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A new CFR/Brookings study, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, recommends that the United States “enhance Israel’s deterrent and defensive capabilities by offering it a nuclear guarantee” (p.16). The study is edited by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk. The recommendation is broached in their introductory chapter, and echoed by Bruce Riedel and Gary Samore in their chapter on nuclear proliferation (p.116).

The 288-page study recommends a very compelling new strategy of diplomatic engagement with Iran, but assumes that Israel will oppose it and take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities at some point in the near future. Thus, the goal of the nuclear guarantee is to “persuade Israel not to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities” and buy time for the proposed new U.S.-led diplomatic initiative to unfold.

The overall study is quite good, but the sloppy, casual logic underlying the nuclear guarantee recommendation is rather breathtaking. The authors note that “the United States, with its thousands of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, has a ready fallback to a posture of nuclear deterrence while it works to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities” (p.15). True, but Israel already possesses a very capable nuclear deterrent of its own, which, remarkably, is acknowledged with merely a passing reference (p.116). It is simply not clear to me how or why a U.S. guarantee would make any difference in an Israeli calculation whether to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. Maybe it would, but for a recommendation this bold, the authors really should have presented some specific evidence (a poll, perhaps).

Moreover, the study is strangely silent on key details and trade-offs associated with extending the umbrella to Israel. For example, would we station weapons in Israel like we do for NATO? And would the guarantee be public or private? Presumably, it would have to be very public, because otherwise it couldn’t affect Iran’s behavior or political debates within Israel over whether to support America’s new diplomatic initiative. But a public guarantee would almost certainly create severe political problems for the United States in the region and beyond. I think it would be the kiss of death for efforts to attract robust Muslim country support for addressing regional proliferation concerns such as Iran and Syria, fuel cycle reform, strong export controls, and other key nonproliferation priorities.

Besides, isn’t it already reasonable for Iran (or any country) to assume that the United States would use every tool of national power at its disposal to protect Israel if its existence were credibly threatened? It seems to me that all a public guarantee would do is introduce a new set of contentious, complicated issues into an already troubled region.

Addendum: Check out my colleague Peter Juul’s insightful analysis over at Wonk Room.


A trailer for the Heritage Foundation’s forthcoming video on “the very real threat that hostile nations and rogue dictators now pose to every one of us” is available. Heritage bills the video, scheduled to come out in February 2009, as a “high-definition documentary.” It looks to me more like an infomercial for ground-based national missile defenses.

Starring, in order of appearance (partial):

  • Edward Feulner, President, Heritage Foundation
  • Robert Joseph, Undersecretary of State, 2005-2007
  • Kim Holmes, Assistant Secretary of State, 2002-2005
  • General Henry A. “Trey” Obering, Director, Missile Defense Agency
  • James Carofano, National Security Analyst, Heritage Foundation
  • His Excellency Petr Kolar, Ambassador of the Czech Republic
  • Ken Alibek, Former Director, Soviet Weapons Programs

The trailer’s opening sequence (my transcription):

Mournful, Islamic-sounding music. Text flashes across the screen in ominous font: “Over 20 nations have ballistic missile capability.”

Cut to a wave heading to shore. The camera pans — the shore is New York City. Music fades out, cut to Heritage President Edward Feulner. “One of the most fundamental roles of government is to protect us from enemies. And right now, we are not protected.”

A montage of missile launches and storm clouds. A resonating bass note adds tension, urgency. Cut to Robert Joseph, Undersecretary of State, 2005-2007. “Hope is not a good foundation for a national security strategy.” Montage — more missile launches, Kim Jong Il. Cut back to Robert Joseph as the resonating bass note picks up and the Islamic-sounding music fades back in. “We need to recognize the threats that are out there, and the threat of ballistic missile attack is real.”

Text flashes across the screen, same ominous font: “A ballistic missile armed with a weapon of mass destruction.” Cut to Kim Holmes, Assistant Secretary of State, 2002-2005. “Americans need to know that we are completely vulnerable to a ballistic missile armed with a nuclear weapon.”

