Jeffrey LewisRozen on the Nuclear Posture Review

Laura Rozen in the Politico has written an interesting article on the Nuclear Posture Review. In it, an anonymous US official described the Nuclear Posture Review as “seminal.”

I would have picked a different bodily discharge.

But, this is the new Arms Control So you won’t see any references to excrement or suggestions that a seminal document is precisely what one would expect from a circle jerk like the NPR.

Really, we’re above all that.

Rozen depicts a very conventional document that will fall far short of the President’s rhetoric in Prague:

Disarmament hands say the review draft originally headed by the Defense Department’s Brad Roberts was too status quo on the policy issues from the administration’s perspective, and is being reworked at the senior inter-agency level by Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller, officials from the office of State’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, and White House and OVP nonproliferation advisors before heading to the president’s desk.


Non-proliferation hands in and out of the administration question why the Obama team would have expected any differently since it put career civil servants with more traditional views on arms control, including the DoD’s Roberts, and NSC Senior Directors Barry Pavel and George Look, in key roles on the NPR.

“If you want a transformational document, you don’t ask two men who have spent a combined forty years in the bureaucracy to do this job,” another non-proliferation hand who asked for anonymity said.

I think the “anonymous nonproliferation hand” is mistaken to lay the blame on specific individuals like Roberts, Pavel or Look. This is about the structure of the process, not the people.

I fully expect the Nuclear Posture Review to be disappointing — the structure of such a review is designed to produce a status quo document. I have previously recommended Janne Nolan’s “An Elusive Consensus.” Heck I even invited her to give a talk on the prospects for the NPR at the New America Foundation. (She was great, by the way.)

It has long been clear, as both Joe Cirincione and I wrote this fall, that the Nuclear Posture Review was shaping up as a very status quo document. For participants to suddenly be shocked leads me to ask “What rock have you been living under for the past year?”

(In other news: Michael Jackson is dead, the New Orleans Saints are Superbowl champions and the junior senator from Massachusetts is a Republican. It’s been an odd year.)

The danger from a Nuclear Posture Review has always been, and continues to be, that the President will not get real options. Guess who is to blame for that? You may recall this sign on Harry Truman’s desk.

One of the under-reported stories in Washington is the dominance of Robert Gates on national security issues (with Elizabeth Rubin’s profile in Time magazine is a notable exception.) Gates openly discussed the likely conclusions of the NPR back in September, with nary a public peep from the President. The NPR, of course, is supposed to provide options to the President, not conclusions.

Gates has been boxing in Obama for about a year now. Which is what powerful cabinet secretaries do. Hate the game, not the player.

In form, the NPR will contain nominal options for the President to chose among. Yet the question continues to be whether those options will reflect real differences in policy, or just three articulations of the same Cold War dogma on the role of nuclear weapons. A draft of the NPR is going around and, from everything I hear, there is no reason for me to change this passage I wrote in August:

If the Nuclear Posture Review is truly going, as the President has promised, “to put an end to Cold War thinking” on nuclear weapons, throw out the f’ing reports. The Strategic Posture Commission is not the Bible. No need to turn Pentagon offices into monasteries where scholars perform exegesis on the sacred text. Most the Commissioners don’t remember what they had for breakfast, let along the arcane compromises they agreed to a couple of months ago. (If you’ve actually run such a project you know how ephemeral such agreements can be.)

Instead, give the President three or four real options. Not three flavors of vanilla. Not a couple of flavors like “dirt” and “cat urine” intended to make a scoop of vanilla comparatively appetizing.

That, by the way, is the core of what Joe [Cirincione] had to say in the meeting I described: There is every reason to doubt, at this stage, that the Nuclear Posture Review will give the President real options. A set of real options would reflect, rather than obscure, the very different views about how much the details matter [to the stability of deterrence].


  1. MarkoB

    I think you have hit the nail well and truly on the head with this one; it’s the process that is the issue not the people.

    It’s actually ironic to think that of the three big post cold war posture reviews, it would appear that the George W Bush posture review was the most “transformative”. If a conservative Obama NPR means it is Bush-lite, then it will actually be worse than Clinton’s. A lot will be depend about the reference frame we use to assess conservativeness.

    I think the big problem might be found in Nolan’s first book, the one written before her account of Clinton’s NPR. This first book very much relied upon Robert Dahl’s concept of “guardianship”.

    Is there any form of policy making in DC that is as remote from any kind of public input than nuclear weapons policy?

    The world’s most open democracy can surely do better than persist with guardianship indefinitely.

