Rewriting America's nuclear strategy, the White House on Tuesday announced a fundamental shift that calls the spread of atomic weapons to rogue states or terrorists a worse threat than the nuclear Armageddon feared during the Cold War.
The Obama administration is suddenly moving on multiple fronts with a goal of limiting the threat of a catastrophic international conflict, although it's not yet clear how far and how fast the rest of the world is ready to follow.
In releasing the results of an in-depth nuclear strategy review, President Barack Obama said his administration would narrow the circumstances in which the U.S. might launch a nuclear strike, that it would forgo the development of new nuclear warheads and would seek even deeper reductions in American and Russian arsenals.
His defense secretary, Robert Gates, said the focus would now be on terror groups such as al-Qaida as well as North Korea's nuclear buildup and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"For the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America's nuclear agenda," Obama said, distancing his administration from the decades-long U.S. focus on arms competition with Russia and on the threat posed by nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert.
"The greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states," he said, spelling out the core theme of the new strategy.
Obama's announcement set the stage for his trip to Prague Thursday to sign a new arms reduction agreement with Russia. And it precedes a gathering in Washington next Monday of government leaders from more than 40 countries to discuss improving safeguards against terrorists acquiring nuclear bombs.
In May, the White House will once again help lead the call for disarmament at the United Nations in New York during an international conference on strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Congressional Democrats hailed Tuesday's announcement, but some Republicans said it could weaken the nation's defense.
Rep. Buck McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the policy change could carry "clear consequences" for security and he was troubled by "some of the language and perceived signals imbedded" in the policy.
Two leading Senate voices on nuclear strategy, Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, criticized the Obama policy's restrictions on using nuclear arms to retaliate against a chemical or biological attack.
"The Obama Administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies," the senators said in a joint statement.
From the start of his term in office, Obama has put halting the spread of atomic arms near the top of his defense priorities. But during his first year he failed to achieve a significant breakthrough on arguably the two biggest threats: Iran and North Korea.
Obama's current push for arms control initiatives is designed to strengthen international support for strengthened nonproliferation efforts.
"Given al-Qaida's continued quest for nuclear weapons, Iran's ongoing nuclear efforts and North Korea's proliferation, this focus is appropriate and, indeed, an essential change from previous" policy, Gates said.
In presenting the results of the administration's policy review, Gates said a central aim was to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.
That will include removing some of the intentional ambiguity about the circumstances under which the U.S. would launch a nuclear strike, Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
"If a non-nuclear weapons state is in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its obligations, the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it," Gates said. If, however, such a state were to use chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. or its allies, "it would face the prospect of a devastating conventional," or non-nuclear, military response.
That is not a major departure from the policy of past administrations, but it is slightly more forthright about which potential aggressors might fear a nuclear strike, and which might not.
"This is not a breakthrough; it's a common-sense refinement" of U.S. policy, said Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association.
Gates said Iran and North Korea in particular should view the new U.S. policy as a strong message about their behavior.
"If you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you," he said.
The major review of nuclear policy was the first since 2001 and only the third since the end of the Cold War. The version produced in December 2001 came just three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
With the threat of terrorism in mind, Gates said the U.S. is not closing the door to the nuclear option.
"Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of biotechnology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment to this policy that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of biological weapons," the defense chief said.
Some private nuclear weapons experts said Obama should have gone further to reduce reliance on U.S. nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
"There's no real indication of the deep shifts in thinking necessary to begin giving up the nuclear fix," said Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council.
U.S. allies, however, welcomed the outcome.
"The right signal at the right time," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Sharon Squassoni, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration's overall approach to nuclear policy, as spelled out by Obama and Gates, is clearer than those of previous administrations.
The reworked policy, she said, is a "significant but not radical departure."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing at the Pentagon news conference with Gates, said Obama has instructed his national security team to pursue another round of arms reduction talks with Russia, to follow up on the recently concluded replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START agreement.
The aim would be to conduct wider talks to include for the first time short-range U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons as well as weapons held in reserve or in storage.
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