Proliferation Press

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Archive for March, 2009

Cracking The Iranian Nuclear Dilemma: Does Success Run Through Kabul?

Posted by K.E. White on March 31, 2009

Today’s meeting between a top Iranian and American foreign minister is big news. But perhaps bigger than the historical nature of this official contact, is its delivery method. Choosing Holbrooke makes clear that the Obama administration is serious about improving relations with Iran, but that success might just first flow through Kabul—not DC or Tehran. While by no means a risk-free strategy, Obama’s determination to engage Iran and others does not merely set the stage of diplomacy (which might very well fail). Neo-conservative critics would do well to realize Obama’s strategy also sets the stage for possible punitive action against Iran.

The Holbrooke-Adhundzadeh meeting in the Netherlands marks the first high-level contacts between Tehran and the Obama administration. The unplanned and brief meeting described as “cordial.” But Iran mixed signals: having this positive development shaded by criticism of the White House’s recently unveiled Afghanistan plan and refusing to send high-level Iranian officials to the Dutch meeting.

Today’s meeting reminds us of just how difficult the Iranian dilemma remains for the Obama administration.  On one side are voices demanding tougher action on the Iranian regime—whether through a military strike or greater economic sanctions. To these voices engaging in high-level negotiations with Iran before it suspends its nuclear enrichment program only will embolden negative Iranian behaviors. First and foremost, America must negotiate from a position of strength—i.e. be tough on Iran.

Such an issue becomes more pressing with the possible transfer of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. There purpose? To deter an Israeli strike. Will this force Israel’s hand? (Probably not, at least right now, given the messy state of Israel’s newly confirmed Netanyahu government)

On the other side are calls for a fleshed out diplomatic plan. Such a plan requires a developed set of increasing consequences for Iranian defiance and clear carrots; coordination (currently lacking) between Russia, China and the United States; and, finally, a comprehensive approach, linking the Iranian nuclear dilemma with global nonproliferation in general.

But first it’s useful to illustrate just how far US-Iranian relations have a way to go. Today’s LA Times editorial page offers this message from Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

The policies of previous U.S. administrations led to a rise in hatred, anger and worries. In all corners of the world, it is worth noting, the only flags being set ablaze belong to the U.S. and the occupying Zionist regime. 

President Obama has proclaimed a policy of “change,” and the American people have embraced it. But to remedy its image in the world, the U.S. needs to truly change its past methods.

Change is mandatory for the U.S. administration. For as history demonstrates, either you change, or you are forced to change. 

But it seems that before picking between ‘dove’ or ‘hawk’ response, the Obama administration is buying time. And this is a smart move. Obama’s public message to Iran, presently cooler rhetoric and today’s brief diplomatic meeting all show an administration intent gathering a clearer picture of the Iranian dilemma.

Tightening the screws, a la Jim Bolton, now does not seem prudent. If the Obama administration can get time to chat with Russia and China over Iran and possibly change their stance on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly the diplomatic calculus changes.

But laying the ground work for a coordinated diplomatic approach on Iran seems inexorably tied to Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan—and Pakistan. It’s no coincidence that Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the chosen emissary. Beyond the procedural rationale (deputy ministers meet with deputy ministers), three messages were being conveyed:

-Attention-Grabber: Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace accords. A respected deal-maker initiating a converstation with an Iranian minister conveys status and respect to Iran. It also makes America appear inviting to dialogue with Iran.

-That United States is serious: Holbrooke earned his reputation for getting things done; Adhundzadeh agreed to keep in touch, a key means or communication and deal-making was opened.

-Muscle-Flexing: Choosing Holbrooke, the point-man for diplomatic strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan also holds a muscular, symbolic resonance. It signals the overlap of two Obama administration goals: victory in Afghanistan and improved Iranian relations.

This third component is the most important. Victory in Afghanistan, tied with a continuing presence in Iraq, seems to be the lynch-pin in the Obama administration’s attempt to mold dialogue with Iran from a position of strength:

1)      It puts Iranian aspirations for hegemony on note

2)      Allows Obama to frame future discussions with Iran from an image of strength, at least relative to the image of America in 2005-2006. In this light he is not only a dove to Bush hawk, but a dove who fights and wins.

