An 80% reduction? Now that’s a down payment on a nuclear-weapon-free world!
From time to time on this blog, I’ve stated that substantial cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals—to levels of 500 each or fewer—would not only represent a serious “down payment” on a world without nuclear weapons, but would also take away the last remaining excuse for the other nuclear-weapon states to come to the table and commence negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. Two years ago, I pointed to an even more dramatic proposal, made by US Air Force strategists no less, for cuts to a little more than 300 weapons, which they said the US could safely do regardless of whether Russia and the other nuclear-weapons states followed suit.
I’ve also expressed disappointment that the New START agreement between the US and Russia did little more than codify the Bush-Putin era cuts in a real treaty, rather than the overly casual SORT. (I called the latter “deeply flawed,” instead of “phony,” in a rare moment of self-restraint.) The Obama administration’s subsequent commitment to a hyper-inflated program to rebuild the US nuclear weapons infrastructure in order to modernize and refocus a smaller, but apparently permanent, START-level arsenal, left most of us wondering what was left of the bold vision of a world without nuclear weapons President Obama embraced in Prague in 2009.
Over the last couple of weeks, however, two things have happened that suggest the Prague vision—or at least some slightly more ambitious version of it than we’ve seen in the past three years—may be guiding the administration’s actions after all. (And before I go any further, I’m fully aware that what we’re seeing may be part of an election-year effort to reinvigorate Obama’s progressive base. But I’m willing to temper my cynicism, at least a little, until we see how this plays out.)
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that the administration is considering very deep cuts in deployed nuclear weapons, and that among the options are a proposal for a near-80% reduction to between 300 and 400 weapons. That, to put it mildly, would be a huge step in the right direction. Even the intermediate option of the three said to be under consideration—a cut to 700-800 weapons—would cross the symbolically and psychologically crucial threshold of 1,000 in a way that could not be ignored by the other nuclear-weapon states, not to mention the rest of the world. (For the sake of completeness, the most conservative option, retiring 400 to 500 more weapons than called for under New START, would be less dramatic than the alternatives, but would still be a very welcome step.)
I knew the minute I read the AP article (and I’m hardly claiming any special insight on this one), that the blowback from the right wing would be immediate and virulent. No surprise, Rush Limbaugh, American talk radio’s blowhard emeritus, was on the air in a matter of hours calling the proposals (which are not even officially proposals yet) “scary” plans for “unilateral disarmament,” even as Iran is “nuking up.” Congressional Republicans took their cue, as they often do, from Limbaugh’s posturing, concocting sound bites such as “reckless lunacy” and “preposterous notion.”
All of that is to be expected, and I’m sure the administration anticipated this response from the President’s political opponents. The larger question in my mind is to what extent this talk of bold new disarmament options is a trial balloon that will settle quietly back to earth if it doesn’t receive loud and enthusiastic support from that segment of the voting population to which the administration is clearly appealing, at least in part. IPPNW’s US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, has already launched a petition endorsing dramatic reductions, and they will undoubtedly be joined by other major US NGOs eager to make the most of this opportunity.
I said there was a second thing, and this one hasn’t made the news, at least not that one would notice. This week we learned from the Los Alamos Study Group that the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory will be “indefinitely deferred,” and that the administration is expected to “zero out” the new plutonium production facility’s budget later this year. LASG rightly calls CMRR-NF “the flagship nuclear weapons complex modernization project.” The suspension (not the cancellation, LASG cautions) of this key component of the previously announced $8.5 billion nuclear infrastructure expansion program could be the first of other budget cuts, which may actually find some bipartisan support in Congress. Let’s hope so.
In the meantime, take a minute to sign the PSR petition.