  2. yousaf (History)

    Why does this president need options bestowed on him by bureaucrats? He seems to have had a fairly firm grasp of issues, even from his college years.

    Obama probably understands the issues much better than any of the people drafting the NPR.

    The plain fact that Gorbachev and Reagan nearly agreed on nuclear abolition without a 26-month study implies that the NPR ritual is unimportant, let alone in any way seminal.

    Though I am unfamiliar with the detailed protocols of circle jerks, I would tend to disagree that this seminal document to-be is a product of a circle jerk, as there appears to be a leader in this “circle”, in the person of Robert Gates.

    Gates says: “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

    To the contrary, any new untested warheads will be a less credible deterrent than the tested legacy weapons we have.

  3. Tom

    By “different bodily discharge” you are certainly referring to saliva, produced in eager anticipation of the document’s release. Right?

  4. Stephen Young

    An undeniable fact about “options” was recently highlighted for me. That is, there are very few folks in the bureaucracy (not none, but few indeed) who really have ANY interest in giving the President real options. Real options means someone is going to lose. The president will not pick their preferred option. So the pressure is entirely to eliminate options, to compromise away any disagreements so that the President, in fact, is given pablum. The only way to avoid this is to have the President or someone with his direct authority demand them and ride herd over those in the process. Sadly, I don’t see many wranglers who share the President’s vision.

  5. bobbymike (History)

    A real radical departure from current thinking would be to say “we don’t need to negotiate arms control treaties with the Russians and we will continue to deploy 2200 warheads on modernized delivery systems supported by a modernized nulcear weapons enterprise with robust R&D to support the next generation of scientists and weapons”.

  6. scud

    Jeff, your post is both hilarious and spot on.

    But there is some ambiguity in your comments. As Janne N and Joe C would have it, it’s all be the fault of the “bureaucracy” – a view with which you seem to sympathize – and of Gates. But it is very hard to believe that such a smart guy as Obama would know a lack of options when he sees it.

    At the same time you appropriately quote Truman’s desk.

    My take is that one has to accept the fact that ultimately it will be Obama’s NPR, and those who don’t like it will have to blame their president, not “the bureaucracy”. But for some commentators – whose analysis is not as subtle as yours – it’s a hard step to recognize that he is more prudent than transformative, in this matter as in many others.

    Now, let’s play a little game. What would a McCain/Palin NPR have looked like? My guess is that you would have had a seriously reduced role for NW (but with a pinch of RRW).

  7. FSB

    It would appear that the only regard in which the NPR will be seminal is that it will result in a hard-to-remove stain on the Obama presidency.

    Where is the change I mistakenly believed in?

  8. ckellehe (History)

    One major problem with the NPR is the role it will play in the development of NATO’s Strategic Concept now due out in November. If it is too vague, there will be plenty of time for Frank Miller’s self described “nuclear priesthood” to advance yet another set of reasons to justify retention and dependence on nuclear wepons in Europe. At present the silence is deafening as everyone waits and expects someone else to start the serious discussion about how within an alliance framework, one begins the process of withdrawal and elimination. Not a treaty, not dependent on a bargain with the Russians,not a unilateral US or UK/France decision—just an agreement among friends.

  9. Daryl Press (History)

    The President and Vice President seem to favor “transforming” (in some fashion) the U.S. approach to nuclear weapons and deterrence. Yet their staff seems to be settling on an NPR document that is more evolutionary than transformative.

    So what went wrong? The process? The people?

    There’s a third possibility: Perhaps the sort of transformation that the President favors in his gut (and has favored since College, as Yousaf noted) would not actually have been prudent. Maybe the elements of the bureaucracy that focus on national security — and the subset that works on nuclear weapons — were right (!) and had persuasive arguments that overcame the initial weight of Presidential guidance.

    Assigning blame presumes that we know the “right” answer, and the answer is: transformative change. Smart people can disagree about that.

    I have to admit one thing: Jeff’s original post made me laugh out loud.

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    Heretical thought for the day –

    The test ban treaty was supposed to help discourage proliferation, and move everyone towards force reductions over time.

    As we currently have a major ongoing proliferation problem, which is not getting better over time, is it time to reexamine whether a test ban serves nonproliferation effectively now?

    My reason for asking is that perhaps – and this may be a forlorn hope – everyone in the west might be more comfortable with a smaller but well and currently tested stockpile.