3)      It strengthens the faith of our allies in the region that the United States will not simply cut a deal with Iran and jump ship

4)      It signals our priorities to other key nations—Russia and China—about what is important: chiefly Iran’s nuclear program. When this is tied other discussions—for example, discussions over missile defense with Russia or modernizing our nuclear arnsenals—deals can be made

In short, it allows the Obama administration—in conjunctions with many other moving parts—to both whip up the international support it needs for any diplomatic break-through and pushing (not begging) Iran to the negotiating table.

Now neoconservative voices, such as John Bolton, may disagree with this ‘doveish’ approach. But what these voices fail to recognize is that these steps are also needed to make punitive action against Iran—whether through economic sanctions or military strikes—work.

Sanctions only work if they are enforced. Attempting to win Russian support, tied with greater efforts at screening supplies that go through Gulf States are key to 1) punishing Iran economically and 2) keeping dangerous materials out of Iran.

Furthermore any military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities are more likely to succeed with support—however mild from major powers. If a military strike is seen by countries as a unilateral power grab on the part of America, American stature and partnerships will be seriously damaged. But if over time the Obama administration can successfully turn the narrative to patiently dealing with a ‘bully’ state consequences of military action—while severe—will be minimized.

Success with Iran—whether through tough-talk & proxy competitions for influence (Iraq and Afghanistan) or military strikes (most likely through Israel, but seen as green-lit by the United States)—both require the moves the Obama administration is making.

Make no mistake: Obama is taking a big gamble. In putting his chips on Afghanistan, it has become his war—one with little support in the United States. And some suggest he’s doing this on the cheap. If Obama’s Afpak strategy does not work, pushing Iran back from the bomb—let alone our allies in the region—will become more difficult.

But some critics of diplomatic accommodation may point to the issue of time. Is there time to put all these moving parts in place before Iran builds the Bomb? I believe such an objection is a red herring.

A premptive military strike against Iran will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapon, but guarantee it. And done brusquely, such a strike will diminish America’s ability to a) stop nuclear proliferation worldwide and b) hurt America’s standing in the region irrevocably, let alone predictable flare-ups in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Keeping materials out of Iran is the key, along with a robust inspection force. Getting there requires cooperation (yes, from a position of strength), not preemptive military action.

To get there, the Obama administration must work with the time it has.

And the administration needs success in Afghanistan, ideally paired with stability in Paksitan.

Even if this ‘tough-diplomacy’ does not fail to deter Iran from virtually possessing or acquiring an operational atomic weapon, it places America in the best position possible to justify action against Iran.  The Obama administration is taking a breath and insuring America the widest possible range of action possible: something we should be thankful for.

Let’s just hope the Afghanistan gamble pays off.

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Echoes From A Cold War

Posted by proliferationpresswm on March 30, 2009

posted by Bob Noziglia

Reports have made clear that the Obama administration will continue military strikes against terrorist sites in Pakistan. This holdover from the Bush administration demands we ask what just is going on in Pakistan and why America has wedged itself into Pakistan internal border disputes. Bob Noziglia explores these questions and Pakistan’s self-defeating liberal tendencies, which demand the continued presence of robust American military support. 


It must be a dire situation indeed when Russia, with its own nuclear armament history, to be concerned about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.  Let us remember that not too long ago it was Russia, which after the Cold War ended in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had nuclear submarines rusting in unsecured ports; and a fire-sale on all equipment. 

It is also important to note the silence that, until now, Russia has had towards the operations regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan.  This comes from the haunting memories similar to our Vietnam when they attempted to expand Soviet territory. 

It is then with new eyes we must re-examine Pakistan and Afghanistan while both have their own qualities that make efforts for reconstruction a slow and complicated process, they are linked by more than geographical boundaries. 

While it was not profoundly mentioned when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last year, it was during her first tour as Prime Minister of Pakistan that she supported the rise of the Taliban, which was then one of many forces seeking to benefit from the Soviet’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Bhutto felt it was better to have a strict Islamic state next door because it would allow them to concentrate on somehow defeating India for the territory of Kashmir.  This decision combined with the military’s hands off approach regarding the tribal areas however would cause dire consequences, as these are where her assassins most likely came from. 

