War Stories

What’s Obama’s Nuclear Endgame?

Obama told Medvedev that he’ll have more “flexibility” to deal with nukes after November. What could he possibly mean?

US President Barack Obama, left, speaks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right.
What did President Obama mean when he told Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have more “flexibility” after the election?

EPA/Ekaterina Shtukina/Ria Novosti/Kremlin.

Much fuss has been stirred over President Obama’s open-mic remark to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he’ll have more “space” and “flexibility” to negotiate the dispute over missile defense after he’s reelected.

Several Republicans have charged that his remark reflects a secret plan to “sell out” the U.S. missile-defense program and thus “capitulate” to the Russians (who, Mitt Romney seems to believe, are still “our No. 1 geopolitical foe”).

Obama has since explained that he merely meant that the issue’s “technical aspects” are too “complicated” to resolve in the heat of an election year—as this trumped-up controversy shows.

What to make of this kerfuffle? Obama’s explanation, while clearly true, seems a little bit disingenuous. But the Republicans’ accusations, while theoretical, are totally out of whack with reality on several levels.

It’s obvious that presidents have more flexibility when they’re no longer facing another election. The question is, what are they likely to do with it? Newt Gingrich has thundered that Obama will make war on the Catholic Church from the first day of his second term. This, of course, is sheer lunacy. But is there anything to the prediction that Obama will set out to destroy missile defense?

If there is, he has a funny way of going about it. The military budget he submitted to Congress last month cuts the allotment for a lot of high-profile weapons projects—but it requests $9.7 billion for missile defense (with forecasts of $47.4 billion over the next five years). In other words, no cut at all.

And it’s not just the money. One item on the agenda at the NATO summit in Chicago this May is the announcement that the missile-defense system will have achieved “interim capability”—which is to say that, to a limited extent, it’s right on schedule. The USS Monterrey, the first Aegis-class cruiser designed to carry a ballistic-missile-defense system, will in fact be carrying SM-3 interceptor missiles in the Mediterranean. At the same time, as agreed late last year, an early-warning radar system will be switched on at the Kurecik base in Turkey. Meanwhile, Spain has agreed to serve as the home port for four Aegis cruisers. Agreements have also been signed with Romania and Poland to serve as sites for land-based SM-3s in 2015; already, Polish and Romanian officers have been rotating in and out of a training base for operating the sites.

Now it’s true, Obama could junk all these accords after swearing the oath for his second term. They are executive actions, requiring no congressional approval. But why would he have gone to the trouble of spending all this money, redesigning all these ships, and arranging all these NATO agreements, if he was just going to scuttle them? It’s a lot to scuttle. If his real agenda all along were simply to cuddle up with the Russians, it would have made more sense not to build these projects and make these commitments in the first place; the cuddling wouldn’t seem such a conspicuous reversal.

Obama entered the White House a skeptic on missile defense, but after his first few months in office, for better or worse, he came around. First, the program in development was no longer Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” fantasy of a space-based missile shield; it had been whittled down to a more reality-based defense against limited nuclear attacks launched by rogue regimes or terrorists—a much more plausible mission scientifically. Second, tests of the SM-3, which is designed to shoot down short- to medium-range missiles, have been more successful than earlier generations of interceptors (though there’s still controversy over just how successful the tests have been).

In September 2009, Obama did abandon George W. Bush’s plan to deploy interceptors inside the Czech Republic and Poland, deciding instead to go with a “phased adaptive approach” to install the interceptors on ships at sea, with the possible option of putting some a few years later in Poland and Romania. This decision stemmed, in part, from Obama’s broader desire to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, which Bush had left in deep disrepair. But it also stemmed from the Pentagon’s analysis that a sea-based system would be better; the interceptors would be less vulnerable to a preemptive strike, and, because ships are mobile, they could deal with attacks from a broader range of foes.

So what did Obama mean when he said he’d have more “flexibility” in his second term? Flexibility to do what? To get at this requires, first, an understanding of why the Russians are so nervous about the prospect of a U.S. (or NATO) missile-defense program so close to their border, in the heart of their former empire.

That second question almost answers itself. No weapon is purely defensive, not even one that’s designed to shoot down an offensive missile. Back in the darkest days of the Cold War, the superpowers maintained a durable peace because of nuclear deterrence: If one side launched a nuclear attack, the other would retaliate in kind. Victory in any meaningful sense was impossible. But if one side developed an effective ballistic-missile-defense system, it could launch a first strike and, when the other side retaliated with whatever weapons survived the attack, it could shoot most of them down. Victory was possible, at least on paper.