New text flashes across the screen: “Can reach the United States within minutes.” Voiceover then fade in to General Henry A. “Trey” Obering, Director, Missile Defense Agency. “The longest times are typically around 30-33 minutes, 34 minutes, and that would be for a long range missile that would be fired, for example, from North Korea to the United States, or from Iran to the United States.”

Cut back to Edward Feulner, interspersed with sped-up images from urban life—a bustling subway station, a busy sidewalk. “Less than 33 minutes away, their whole city, their whole life, could be annihilated.” Fade to countdown in red digital font, images of missile launches, then Dr. James Carofano, National Security Analyst, Heritage Foundation. “If an enemy of the United States had a ballistic missile they could basically use it to hold America hostage. Then someday there will come a moment when America wants to go forth in the world and do something good, and the enemy will say, ‘If you do that [cut to image of Statue of Liberty, image of Los Angeles, people on the beach], we’re going to shoot this missile at New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco’.”

Cut back to Robert Joseph. “It’s very difficult to guess the number of states that will have ballistic missiles in ten years. If one follows a straight line projection, the number gets quite large. It’s the type of state [images of Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the background to Joseph’s foreground] that acquires ballistic missiles that is most disturbing.”

Cut to more missile launches, fade into General Obering. “We’ve already seen the transfer of more short range rockets and missiles from a state to a terrorist organization. When you marry that with a weapon of mass destruction, even one, fired into an American or allied city, could cause tremendous devastation.” Music picks up.

Cut to image of mushroom cloud, then to Robert Joseph. “My number one concern today is a terrorist with a nuclear weapon.” Music picks up more.

Cut to His Excellency Petr Kolar, Ambassador of the Czech Republic. “For some crazy maniacs to attack us, harm us, and destroy our lives.” Cut to Ken Alibek, Former Director, Soviet Weapons Programs. “Biological weapons are mass casualty weapons. They can cause diseases in humans in animals, and kill them. We should expect not dozens, not hundreds, even not thousands. We should talk about tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties.” The music breaks into a suspenseful, up-tempo action movie-like theme as text flashes “The growing threat cannot be ignored.”



Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) gave an outstanding talk to a roundtable I co-hosted this morning at the Center for American Progress, my home institution, to mark the release of a study by Joe Cirincione and me, Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review: A Roadmap. Congresswoman Tauscher, who chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, was the driving force behind the requirement in the FY 2008 Defense Authorization Bill that the next administration undertake a formal nuclear posture review (NPR).

Our study makes the case for why a successful NPR should be among the Obama administration’s top priorities. I suspect this is an easy case to make to most Wonk readers.

But the study also provides a roadmap on how to structure and manage the review so that it achieves key policy objectives. The roadmap is based on lessons learned from the Clinton and Bush administration NPRs, along with some two dozen interviews and informal discussions with experts, congressional staff, and former senior officials with experience in nuclear policy from both sides of the political spectrum.

This is our basic argument:

The goals of the 2009–2010 NPR should be to recalibrate America’s nuclear deterrent in light of existing and emerging threats, strengthen America’s hand in negotiations on improvements to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, and send a clear signal to the world that the United States is charting a new, multilateral course. Success in achieving these goals hinges on development of a coherent, realistic strategy for conducting the review that ensures senior appointees devote sustained attention even as they confront other national security challenges. The strategy should be organized according to these principles:

  • Do not politicize nuclear weapons doctrine.
  • Conduct the review as a strategy-driven exercise guided by a vision for nuclear weapons policy elaborated by the president.
  • Consult and engage the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Consult and engage Congress.
  • Appoint experienced professionals to carry out the vision.
  • Ensure that the review is interagency.
  • Consult and engage key allies and partners.

And here are some of the highlights from Congresswoman Tauscher’s remarks:

The new NPR should recommend ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Fifteen years of science-based stockpile stewardship programs have made it possible for the United States to use our brain power and scientific tools, rather than testing in the Nevada desert to ensure the reliability of our nuclear deterrent.

No other single action could send a clearer signal to the rest of the world that the United States is committed to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and materials.

Too often we are presented with a false choice. Either maintaining an unnecessarily high level of nuclear weapons as a hedge against uncertainty which I believe would undermine our efforts to reduce global nuclear risks or allowing our arsenal to rust and corrode away.