With an outpouring of support because of the death of his wife, it was “Mr. 10%” Zardari who ascended to the political throne with a promise of political unity with another deposed President due to corruption, Sharrif.  This of course became a political crisis for the same reason that toppled Musharraf’s government, the topic of reinstating judges banned from their duties under dubious charges. 

The failsafe within Pakistan has been that if things were to get too bad, the military would flex political muscle and be able to step in and have confidence with the people of making things right. 

Recent events, however, have eroded the populace’s confidence dramatically.  The recent attacks of fundamentalists against the military near the border regions has left many with the impression that the Military is in fact just as incompetent as their civilian counterparts. 

Combined with the many perceived and real failures of Musharraf in Pakistan, the military credibility is also at its lowest point.  When one also considers new revelations that the military had tangential relations with those behind the attacks in Mumbai, one has a renewed sense of urgency. 

What makes this situation precarious is that many of the leadership in Pakistan are schooled in the West, especially so of their judicial branch.  With this they have come to expect and desire separate but equal branches of government and the fundamental right of law. 

These are qualities to be aspired to no question, but there also needs to be a tradition of legitimacy to that government.  Control over ones borders and checks and balances making sure that no power, however pervasive becomes dominate. 

It is these two qualities-recognized balance between government branches and border integrity-that appear to be lacking in Pakistan.  The tribal regions linking Pakistan and Afghanistan have been left to their own devices for decades.  A definition of a government is to be the ultimate authority of a given territory.  For all intents and purposes Pakistan has been a country divided by its government’s apathy to maintain that authority.  With Fundamentalist having secured a base of operations that the Government of Pakistan is afraid to confront, and jealously uses sovereignty to prevent others from attacking, these fundamentals represent a great threat. 

Should another civilian led government fail, these fundamentals could represent the most cohesive and unified political and military force in the country.  With raised expectations of a government led by a unified government, and the military now placed in a decidedly supportive role, the margin of error razor thin. 

It is then we will see a country run by a fundamentalist government, one which has ties to those responsible for the attacks in 2001 have nuclear capabilities, and the desire to proliferate and use those weapons.  This is something that can not be allowed to happen, and would be a just cause to intervene in the internal politics to make sure such a scenario does not occur. 

Pushing for accountability of Pakistan’s leadership is recognition of the dangerous dynamics that exist.  The United States should take the position of assisting the Pakistani military against those in the tribal regions.  This in conjunction with maintaining a coalition within Pakistan that would seek to maintain Pakistan as a country guided by the Principles of Islam, without the xenophobia or fundamentalist principles that terrorist groups have allowed to corrupt the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Ultimately, this is a problem that can only be defeated by the people of Pakistan.  The United States has historically been a country which held to the principle of self determination, we must offer our assistance to aid Pakistan so that they may be able to live up to the definition of their country; Land of the Pure.

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The Costs of Love: Building Off PONI’s Response to ‘Learning to Love the Bomb’

Posted by K.E. White on March 24, 2009

K.E. White builds on PONI’s recent discussion of Adam B. Lowther’s recent editorial ‘Learning to Love The Bomb’. Here he suggests there is a middle ground between the two extremes Lowther presents as America’s choices on nuclear policy: dominance or abolition. Instead, looking to Michael Krepon’s recent book ‘Better Safe Than Sorry,’ White contends there is a middle ground between nuclear dominance and abolition: one where nuclear weapon states cooperative to minimize the dangers of nuclear accidents and exchanges, and work assiduously against nuclear proliferation.

PONI recently explored Adam Lowther’s article ‘Learning to Love the Bomb,’ where Lowther argued against unilateral cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal. While PONI problematized Lowther’s arguments against nuclear abolition, but does get to the central weakness of Lowther’s editorial. Lowther insists on a bifurcated approach to America’s nuclear policy: either America seeks nuclear dominance or weak-kneed nuclear abolition. But there is a middle ground between these choices, one that recognizes the incomplete security afforded by nuclear weapons and the risk that America nuclear dominance may very well set off a new era of nuclear proliferation.

In carving out this middle ground, I am heavily indebted to a book I recently completed—Michael Krepon’s recent book, ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’. There Krepon explores nuclear weapon history, the history of arms-controls and lays out a framework of Cooperative Threat Reduction to minimize nuclear dangers.