    I think that the warfighters now believe that smaller is good – a deterrent only needs to be big enough to deter effectively as a second strike, and bigger is expensive and geopolitically counterproductive. But it has to be reliable by military standards, which is currently somewhat under suspicion from elements of that side.

    Would a 350 warhead US inventory, with each model still in service being tested once a year and manufactured or refreshed regularly, be better for the world than 2200-ish plus a test ban?

  11. FSB

    what is the “major ongoing proliferation problem”?

    The Iranian research into nuclear weapons to possibly protect itself (via deterrence) from the other middle east nukes we’ve ok’ed, in case there is an Iranian political decision to actually divert nuclear material?

    There is no major problem. Everything is just fine, fear-mongering notwithstanding.

  12. kerbihan

    Extra! Extra! Read All About It! For the first time ever:

    “Faithful ACW Commentator FSB (Grudgingly) Acknowledges the (Possible) Existence of a (Hypothetical) Military Dimension in Iran’s (Mostly Peaceful) Nuclear Program!”

  13. FSB

    Dearest Kerbihan:
    as the US NIE says: Iran may be doing research into nuclear weaponry but there is no evidence of nuclear weapon development, nor is there any evidence of nuclear material diversion.

    If anything, the western states are more egregiously flouting the NPT bargain, than is Iran, or Brazil for that matter.

    My views have not changed an iota and I agree with the latest US NIE: no evidence of nuclear weapons development by Iran.


  14. Carey Sublette

    Would a 350 warhead US inventory, with each model still in service being tested once a year and manufactured or refreshed regularly, be better for the world than 2200-ish plus a test ban?

    Would this deal ever actually be on the table?

    (But we already have “regular refreshing” in ongoing stockpile maintenance. Does this not count?)

    Resuming actual nuclear testing and weapon manufacture with the promise that later on we will think about sharply cutting our arsenal would do for non-proliferation what the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 and Credit Default Swaps did for a stable financial market.

    A key credibility problem that any such proposal would start with are the obligations of the U.S. under Article VI of NNPT:

    “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective
    measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear
    disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

    Consider the derision heaped on Obama in the U.S. when (for a change) he stated support for nuclear disarmament (at some unspecified and apparently far-off time) to which the U.S. has already formally and legally committed itself (unless it exercises its right of withdrawal). Would outside observers, noting such hostility to what should be a routine (and largely meaningless) bit of pro-forma rhetoric, find a “trust us, we’ll get around to sharp reductions later” promise credible?

    What is the likelihood anyone will float this as a package deal: a 90% cut in warheads (including complete dismantlement of all retired weapons and demilitarization of weapons-usable materials) by a fixed date, tied to the resumption of a strict monitored low rate “reliability only” test program, with only test item replacement (like for like) production of new warheads.

    If the prospect is “negligible or less” then the premise is in the same class of nuclear weapons policy discussions that start with “Now if we had World Government…”.

  15. kendwell (History)

    Am left wondering what the 6800 gal of heavy water allegedly found in Iran has in use for isotope production?

    Maybe to wash the plates?

  16. FSB
  17. loupgarous (History)

    The buck NEVER stops at Obama’s desk – it always seems to wind up in a four-room ranch style dwelling in Crawford, Texas. Obama ALWAYS blames his cock-ups on Bush. Wait… he’ll find a way to pin his failure to achieve his boasts to “change Iran’s behavior” on his predecessor. Never mind that Iranian behavior has become MORE confrontational and egregious (they have three American hostages whom Hillary Clinton’s winning personality has not freed yet).

    I’m not a Bushie. I would have preferred McCain in 2000, not because he’s less of a political whore than any of the others, but because he was the least bad choice available. He knows how to work with the other party, he’s held field rank in the Navy, and his temper is a plus in my book. The last president we had with a real anger management problem was Truman, and he wasn’t half bad.

  18. loupgarous (History)

    And what about the tritium in the two “tokamaks” Iran possesses? Fusion boosting has been described in enough detail in the open literature that an enterprising Irani physicist might decide to try using it.
    (Apart from any Chinese literature on the subject A.Q.Khan may have thrown in with the enrichment cascade deal).

  19. kme

    GWH: I think, given the number of states that have the technical chops to develop a NW program should they choose to, and the number of states of current proliferation concern, the current proliferation situation could be much, much worse than it is.

  20. anon

    “GWH: I think, given the number of states that have the technical chops to develop a NW program should they choose to, and the number of states of current proliferation concern, the current proliferation situation could be much, much worse than it is.”

    Perhaps, but many of those with the means would rather the U.S. foot the bill for providing their deterrence.