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Old Thinking, New Realities

Old Thinking, New Realities

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) (courtesy of Wonkette)

In an OpEd in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Senators Bob Corker, currently Ranking Member on the Foreign Relations Committee, and James Inhofe, well-known global warming skeptic and Ranking Member on the Armed Services Committee, opined about how the administration’s commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons was 1) dangerous, 2) likely to cause an arms race around the globe, and 3) will embolden North Korea and Iran.  And, by the way, President Obama is reneging on his commitment to fund the modernization of the nuclear weapons infrastructure which he made in order to get New START ratified by the Senate.

The two senators, like many analysts who have a hard time seeing past the demise of the Soviet Union, assert that, without a sizeable NATO nuclear umbrella, South Korea would go nuclear.  Japan would follow suit.  China would ramp up its arsenal.  But, to quote a longtime expert, “Candle makers will never invent electricity.”  In this case, those who have an intellectual stake in the status quo will never be the ones to come up with the creative alternatives.

The views that the two senators espouse ignore some pretty potent realities.  First, as a number of military advisors have noted, there is ample room for nuclear weapons reductions without completely getting rid of them, most notably retired General James Cartwright.  Hardly a bunny-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing member of Greenpeace, General Cartwright is the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of the United States’ nuclear forces.  Last May, he said that “the United States’ nuclear deterrence could be guaranteed with a total arsenal of 900 warheads, and with only half of them deployed at any one time. Even those in the field would be taken off hair triggers, requiring 24 to 72 hours for launching, to reduce the chance of accidental war…. The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the cold war,” He continued, “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.” This guy was a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces.  Yet he has the wisdom and foresight to see that the arsenal needs to be adjusted to reflect new realities.  Not so for Senators Corker and Inhofe, the former of whom has a national laboratory in his district.

Second, there is the looming sequester and ongoing U.S. budget woes.  Senators Corker and Inhofe complain about the Obama Administration coming up short in its pledge to modernize the nuclear weapons infrastructure. Defense spending is part of the so-called “mandatory budget”, which, along with entitlements, account for more than 50 percent of U.S. expenditures.  The rest is made up of itty bitty budget items in the non-defense discretionary budget, like education, veterans’ benefits, transportation, energy, agriculture, health programs, and investments in science, space and technology.  It goes without saying that those non-defense discretionary budget items are not, and never were, the straw that broke the budget deficit camel’s back given their share of federal expenditures.  But guess what?  Those who have been the loudest in trying to avoid the sequester’s negative impact have been those in the defense sector.  This despite the fact that the NDD budget has been cut significantly over the last several budget cycles, so much so that there is nothing left to cut, except for sinew.  In contrast, the defense category has ample room for belt-tightening, not the least of which is the nuclear weapons posture. Call me crazy, but if you don’t have a country worth defending, what good is excessive defense spending?  North Korea comes to mind.  Here you have an elite class of government sycophants, led by dictator Kim Jong-Un, who insist on spending inordinate amounts of money on a nuclear weapons program (not to mention western luxury goods) to protect a country of people so impoverished that they have now turned to cannibalism to survive.  Cannibalism.


Senators Corker and Inhofe happen to be part of a political party whose platform is pegged to a desire to shrink government and not raise taxes.  Only items like defense should be handled by the federal government.  Everything else should fall to the states or the private sector, despite the fact there is simply not enough money in state budgets to fund most of these items, and there is absolutely no incentive for the private sector to take them over.  So, what would happen to these accounts, like education, health programs and investments in science?  As long as we have a robust defense budget, everything else will be taken care of somehow. Or not.

The call by the two senators to dump additional funds into an antiquated defense posture at a time when the U.S. cannot balance its books is irresponsible at best.  Refusing to eliminate the excessive number of nuclear weapons in a Cold War-era arsenal despite changed circumstances is ridiculous.  Moreover, I find it hard to believe that having the U.S. implement its Article VI commitment to reduce and ultimately do away with nuclear weapons would not shake loose other nuclear Gordian knots.  If the U.S. and Russia reduced their numbers to those comparable with China (such that we know how many they actually have), the U.K. and France, it is certainly within the realm of credulity that they would be prepared to join in reduction negotiations.  Getting down to such numbers would actually require it.

And yet, Senators Corker and Inhofe, in their WSJ OpEd, warn the administration that, until it fully funds nuclear infrastructure modernization efforts and quit trying to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there is no way the Senate would approve another arms control treaty.  In their words, “A presidential attempt to circumvent Congress by pursuing reductions unilaterally would….be met with stiff resistance on Capitol Hill.”  So much for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  And so much for the U.S. leading by example, as it has done in the past, when it comes to arms control and nonproliferation efforts.  Such short-sightedness and reactionary thinking risks freezing in place an outdated and outmoded nuclear arsenal.  More importantly, it risks blocking any further progress in our relationships with other countries, including North Korea and Iran.  It is time for some creative, ground-breaking approaches to these intractable nuclear challenges.  But keeping the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal as it is now is not the way to do that.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.