Lowther’s argument will be reviewed over three categories: the role played by nuclear weapons over the last 60+ years, the current state of America’s nuclear arsenal and, finally, contrasting the nuclear futures of dominance vs. cooperative threat reduction.

i.                    Nuclear History 

Lowther underplays the danger of accidents involving nuclear weapons. His ‘proof’ that nuclear weapons aren’t dangerous is that no nuclear or radiological device has been set-off since the nuclear detonations closing out WWII. 

a.        Russia and America did have a very close call: the Cuban Missile crisis. Most people would consider going back to that era unacceptable. Also America has had a history of nuclear accidents: a warhead crashing into the sea and another falling in the continental United States. All this is to say, that America and Russia were fortunate to get through the Cold War without a nuclear exchange or accidental detonation. Such a result was not predetermined, and reflected a period of decades through which the United States and the Soviet Union matured their diplomatic relations–and had good luck. 

b.       Today nine countries possess nuclear weapons. As this number increases, so too would the risk of accidental detonation or nuclear exchange. The United States and the Soviet Union were ‘ideal’ nuclear competitors: both spent huge sums of money producing and protecting their nuclear arsenal, and were internally stable. Can one say this about North Korea or Iran? 

c.        Lowther presents an inverted measure of nuclear success. The absence of a single nuclear detonation or accident is ‘proof’ of nuclear stability. But he does not concede the inverse: that a single successful detonation or nuclear accident is, to many, an unacceptable occurrence. Never having a nuclear detonation is not success; reducing that possibility in the present and future is success. Lowther simply proves America’s nuclear approach has been sufficient, not ideal or even the best approach towards international security. 

ii.                    America’s Nuclear Arsenal Today 

a.        Lowther gives credit to past arms control agreements and American nuclear policy without showing that the world has changed. Yes, America has cut its nuclear arsenal. But at the same time decisions over redesigning nuclear warheads or investigating nuclear-tipped bunker-buster bombs would signal a growing American nuclear policy, not reducing.

b.       While America does not fly 24-7 nuclear missions, it still holds nuclear-weapons on hair-trigger alert. In 15 minutes America—and Russia—could launch thousands of nuclear weapons. Is this really required for American or Russian security?

c.        America’s nuclear decisions impact the calculus of other nation’s nuclear policies. If America modernizes or grows its arsenal, other nations (nuclear and non-nuclear) would react. At the very least, America failing to limit its nuclear-weapons umbrella undercuts the very diplomatic support needed to reverse the Iranian nuclear program.

iii.                 The Problems With Nuclear Dominance

Lowther pushes America policymakers to maximize any advantage it has over nuclear weapons, aka pursue nuclear dominance. This logic suggests that America can only find security in arming itself. Yet one may suggest that the utility of nuclear weapons—at least for the world’s current nuclear powers—are limited. No nation can afford nuclear war. And at the same time conventional weapons have the ability to decapitate the regime of a nation in a single precision strike.  It seems our competition with China and Russia is not really well-served by nuclear weapons stockpiles, but rather in avoiding these costly decisions and working together to limit nuclear proliferation to other nations. 

History has show that the nuclear dimension to nation-state relations is a key component to overall relations between nuclear states.  When nations use a ‘go it alone’ approach on nuclear weapons, not only do relations with other nations suffer—it tends to cause ‘nuclear’ reactions that undercut the goal of limiting nuclear proliferation. For example, recent reports that the Obama administration would consider pulling back on a missile shield in Eastern Europe will return for Russian assistance with the Iranian nuclear program. This diplomatic development shows 1) nuclear dominance does not stop nuclear proliferation and 2) that nuclear cooperation can advance international security far better than nuclear weapons. 

Lowther presents America’s nuclear weapons policy in a vaccum. In so doing, Lowther refuses to admit the complicated and crosscrossing issues involved America’s nuclear deterrent. A hypothetical: If the United States modernizes its nuclear arsenal, its likely not only that China and Russia will follow–but that relations will be strained. This, as a result, then impacts others dimensions of our nuclear policy: whether that clamping down dangerous materials, insisting on nuclear inspections or stopping nations from developing nuclear weapons.

As the world’s largest holder of nuclear weapons predominant nuclear power*, America’s nuclear choices  heavily shapes the nuclear dimension of our international system.