This scenario, of course, was loony. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, the “winning” side would lose at least 10 million people, and suffer hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, as a result of the retaliation. (As Gen. Buck Turgidson, the George C. Scott character, in Dr. Strangelove put it, “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed up …”) But really (readers under the age of 30 or so will have to trust me on this), educated scholars and statesmen actually held forth on such scenarios, with straight faces and  furrowed brows, not just in the depths of the Cold War but well into the 1990s.

It is definitely bizarre that the Russians seem to be obsessing over this scenario so many years later. After all, even George W. Bush’s plan envisioned a couple dozen interceptors in Eastern Europe. No way they could have neutralized the Russians’ arsenal of well over 1,000 ballistic-missile warheads.

This is all true, for now. But a Russian might wonder about the future. NATO’s plan calls for these interceptors to grow in number, and to expand in range and power. By 2020, an upgraded version of the SM-3 will have, at least on paper, the ability to shoot down not just short-range missiles but intercontinental-range models as well. And the interceptors in Poland and Romania, as well as the radar in Turkey, may be well-situated to deal with missiles launched from Iran. But if you twist the compass a little, they could also deal with some launched from Russia.

Again, for now, this is irrelevant, given the size of Russia’s arsenal. But if future U.S.-Russian arms-reduction treaties slash both sides’ arsenals down much further, the defensive interceptors start to take on a larger potential role in a nuclear strike / counter-strike scenario. To illustrate in extreme terms: A few dozen interceptors would make no difference if each side had 1,000 offensive warheads; but they might make some difference if each side had 500 or 200 or 100 warheads … pick your number.

And that’s the point—what is that number? How far can the two sides reduce their offensive arsenals before NATO’s missile defenses start to make the Russians very nervous about whether their arsenal can deter a nuclear strike in a crisis?

This is not a new issue. In a “unilateral statement” tacked on to the New START treaty, which Obama and Medvedev signed in April 2010, the Russians declared that there was a relationship between offensive and defensive weapons and that they reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. built up its defenses to the point where they “give rise to a threat” to Russia’s offensive “nuclear force potential.”

Some Republicans at the time screamed that the Russians were boxing us in and strapping us with limits on our missile-defense program. So, in reaction, the Obama administration tacked on its own unilateral statement, taking note of the Russians’ concern but adding that the U.S. missile defenses “are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia” but are rather aimed to defend against “limited missile launched” by “regional threats,” and, to that end, the U.S. will “continue improving and deploying” such systems. (Obama spokesmen also noted that unilateral statements in a treaty have no binding effect.)

Still, there is indisputably a relationship between offensive and defensive arms. That is Arms Control 101. Anyone who says otherwise is lying or doesn’t understand the most basic principles of deterrence.

And so, this may be what Obama meant by “flexibility.” If the missile-defense program is the main obstacle to further reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, then maybe he can be flexible in some ways that require no congressional approval. He could, for example, stretch out the program. That intercontinental-range feature could come on line in 2025 instead of 2020 (that’s likely to happen, for technical reasons, anyway). Or those sites in Poland and Romania could be moved to make them seem less threatening to Russia. Or the Russians could send personnel to man the systems jointly. (Bush made this suggestion.)

If the defenses might still repel a small-scale attack by Iran or some other foe, and if the adjustment in the program would bring about a dramatic reduction in the offensive nuclear arsenals (but still leaving enough weapons to deter a first strike), what’s wrong with that?

Anyone who thinks there is something wrong with that must also believe that the defense system is—or ought to be—aimed at Russia. It’s worth remembering that even George W. Bush disputed that idea.

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, appears to disagree with George W. Bush. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Romney not only suggested that a second-term Obama would scuttle missile defense, he also attacked the notion of being flexible with Russia about anything. Russia, he said, “is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe, they fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that [Obama] has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.”

When Blitzer asked whether Iran, China, or North Korea might be more dangerous than Russia, Romney replied that Russia always “lines up with the world’s worst actors,” whether at the U.N. Security Council, in dealing with a nuclear Iran or North Korea, or any other situation.

Think whatever you want of missile defense. This is nonsense. Since Obama’s “reset” policy, Russia has supported the U.S. position on U.N. sanctions against Iran and North Korea. It reversed its decision to sell advanced air-defense radar to Iran, which would have made an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities (should someone launch one) far more difficult. It allowed transit of NATO troops and equipment to Afghanistan, which has allowed us to reduce our reliance on supply routes through Pakistan. And just this week, the Russian energy minister said it would make up oil shortfalls to Europe that might result from the sanctions on Iran.

Russia isn’t entirely in sync with U.S. interests: It opposed the resolution against Syria, for instance, and it would be a stretch to call it a full-fledged ally. But the Cold War is long over. The vast majority of both sides’ nuclear weapons, as well as a good part of the missile-defense plan, has nothing to do with maintaining a “balance of power” in any meaningful sense of the phrase. And it would be good for real national security if the Republicans stopped pretending otherwise.