Neither is acceptable.

From 1994 to 2004, we had a law on the books called “Spratt-Furse” that prohibited research and development of so-called mini-nukes. It was important because of the signal it sent to the world that the United States was not looking for new applications for nuclear weapons.

As we embark into the next phase of stockpile stewardship, we should renew the Spratt-Furse law, so our intentions are clear.


There is much talk these days about the need for the United States to reengage Russia’s leadership in a strategic dialogue.

But would Russia speak with one voice?

We’re already familiar with this basic problem because it has dogged the Bush administration. Throughout the Bush presidency, foreign policy has been personality-driven and intensely factionalized: ideologues associated with Rumsfeld and Cheney have battled pragmatists aligned with Powell and, to some extent, Gates and Rice. These divisions wreaked havoc on the coherence of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in nonproliferation where policy goals lurched between regime change and behavior change. (I highly recommend Mike Chinoy’s book Meltdown, which offers a riveting account of the Bush administration’s utterly dysfunctional North Korea policy process.)

Could a similar dynamic emerge in Russia? President Medvedev is the official Russian head of state, but it is no secret that Vladimir Putin — who as Prime Minister has virtually no legal control over the levers of government and, at least according to Russia’s 1993 constitution, serves at the pleasure of the president — nevertheless wields outsize influence. Even if the two men are in agreement on most issues, this arrangement undermines formal, transparent lines of authority by replacing them with contingent, potentially opaque personal relationships.

But where there is policy disagreement, the prospects for mischief and policy entrepreneurship by factions are very high. Just as infighting within the Bush administration made it extraordinarily difficult and frustrating for foreign countries to deal with Washington, infighting in Moscow would complicate dealings with Russia.

Medvedev and Putin are believed to be very close, and I am unaware of concrete, credible evidence to the contrary. But the durability of their relationship has not been seriously tested — yet. Like many countries, Russia faces extraordinarily difficult economic times ahead. Probable recession, low energy prices, and a lack of investment capital will impose tremendous demands on the Russian state to protect its citizens and companies, and it is inevitable that some factions will fare better than others due to resource constraints and rampant corruption. These problems could stoke political factionalization, lead to even more corruption, and strain Medvedev and Putin’s informal powersharing arrangement.

Moreover, in January Moscow will see its favorite whipping boy, the Bush administration, replaced by a popular new U.S. administration that has signaled a more multilateral approach to foreign policy. With the unifying foreign nemesis gone, cracks in Moscow’s foreign policy consensus may begin to appear.

None of this is to suggest that the United States shouldn’t seek a new strategic dialogue with Russia. It most emphatically should. But it must go in with open eyes and realistic expectations.


Building on James’ post yesterday, Medvedev’s announcement about putting missiles in Kaliningrad shows that the Russians are quickly becoming their own worst enemy. Why Medvedev would revert to clumsy chest thumping at a time when cooler heads are set to retake Washington is just mind-boggling. I get that this move is great red meat for the Russian street. But does Medvedev really think that turning missile defense into a pissing match with the next U.S. administration will convince Washington to back away from the third site? Come on, comrades, let’s get real here…


Yesterday morning I attended a breakfast featuring General Chilton, STRATCOM commander. The one-time astronaut offered this colorful illustration for why definitional issues would make it impossible, in his judgment, to negotiate a workable treaty banning space weapons:

Let’s say you build a craft capable of pulling alongside a satellite, extending a robotic arm, and plucking the satellite’s solar panels off, thereby disabling it. Would you consider that a space weapon? Well, if so, that would mean the U.S. space shuttle is a space weapon.


Congress has mandated that the next administration complete a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by early 2010. Senators McCain and Obama have both indicated support for nuclear reductions consistent with sustaining deterrence, and there is growing bipartisan support for a serious reexamination of U.S. nuclear weapons policy along these lines.

But many conservatives are not on board. The George C. Marshall Policy Institute just released the transcript of a recent talk on nuclear weapons policy by Senator Jon Kyl, a staunch conservative and the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate. The Arizona senator’s remarks provide a good window into the five main rhetorical strategies and arguments that hardliner conservatives are likely deploy in the 2009-2010 debate over the NPR and NPT Review Conference.