Lowther constructs a straw-man against a rational approach to nuclear weapons in America. The United States can conclude agreements that minimize the danger of nuclear terrorism, a  nuclear weapons exchange or nuclear accidents.

Such a approach does not sacrifice America’s nuclear deterrent; such an approach, in fact, fosters the cooperation needed to 1) limit nuclear weapons proliferation and 2) keep nuclear materials out of terrorist hands.

Again, there is a middle-ground to Lowther’s nuclear dominance and sudden nuclear abolition: cooperative nuclear policy between nuclear nations. Nuclear proliferation is the greatest threat to global security. Defending a bloated nuclear arsenal and alienating possible counter-proliferation partners does nothing to minimize that threat. 

*Correction: Russia, not the United States, holds the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. But America clearly enjoys a predominant nuclear deterrent. From the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review: “Russia maintains the most formidable nuclear forces, aside from the United States, and substantial, if less impressive, conventional capabilities. There now are, however, no ideological sources of conflict with Moscow, as there were during the Cold War. The United States seeks a more cooperative relationship with Russia and a move away from the balance-of-terror policy framework, which by definition is an expression of mutual distrust and hostility. As a. result, a [nuclear strike] contingency involving Russia, while plausible, is not expected.” (p. 17) 

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PONI Responds to Agruments Against Nuclear Abolition

Posted by K.E. White on March 19, 2009

PONI offers a very valuable posting on this Boston Globe editorial arguing against nuclear arms reduction. In the Globe article, Dr. Adam B. Lowther concludes:

The truth is nuclear weapons remain a fundamental aspect of our national security. Without them, the American people will face greater, not less, danger and adversaries willing to exploit our perceived weakness. Arbitrarily shrinking the nuclear arsenal by an additional 50 percent may not be a wise idea. It certainly deserves careful thought.

PONI offers a nice rejoinder. Good reading for anyone who wants a quick primier to nuclear policy debates.

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Britain Risks Losing Its Nuclear Deterrent

Posted by K.E. White on March 19, 2009

Britain might lose its nuclear deterrent owing to construction delays in revamping  UK submarine forces. It’s a good thing PM Brown is talking about cutting back their nuclear forces. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, British nuclear forces are in American hands.

From Bloomberg:

The U.K. risks losing its nuclear weapons deterrent if its plan to build a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines falls behind schedule as many other defense projects have, a panel of lawmakers said today.

The Public Accounts Committee, including members of Parliament from the three main parties, said the submarine program is still in the “concept phase” and needs critical decisions by next September to remain on time. The Ministry of Defense plans to begin building the ships before the design is complete to maintain its schedule, the report said.

“The department’s timetable for completing the design and build process for the replacement of the submarines is extremely tight,” Edward Leigh, a Conservative member of Parliament who leads the committee, said in a statement in London. Its track record on delivering projects on time “is not exemplary.” 

And from BBC News:

“Our programme to have a renewed nuclear deterrent will depend on yet to be taken decisions by the US on the dimensions of the successor missile,” he said.

“The MoD is taking steps to reduce the risk of a new missile not fitting in our submarines but there is no guarantee it will.”

But the MoD said there was no doubt that missiles and missile components in future submarines would be compatible.

Defence procurement minister Quentin Davies said the UK’s ability to maintain the submarine deterrent on a continuous basis was not in doubt.

Gordon Brown said earlier this week that he was prepared to include the UK’s nuclear arsenal in multilateral arms control talks. 

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Blog-on-Blog: Boot-ing Gates Push for Weapon Systems Cuts

Posted by K.E. White on March 18, 2009

A Boston Globe article reveals that Defense Secretary Gates will be pushing Congress to cut certain weapons programs. The report comes after it was announced Gates would skip a NATO summit to focus on the defense budget.

A Boston Globe article reveals that Defense Secretary Gates will be pushing Congress to cut certain weapon programs. The report comes after it was announced Gates would skip a NATO summit “to focus on the defense budget.”

Max Boot comes out against Defense Secretary Gates emerging plans to cut weapon programs, as reported in today’s Boston Globe.

