Negotiating a nuclear legacy

By Charles Bloomer
web posted May 22, 2000

President Clinton is trying to negotiate a legacy for himself, this time with nuclear weapons. The president appears poised to unilaterally accept a deal advanced by the Russians to further cut America’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, the deal the president is favoring is strongly opposed by his military advisors and several members of Congress. The deal proposed by the Russians would cut the number of US nuclear warheads by 1000.

The Joint Chiefs and the commander of the US Strategic Command feel that cutting that number of warheads would not allow the US to execute its nuclear deterrence and war-fighting missions.

President Clinton is desperate to develop some kind of legacy. This time he’s chasing foreign affairs. His record to this point is dismal – Russia, China, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East. The president is now turning his attention to nuclear weapons. Heading toward a summit in Moscow in late May, the president is eager to make a deal that will follow him into history.

Nuclear weapons have always been political weapons with military applications. The use of nuclear weapons requires specific permission of the president. The types of targets assigned to nuclear weapons, the countries to be considered in targeting, the objectives of tactical and strategic nuclear use are all closely scrutinized by our political leadership. Decisions regarding the size of our arsenal and the types of bombs and delivery vehicles are made by politicians.

Owing to the sensitivity of nuclear weapons and their potential use, the US has come up with political procedures for evaluating any changes to the types and numbers of nuclear weapons that might be proposed as part of any new treaty, or as changes to existing treaties. Those procedures allow for a period of time to allow the military to study the impact of changes on our war-fighting capabilities.

But apparently, the president does not want to wait to find out what the impact of this Russian plan might be. According to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), the president is working on a "presidential nuclear initiative", essentially a unilateral decision to cut the US nuclear arsenal. Rep. Weldon claims that the administration is considering deeper nuclear cuts without completing the assessment required by law. "They have not even briefed Congress," Mr. Weldon said. "I am dismayed and alarmed that the Clinton administration would be proposing unilateral action on the part of the US that could undermine both America’s security and the strategic balance between the United States and Russia."

The president’s sudden renewed interest in nuclear weapons smacks of political opportunism. The Russians know this is an election year. They also know that President Clinton is fishing for something on his presidential record other than impeachment, scandals and contempt of court. The Russians (and the Soviets before them) have always realized that Americans will negotiate to get some kind of deal, any deal, just to say they got one. For the Russians it was a no brainer – make an outrageous offer and watch as the president jumps on it.

What the Russians have offered is merely symbolism. The Russian nuclear arsenal is going to decrease anyway. Russia is pursuing an aggressive program of weapons development that now includes the production of a new stealth bomber. Because of the expense of this new weapons development, they cannot afford to maintain their aging nuclear weapons stockpile. The Russians are not really interested in reducing the level of confrontation with the West in general or the US in particular. Recently, Russia quietly broadened the definition of circumstances where it might use nuclear weapons. It claims the right to first strike with nuclear weapons "to repulse armed aggression, if all other means of resolving the crisis have been exhausted." Russia now considers external threats, specifically NATO and the United States, as more important than its internal corruption and chaos. In addition, Russia and China are considering a joint defense agreement against the US.

So it would appear that the Russians are playing on the egos of a legacy-deficient outgoing president and a weak vice president seeking to replace him. Not surprisingly, the president is placing personal considerations and political expediency ahead of national security.

The number of weapons in our nuclear arsenal is a political decision with significant defense and national security ramifications. Nuclear capability is too important an issue to be determined unilaterally by a lame-duck president seeking a place in the history books. Certainly it is too important to be decided by knee-jerk reaction and without serious debate.

Can we trust the president? Rep. Weldon does not think so. "This president has no credibility negotiating this kind of arms control agreement just to reinvigorate the failed Russia policies of this administration and to help Al Gore’s presidential campaign," he said recently. That lack of trust is echoed by a Senate aide who said, "It’s Clinton arms control policy at its worst. It is a desperate move by a president desperate for a place in arms control history." Senator Jesse Helms has vowed to block any new Clinton administration arms-control pacts, saying that "The Russian government should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame-duck administration will be binding on the next administration."

The issues of nuclear weapons and arms control have always been emotional. But that emotion should not prevent rational debate about the best interests of the United States. We should consider offers made by Russia, but not rush to decisions that are not based on our national interests.

The decisions made regarding America’s nuclear stockpile and US national security should certainly not be made in an attempt to salvage President Clinton’s tarnished reputation.

© 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer can be contacted at

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