Discredit calls for nuclear reductions by associating them with unilateral nuclear disarmament. In his remarks, Senator Kyl immediately pivots from noting the bipartisan call for nuclear reductions by secretaries Perry, Shultz, Kissinger and Senator Nunn in the now-famous WSJ op-eds to castigating a so-called “nuclear freeze” movement that supposedly recommends a course where “the U.S. alone is disarmed.” Actually, the main message of the nuclear freeze movement (which was active in the 1980s) was (take a wild guess) to freeze nuclear arsenals, i.e. stop building new nukes, and not unilateral disarmament. More fundamentally, Senator Kyl is arguing against a straw man: there is not a single serious U.S. leader or respected expert from either side of the political spectrum advocating for unilateral disarmament.

Mischaracterize the primary diplomatic objective of nuclear reductions as seeking to influence Iran and North Korea. Senator Kyl ridicules the notion that nuclear reductions by the United States would have any impact on the nuclear ambitions of rogue states, saying “of course” they would not. But convincing Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons is not the animating diplomatic goal of nuclear reductions. Rather, it is to address concerns among non-aligned countries that the United States is not living up to to its NPT Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations. “By fulfilling our commitment to make progress toward nuclear disarmament,” concludes a policy task force co-chaired by former secretaries Perry and Albright, “we give ourselves much greater leverage to persuade other countries to take the firm steps we consider necessary to prevent terrorists and additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Suggest that America is getting left behind in a new arms race. Senator Kyl laments that “other states are modernizing their nuclear weapons and the United States is not.” Actually, these states are mostly playing catch-up—and they have a long way to go. Russia, for instance, keeps most of its SSBN fleet in port, where they are sitting ducks. Moreover, the United States is modernizing its strategic arsenal, for example, by deploying the more accurate Trident II D-5 missile to the SSBN fleet, improving the avionics on B-2 bombers so they can fly under radar, and putting the high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles from dismantled MX missiles on Minuteman ICBMs while improving Minuteman’s guidance system. In any event, America’s existing nuclear arsenal—to say nothing of its overwhelming conventional superiority—is more than sufficient to deter Russia (let alone China or Iran) and reassure U.S. allies that America remains committed to their security.

Selectively interpret technical data on warhead reliability. Senator Kyl chides Congress for not funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), suggesting that “each time we discover a problem in our legacy weapons…we have changed the weapon beyond its original design, in many cases because the components aren’t even available any more, they are so old-fashioned.” One gets the impression that our nukes are junkers patched together with duct tape and chewing gum. Yet each year since 1997, the secretaries of defense and energy have certified the arsenal as safe and reliable. As to a possible future need for an RRW or a new facility for manufacturing large numbers of plutonium pits, there is no need to commit now: an NNSA study found that the majority of plutonium pits for most nuclear weapons have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years, roughly twice as long as originally expected.

Offer optimistic cost projections for new nuclear weapons facilities. Senator Kyl suggests that “with as little as $300 million we could begin the construction of facilities like the Chemistry and Metallurgy Facility Replacement Project (CMRR).” What is important to recognize, however, is that this is merely a down payment on a $2 billion project. Moreover, completing this facility will cost at least 2-3 times as much as DOE originally promised, according to DOE’s FY 2009 budget request:

The CMRR CD-1 was approved on June 17, 2005 with a preliminary cost range of $745,000,000 – $975,000,000.


Based on continued examination of the project and recent, industry-wide experience related to the increases in the cost of construction of comparable facilities, the estimate for construction of the Nuclear Facility at CMRR is now viewed to be significantly higher. Initial estimates place the revised TPC above $2,000,000,000.

Who’s to say costs won’t escalate further?

Let’s be clear: for long as the United States possesses nuclear weapons, it must continue to maintain an appropriate nuclear weapons complex to ensure that the arsenal is safe and reliable. But meeting this need does not require American taxpayers to write DOE a blank check for constructing large new nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities decades before they might possibly be needed.


How’s this for irony: the bureaucratic home of nuclear weapons policy at DOD is SO/LIC&IC, short for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities.