From the Globe report:

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

Now Max Boot over at Contentions criticizes this report for not being critical of the cuts. Now the piece does assume that certain weapon programs are wasteful. But Boot doesn’t seek to illuminate this debate with facts, instead  he uses a nice combo-punch of strategic anxiety and economic pragmatism: “But can we really afford to cut our acquisition programs at a time when we are fighting two wars and when major rivals such as China and Russia are pursuing aggressive programs of military expansion? And why, at a time of deepening recession, do we want to throw thousands of highly skilled defense-industry employees out of work?”

But absent in his entry is any defense of the programs Boot wishes to protect. In fact, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld singled out the F-22 for the chopping block in 2002. And here’s a Brookings article defending another Rumsfeld-favored weapons program cut.

The Brookings opinion peice illustrates just how difficult it is  to cut weapons spending:

But no secretary of Defense, even a popular wartime leader like Rumsfeld, can easily kill weapons that a military service and Congress strongly support. Just ask Dick Cheney, who tried to kill the Marine Corps Osprey aircraft a decade ago.

While secretaries of Defense and presidents do run wars, they have no greater control over the Pentagon budget than Congress, which has the constitutional responsibility to raise and equip armies and navies.

Largely for these reasons, the Clinton administration did not seek to cancel large weapons programs, and, until the Crusader, Secretary Rumsfeld had not tried to do so himself.

Now there might be honest disagreements over the merits of certain weapon systems the military should fund. But critics must do more than absurdly argue that any weapon systems—whether it works or not—holds inherent value. It’s doubtful simply spending (even) more will result in greater security.

Especially when one considers this March 2008 GAO report reviewing the DoD’s aquisition program and 72 individual weapons programs. It’s findings–presented here in greatly condensed form–paint a worrisome picture:

Of the 72 weapon programs we assessed this year, no program had proceeded through system development meeting the best practices standards for mature technologies, stable design, and mature production processes—all prerequisites for achieving planned cost, schedule, and performance outcomes.

The results of our analysis indicate that DOD programs continue to be suboptimal and that the lack of knowledge at key junctures of system development continues to be a major cause of these outcomes. The final result is lost buying power and opportunities to recapitalize the force. 

Arguments that consider all weapon programs spending sacroscant are rhetorical pitfalls: they promise only to blur facts, inject partisanship, encourage waste, and–most troubling–avoid sober discussions about what will and will not promote American security and protect the lives of America’s servicemen and women. 

Update 4:18 pm:

GAO chimes in again, as reported in today’s NYTimes:

A top government oversight official told the House Budget committee today that the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition process is “fragmented and broken,” creating cost overruns close to $300 billion with little oversight.

“Major weapon programs continue to cost more, take longer, and deliver fewer quantities and capabilities than originally planned,” said Michael J. Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office. Often, he added, Pentagon officials are “rarely held accountable for poor decisions or poor program outcomes.”

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Brown Gets ‘Brownie Points’ on Disarmament, Signals Willingness to Cut Britain’s Nuclear Forces

Posted by K.E. White on March 17, 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon BrownSummary: Symbolic, Diplomatic and—most importantly—practical reasons lay behind Brown’s openness to cutting, but not scrapping, Britain’s nuclear forces.

Gordon Brown signaled his openness to cutting Britain’s nuclear forces as part of a multilateral effort at disarmament. In his speech, Checks Against Delivery, sets the stage for an ambitious agenda at 2010 Nonproliferation Treaty Conference: strengthening treaty accountability, reducing fissile material, cutting nuclear armaments and enacting a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In particular, Brown suggested that Britain could keep an effective nuclear deterrent with 12, not 16 missile tubes. And he signaled a general openness to cutting the number of UK nuclear warheads.

While not reversing Britain’s commitment to a nuclear deterrent, this is a considerable shift: just two years ago, Tony Blair—relying on Conservative votes—obtained £20billion to fund new nuclear-armed submarines.

So what’s behind the move? And is it really much of a nuclear shift?

The move has symbolic importance: Britain, a leading proponent of nuclear disarmament has been hampered by its refusal to cut their own deterrent. Such a shift grants Britain a bit more diplomatic heft when criticizing the Iranian nuclear program. Brown might also be trying to pressure Russia and the United States to commit to a meaningful disarmament agreement, perhaps sensing that President Obama could put arms control back on the global agenda.

From Brown’s speech: “I know from President Obama and the new US administration that America shares with us the ultimate ambition of a world free from nuclear weapons.”

