama's Nuclear Gambit

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, the mustachioed neocon, sometimes gets it half right. President Barack Obama is, in fact, reducing America's nuclear advantage over Russia, just as Bolton argues. But the hell-for-leather Bolton fails completely to understand what Obama is doing and why, as do many Obama supporters.

"Americans may have voted for a lower profile in Iraq, but they did not vote for a weaker United States globally," Bolton wrote right before Obama's trip to Moscow.

Obama would, in Bolton's view, give the Russians everything they wanted: "Major new restrictions on strategic nuclear weapons, postponing construction on US missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and, indeed, downsizing America's entire missile-defense program, sidelining Georgia's and Ukraine's NATO membership applications, and leaning hard on Israel to stop all West Bank settlement construction and accept a Palestinian state."

Caught up in yesterday's Cold War, Bolton can only see these as unwarranted concessions to an unrelenting rival, for which the United States would get little in return.

After the signing of the "Joint Understanding" in Moscow, Bolton berated Obama even more. "Obama's policy is risky for America and its global allies who shelter under our nuclear umbrella," Bolton wrote. "Although Obama hopes dramatic US nuclear weapons reductions will discourage proliferation, the actual result will be the exact opposite."

No doubt, Bolton is playing Republican politics by painting Obama as a naïve idealist who would endanger American security and that of our allies, notably the Israelis.

Sadly, many nonpartisan analysts join Bolton in seeing Obama's efforts through the prism of an outdated arms race with the Soviet Union. They also see American military power as the prime deterrent to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and any other nation that might seek the bomb.

These views never made much sense during the dreary days of the Cold War. They are even sillier and more self-defeating in the present context

To expand on Henry Kissinger's recent remark in Der Spiegel, Obama works like a chess master playing several matches at the same time. In playing the Russians, he started from a simple calculation. The United States has enjoyed an overwhelming nuclear superiority over both Russia and the Chinese, as Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press explained in the March 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs.

"Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy," they wrote. "It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike."

With increasing tensions between the Russians and the West since 2006, they have apparently made some efforts to catch up. But, even with America's nuclear advantage, Washington found no way to use it to modify Russia's behavior, not even in Georgia and Ukraine. Short of threatening a nuclear shoot-out, having more nukes than Moscow actually hurt rather than helped.

Obama has opted to play a softer game against the Russians, to which they responded by not standing in the way of a new deal for an airbase in Kyrgyzstan and opening their own airspace for American supply flights to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Better that Russia help persuade Obama to get out of Afghanistan while he still can, but give the two governments credit for moving toward win-win agreements rather than the win-lose confrontations of the past.

Obama's second chess game tries to get Moscow to help pressure Tehran to rein in its nuclear energy program and stop short of atomic weapons. Here the Russians have mixed interests. They do not look happily on the prospect of nearby Iran getting the bomb and have quietly put obstacles in the way during its construction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr. But the Russians have a large commercial interest in providing the reactor and other nuclear equipment, and also in selling costly conventional weapons, not the least anti-aircraft defenses to protect Iran against Israel or American air strikes.

In a third chess game, Obama is playing directly with Iran and other countries looking for nuclear arsenals of their own. Without Russia and United States cutting their own nuclear arsenals, as the two countries committed to do in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, Obama has no chance of bringing Iran and the others to the table.

This is where Bolton and those who share his views most misunderstand reality. American military power failed utterly to prevent China, India, Pakistan and Israel from getting nuclear weapons, and it will not stop any other nation that sees the bomb as a way to deter a military attack by rivals, large or small.

The most dramatic evidence of this came from the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in the recently released transcripts of his interrogations by and casual conversations with the FBI. Saddam, it turns out, let the Bush administration believe he had nukes and other weapons of mass destruction because he feared looking weak to Iran.

As the Arabic-speaking FBI interrogator summed it up, "Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq's weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions of the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq."

The ruse cost Saddam his country and his life. But that is how important nuclear deterrence has become to the less-than-Great Powers of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Obama, the chess master, hopes to find a way around the problem with his nuclear summit in Washington next March. In the meantime, he would do well to stop the threats to Iran coming from the Israelis and from within his own administration.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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