Kidding aside, this actually says a lot about the diminishing bureaucratic footprint of nuclear weapons policy. During the 1993-1994 NPR, for example, the career nuclear weapons bureaucracy, civilian and military, was an independent force to be reckoned with, as Janne Nolan documented in her definitive account of that NPR, Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security After the Cold War.

And it surely is still a force, but just how much is open to debate. The political and policy environment of 2009-2010 will probably be much different than it was in 1994-1995. Back then, the military was basically united in its opposition to significant changes in nuclear weapons policy and its disdain for President Clinton, and the civilian nuclear weapons bureaucracy still had a great deal of clout within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, where an ascendant Republican majority was eager to harass the Clinton administration. None of these conditions are likely to be replicated any time soon, so I’m inclined to believe that the bureaucracy is not the force it once was.

But I wouldn’t want to underestimate it either. There is growing political interest in revisiting U.S. nuclear weapons policy — Congress has mandated the next administration to complete a formal Nuclear Posture Review by early 2010, U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have emphasized the importance of revisiting U.S. nuclear weapons strategy, and there’s that Shultz/Perry/Kissinger/Nunn effort — but talk is cheap. Any serious effort to change the posture will still require presidential commitment and sustained attention from the president’s senior political appointees.

The trouble is, it is tempting for a busy administration to relegate nuclear weapons policy to the category of “tending the garden,” and not “putting out fires.” And the next U.S. administration will sure inherit plenty of fires: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and growing regional clout, a broken U.S.-Russia relationship, and an incoherent missile defense policy run by a troubled agency (to name but a few). And guess who the lead or deputy firefighter is for pretty much all these issues? Yup — it’s the ASD SO/LIC&IC.

That’s an awful lot of fires for one person to battle. Will this individual realistically have the time and energy to shepherd an NPR that goes beyond a low common denominator? If not, does the DAS for Strategic Capabilities have enough clout to pick up the slack? Would it help if that position was spun off into its own office headed by an assistant secretary?

These are tough questions to answer in the abstract, but the next administration must wrestle with them if it is serious about changing U.S. nuclear weapons policy.


So this weekend, Iran rebuffed the P5+1 “freeze-for-freeze” proposal for having meta negotiations (negotiations about negotiations) over the nuclear issue. No surprises there.

But what next for the P5+1? I offer some ideas in my latest piece for The Guardian. Check it out.


The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Monday that Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

The source was an unnamed senior Russian air force official. According to the WaPo’s Peter Finn, the Russian Defense Ministry declined comment, but did not deny it either. Finn notes that Izvestia is one of the Kremlin’s preferred forums for strategic leaks.

Russia’s not going to deploy nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba. But this episode shows just how muddled (anyone?) the U.S.-Russia relationship has become. In a relationship this complex and multifaceted, there are bound to be major differences on certain issues; this is totally natural. These differences are usually manageable if the parties view the relationship in non-zero sum terms and leaders in each country set priorities for the relationship in order to minimize the friction and maximize the respective gains from cooperation.

Neither of these principles holds much sway in the U.S.-Russian relationship today. The Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty announced in late 2001 set the stage for an increasingly acrimonious and at times hostile relationship between the two former military adversaries. Vladimir Putin, who has clamped down on freedoms at home and exploited Russia’s newfound clout in global energy markets to bully its neighbors, deserves plenty of blame for the fallout.

But Bush administration policies ranging from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to its current efforts to establish a missile defense beachhead in Eastern Europe have fed the impression in Russia that the United States is not an enlightened superpower, but an imperialistic one that seeks power and influence at Russia’s expense. This is toxic and pushes the relationship in a zero-sum direction.

Moreover, the Bush administration has proven utterly inept at setting priorities. In foreign policy generally, decisions in one discrete policy sphere almost always constrain or enable policy options in other spheres. This is especially true in U.S.-Russian relations.

For instance, it’s really hard to push the Russians into supporting tougher sanctions against Iran when your administration is building missile defense installations on their front doorstep. Something’s gotta give, and a functioning policy planning process would identify and appropriately weigh these trade-offs so that the United States gets the most out of its relationship with Moscow—and vice versa.

Let’s hope the next U.S. administration fares better.