From Times On-Line: HMS Vanguard, which was launched in 1992, is one of four British submarines capable of carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic nuclear missiles with up to eight warheads. At least one of the submarines is on patrol at any time.

From Times On-Line: HMS Vanguard, which was launched in 1992, is one of four British submarines capable of carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic nuclear missiles with up to eight warheads. At least one of the submarines is on patrol at any time.

But let’s not forget Brown’s domestic constituency. While the British public supports a British nuclear deterrent, they are soundly against paying to keep it credible.

Sources of Interest

Here’s the Guardian’s report on Brown’s speech. And here’s a PDF of the speech in full.

This 2006 report on the British nuclear force, Worse Than Irrelevant by Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler and Stephen Pullinger is worth reading. It seems to be part of Gordon Brown’s playbook and suggests where he might go from here.

And January’s Economist shows—in condensed form—how little bang Britain gets for the nuclear buck:

Plainly, Britain’s military resources do not match its commitments. Three ex-generals have said that Britain’s “unusable” nuclear weapons should be scrapped. But Sir Jock reckons that any money saved would almost certainly go back to the Treasury, not the conventional forces.

On December 11th the government announced a delay of one or two years in building big new aircraft carriers, and the deferral of a new family of armoured vehicles. Even so, insiders say there is still a £3.7 billion ($5.2 billion) hole in the budget for military equipment over the next four years and procurement costs are still rising. The bill for the 20 biggest weapons projects is now £28 billion, or 12%, over budget.

Heavy spending on kit for the navy and air force leaves little for the army; one source says it will receive less than 10% of all spending on defence equipment between 2003 and 2018. The government notes, however, that better-protected transport vehicles and other things are being rushed in separately using the Treasury’s reserve funds; the force in Afghanistan is now the best-equipped that Britain has fielded (though it still trains with old kit).

How much should Britain spend on defence? At around 2.6% of GDP, its defence budget is high by European standards but below America’s 4% (see chart 2). Defence spending has lagged behind other government expenditure (see chart 3). One general says: “You cannot have a first-division army, navy and air force—and a nuclear deterrent—for £34 billion a year.”

Posted in Arms Control | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Russia Rearms: Why is the Bear Roaring?

Posted by K.E. White on March 17, 2009

President Dmitry Medvedev announced a “large scale rearming” of Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces in 2011. 

The NYTimes portrays it as a mix of diplomatic posturing for Medvedev’s meeting with Obama and the response to Russian military weaknesses shown in the recent Georgia-Russian war. The Guardian heralds the new arms race, putting blame squarely on America’s maximalist foreign policy. And views the announcement as geared more towards the Russian public. 

In short, the move is not welcome news—but it’s not entirely unexpected. And its meaning will take form over this year. Medvedev has drawn various lines in the sand: moves towards having airbases in Cuba, setting up bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, helping rid of an American base in Kyrgyzstan, and now a rearmament announcement. Keep in mind, Russia has for years protested expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe–and drew a bloodly red line in Georgia.

And let’s not ignore another possible cause of this announcement: the economic crisis. Russia may be signaling that current economic woes will not change their strategic objectives. 

But one thing is clear: The US-Russian relationship is entering a critical phase, and the Obama administration must tread carefully.  

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Blog-on-Blog: About Jeffrey Goldberg Blog Bashing Roger Cohen

Posted by K.E. White on March 17, 2009

Summary: Let’s move on from debates over the character of the Iranian regime; it gets us no closer to the real questions: 1) how best to deter Iran from going nuclear and 2) if Iran develops nuclear weapons, how best to prevent catastrophe.

Yesterday Jeffrey Goldberg dedicated his Atlantic blog entry to exposing NYTimes columnist Roger Cohen’s shallow conception of the Iranian threat faced by Israel. You can read/watch the ‘Cohen evisceration’ here in full, but here’s boiled down version:

-Roger Cohen debated Rabbi David Wolpe; the topic: Iran and Israel

-Wolpe insists Cohen imagine a time when the balance of power between Iran and Israel flips: meaning when Iran has nuclear weapons/equal or greater conventional military capabilities. Add to this that Hamas and Hezbollah are Iran proxies, and thus would reap direct benefits from such strategic flip.

