Michael KreponStraws in the Wind

President Obama has yet to make a compelling, positive case for his re-election, including his track record in reinstituting verifiable reductions in nuclear forces, securing dangerous proliferation-relevant materials, and reaffirming the global compact known as the NPT. His opponent, Mitt Romney, opposed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow for reasons that would have made Ronald Reagan blush. None of his Republican presidential opponents had anything good to say about nuclear threat reduction, arms control or treaties. This crowd equates arms control with the use of force.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the last Republican champion of cooperative threat reduction on Capitol Hill, got trounced by a more conservative Republican primary opponent whose definition of bipartisanship is when Democrats agree with him. Ten or so Senate seats are too close to call, meaning that both houses of Congress could be in Republican hands after the fall election.

Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush placated the right wing of the Republican Party by handing arms-control posts over to deconstructionists, leaving it up to Cabinet officers and national security advisers to provide adult supervision. Now the Republican supervisors have retired, and the Deputy-, Under-, and Assistant Secretaries-in-waiting are eager to resume policies that have previously blown up in their faces. Moderate Republican national security staffers are as rare as moderate Republican legislators.

Whoever wins the presidency will feel like he’s sledding uphill on nuclear issues. Moscow is a prisoner of the past under President Vladimir Putin. Putin might learn to adapt to improve Russia’s prospects, but don’t count on it. Then there’s North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. Need I say more?

If President Obama wins re-election, he will need to find (1) new reserves of energy; (2) new Cabinet officers who are result-oriented and successful fire-fighters; and (3) new, savvy, senior staffers to advance his wide-ranging nuclear threat reduction agenda. That’s asking a lot – but that’s what I’m asking for. President Reagan managed to hit this trifecta in his second term, but he was dealing with Gorbachev, not Putin. And Republicans were different back then. If Mitt Romney wins, he might avoid becoming a prisoner to his ultra-hawkish campaign pronouncements, given his malleability as a politician. For the same reason, it’s doubtful that he will channel Reagan’s sentiments about nuclear weapons.


  1. anonymous (History)

    Michael, if you were President, and bearing in mind the opportunities and constraints of the national and international political environments, what would you have done differently than Obama during the first term, and what would you do if you won a second term?

    • krepon (History)


      The Bush Administreation handed the incoming Obama team two clock-ticking messes related to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation: (1) the expiration of monitoring provision for strategic forces, leaving only the barest outlines of a meaningless SORT; and (2)an upcoming NPT Review Conference that had to go well, after the 2005 fiasco. In other words, the linchpins for the vertical reduction and horizontal restraint regimes were at risk.

      In my view, reinstituting verification procedures was more essential than the numbers attached to New START, because without verification, the numbers weren’t going to stand up to domestic scrutiny, and with verification, the numbers could always go lower. The deal that the Obama administration struck had solid verification and disappointing numbers. The Kremlin had a lot to do with these numbers. As for the NPT Review Conference, it went pretty well, but there are clearly problems down the road.

      So, overall, I think Team Obama did well to clean up these messes.

      Hard to answer the last part of your question until we know the composition of the new Congress.

  2. Frank (History)

    Unless one takes a very narrow view of what this country needs the case for President Obama’s election ought not to rest on what he has done or hasn’t done in the arena of nuclear policy. For saving the country and the world from a catastrophic depression in 2009 (which would very likely have happpened without the stimulus),for getting a national health insurance plan passed, for getting major consumer protection legislation passed, etc. a sufficiently strong case can be made for Pres Obama’s re-election. Sure, he hasn’t done enough with the nuclear agenda, although NEW Start Treaty is pretty good, but I think that anon’s question about contraints and opportuniteis raises an important issue. I think your suggestions about what he could do in a second term are good ones.

  3. bradley laing (History)

    Jeffery wrote that he thought that by refusing to plan for a smalller nuclear force, the end result would be an even smaller, unplanned mess of a force.

    How does the Republican Party get that idea into it’s head? That planning for a larger force wil run into endless spending priority problems which will actually lead to a smaller nuclear force?

    Did you just write (above) that the Republicans in Congress are too dense to understamd this? Or at least to act on it, assuming they understand this?

    • krepon (History)

      Expertise on nuclear issues on Capitol Hill is way down. Short-term thinking abounds.

  4. Mitchell Porter (History)

    The author writes that Obama isn’t doing enough and the Republicans are going in the wrong direction. Let’s be realists for a moment and suppose that neither side reforms itself to the author’s satisfaction. What are the consequences?

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