-Cohen waffles—says some things about stopping Iran from getting The Bomb. Audience laughs.

The problems with this semantic takedown (even if Contentions gives it kudos):

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Obamaland Foreign Policy: Bush Doctrine Dolled Up or Courageous Return to Realism?

Posted by K.E. White on March 16, 2009

With over fifty days in, how has Obamaland defined their approach to foreign policy?

Defining Obama & Co.: What is the adminstration's worldview how has the administration performed on foreign policy? Experts seem split on both fronts.


Three different takes on Obama’s first foreign policy moves.

Fareed Zakaria shows support for Obama’s foreign policy moves, and argues that both liberal and (neo)conservative critics share a similar flaw: a “maximalist” and myopic view of American foreign policy. From Zakaria’s Newsweek article:

Consider the gambit with Russia. The Washington establishment is united in the view that Iran’s nuclear program poses the greatest challenge for the new administration. Many were skeptical that Obama would take the problem seriously. But he has done so, maintaining the push for more effective sanctions, seeing if there is anything to be gained by talking to the Iranians, and starting conversations with the Russians. The only outside power that has any significant leverage over Tehran is Russia, which is building Iran’s nuclear reactor and supplying it with uranium. Exploring whether Moscow might press the Iranians would be useful, right?

Wrong. The Washington Post reacted by worrying that Obama might be capitulating to Russian power. His sin was to point out in a letter to the Russian president that were Moscow to help in blunting the threat of missile attacks from Tehran, the United States would not feel as pressed to position missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic—since those defenses were meant to protect against Iranian missiles. This is elementary logic. It also strikes me as a very good trade since right now the technology for an effective missile shield against Iran is, in the words of one expert cited by the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman: “a system that won’t work, against a threat that doesn’t exist, paid for with money that we don’t have.”

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own—Russian demands are by definition unacceptable. The only way to deal with countries is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it’s imperial policy. And it isn’t likely to work in today’s world.

But Commentary’s Abe Greenwald considers “[t]he Bush Doctrine alive and well” in Obamaland. From his recent article, ‘The Doctrine of Fakism’:

That’s because the most distinguishing feature of the new mushy realism is that it’s shamelessly fake. Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly believe that, “The best way to advance America’s interest in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions,” because she can’t even explain what that means.  Barack Obama does not believe (at least not now) that Iran can be talked out of the bomb any more than he intends to “end” the Iraq War, and John Kerry doesn’t think, “we have an opportunity to reshape the way the United States does business with the world.” These fakists have settled on a language to use in public and this is it. Global, interconnected, diplomatic, sustainable, endurable, smart, multilateral, non-ideological. You know — Obamese. The biggest change Barack Obama has brought to American politics is linguistic. Leaders are now required to create cuddly, meaningless word salads while continuing the implementation of aggressive policies.

The Bush Doctrine is alive and well.  This is because George W. Bush was not, as Clintonand Kerry imply, too blinded by ideology to be pragmatic. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton said of smart power, “This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence, who was born a slave and rose to become one of the great voices of his time, declared that ‘in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.’” But she didn’t need to reach back to the second century B.C. to make her point. She could have simply adduced the behavior of the current President. Before attacking Afghanistan, President Bush pleaded both directly and through back channels with the Taliban in hopes that they would hand over Osama bin laden. Before going into Iraq, the President got the UN Security Council to pass a cycle of extra resolutions aimed at getting Saddam to disclose his weapons and weapons programs without having to go the military route. In both cases, Bush doggedly sought UN approval for action – something Hillary Clinton’s husband did not secure before launching operations in Haiti, the Balkans, and Iraq.

The ‘right’/unstatisfying answer: We don’t know. Obamaland’s public moves to date have been devoted to putting out fires from the Bush administration (Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia and Pakistan). And, like any astute triage approach calls for, the White House is using what works: (perhaps) pushing back on missile defense to gain Russian support on Iran, while simultaneously going with hard power in Afghanistan. Now how far Obama pushes nonproliferation, how he enlists Russian and Chinese support against terrorism and nuclear weapon-proliferators and crisis management are some of the barometers that will–in time–reveal Obamaland’s foreign policy framework.

And even then Obama could always do a Reaganesque flip.

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