Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 28, 2008

Touting “Youth” and “Vitality,” McCain Suggests Nuclear Position of Treaties, Existing Policies, and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 28, 2008

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain yesterday outlined his views on nuclear weapons, proliferation, and America’s role in pursuing a world altogether free of nuclear weapons. His speech in Denver invoked a number of pre-existing programs, but also offered some bold departures from the Bush Administration.

HLSwatch.com takes a look at the speech to break it down to its basics in the hope that we might find some residual homeland security benefits in this position. I’ll leave it to ArmsControlWonk.com and others to dissect the proposals about the weapons postures and treaty nuances, such as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and the special arrangements with India.

Senator McCain’s speech began with a description of America in carefully chosen words. “…We remain a young nation,” proclaimed the candidate. “We still possess the attributes of youth — spirit, energy, vitality, and creativity,” McCain explained. In sum, he asserted that “America will always be young.” Wonder what he’s getting at.

The rest of McCain’s speech unfolds with lofty goals representing a departure from what GOP politicians have embraced over the last couple decades, along with some commitments to keep the status-quo. In the Maverick mold, McCain:

• Recommends that “America must be a good citizen of the world – leading the way to address the danger of global warming and preserve our environment, strengthening existing international institutions and helping to build new ones, and engaging the world in a broad dialogue on the threat of violent extremists….”

• Adopts Reagan’s goal that “our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.”

• Proclaims that “It is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller [nuclear] force.”

Of course, he couldn’t resist repeating a reference to a part of Senator Obama’s foreign policy. McCain claimed that “some people seem to think they’ve discovered a brand new cause, something no one before them ever thought of. Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven’t tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades.”

While half-truths can be avoided in this presidential campaign, some things will never change: No policy speech is complete without the requisite strawman statement.

“Others think military action alone can achieve our goals, as if military actions were not fraught with their own terrible risks. While the use of force may be necessary, it can only be as a last resort not a first step.” Not exactly the stuff of a Maverick.

On to “the how” of it: Following is a breakdown of what McCain proposes in this nuclear weapons position. The very first move isn’t all that exciting: He would ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “engage in a comprehensive review of all aspects of our nuclear strategy and policy.” (Homework that any new President would assign.) Regardless of the outcomes of that study, McCain stakes out some preordained positions. They can be organized as selectively embracing current efforts underway, pursuing new dialogues with other countries (emphasis on Russia and China), and familiar counter-proliferation measures (that noticeably leave out the detection mission).

Stay on the current track:
• Continue to deploy a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent, robust missile defenses and superior conventional forces that are capable of defending the United States and our allies.

• Seek to reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal to the lowest number possible consistent with our security requirements and global commitments.

• Continue America’s current moratorium on nuclear testing.

• No new nukes, except the ones we want:

“I would only support the development of any new type of nuclear weapon that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent, that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal, and furthers our global nuclear security goals.”

New dialogues with other countries:
• Seriously consider Russia’s recent proposal to work together to globalize the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

• Russia and the United States should reduce – and hopefully eliminate – deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

• Share with Russia early warning data and prior notification of missile launches.

• Begin a dialogue with China on strategic and nuclear issues to achieve “the greatest possible transparency and cooperation on nuclear force structure and doctrine.”

• Work with China to encourage conformity with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including working toward nuclear arsenal reductions and toward a moratorium on the production of additional fissile material.

Counter-proliferation measures:
McCain wants to strengthen authorities and capabilities of the Proliferation Security Initiative, increase funding for U.S. non-proliferation efforts, including the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs established by the Nunn-Lugar legislation, and ensure the highest possible standards of security for existing nuclear materials.

Nothing here on improving the science and strategy behind detecting the illicit movement of special nuclear material. It is hard to discern why McCain would have left out the effort to detect smuggled nuclear weapons, an initiative this country has supported since the Manhattan Project.

The candidate agrees with the need to build an international consensus that “exposes the pretense of civilian nuclear programs as cover for nuclear weapons programs.” McCain also asserts that the most effective way to prevent this practice is to limit the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing. To persuade countries to forego enrichment and reprocessing, he would support international guarantees of nuclear fuel supply to countries that renounce enrichment and reprocessing, as well as the establishment of multinational nuclear enrichment centers in which they can participate.

McCain concedes that the Iranian government has so far rejected this idea. His solution: “Perhaps with enough outside pressure and encouragement, they can be persuaded to change their minds before it is too late.” As if we haven’t tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades….

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 28, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

At the very dawn of the nuclear/atomic age few recognized that the dream of peaceful uses of atomic energy also would lead inevitably to proliferation of weapons. The first 50 years was prologue. As Churchill said after Al Alamain, a desert battle in N. Africa, something like not the end but the end of the beginning. Between now and the 2028 Presidential election proliferation issues will require not just part-time interests by elected officials and appointees but be a major effort rising to the scale of the Manhattan Project itself. Otherwise the world will be dealing with at least 30 nations with nuclear capable ballistic missiles and no real control system but common sense, decency, and regard for our fellow members of the human race. Personally, I think that the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency should be re-established and reinvigorated and have two main divisions, one for conventional arms and one for nuclear arms. Both aspects of arms control must be faced and there is no doubt that the US has been a proliferator of both as have the other 10-12 announced or unannounced nuclear powers. I fully expect the controls safeguards to fail somewhere betwenn now and 2028 leaving a changed world and not for the better.

Comment by Arnold

May 29, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

Not sure if you meant this sarcastically or not: “As if we haven’t tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades” but truth be told we haven’t. Not trying to bring up the current popular political arguments about “diplomacy without preconditions” and whatnot, but the U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Tehran since the hostage crisis. There have only been limited attempts at talks over the past two decades, limited to narrow topics. The lack of general engagement probably has contributed to a lack of understanding, influence, etc.

Though I don’t mean to be the blog foil, I personally don’t think “It is hard to discern why McCain would have left out the effort to detect smuggled nuclear weapons, an initiative this country has supported since the Manhattan Project.” The leader of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer, said it himself in describing the technology required to prevent the smuggling of a nuclear weapon into the U.S.: a screwdriver to open every container.

Despite all the recent focus, there are still no technologies on the horizon that can passively detect shielded HEU. This is a point conceded by DNDO. While I think defense in depth is an important concept, and the specter of detection could push wannabe nuclear terrorists to take riskier routes that could lead to their discovery, an emphasis on detection is more likely to lead to a de-emphasis (domestically) on the hard diplomatic work required to lock down HEU and Pu and improve non and counter-proliferation efforts.

Research into advanced detection technologies should proceed, as well as improving intelligence and related police work that can break up nuclear smuggling rings, but the prospects for this approach do not justify bringing it to the level of securing nuclear material and efforts at improving non-proliferation.

In my humble opinion anyway…

Comment by Jonah Czerwinski

May 29, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

Arnold —

Thanks for your comment. I was being a bit sarcastic by using Senator McCain’s criticism of Obama’s engagement policy against him. It was hard to resist when McCain suggested the same kind of engagement in order to motivate Iran toward the end of his speech.

As for the DNDO, I agree that efforts at securing the source are paramount, but I don’t subscribe the notion that a dollar spent on detection is one less dollar spent on nonproliferation. So the holy grail of passive detection of shielded HEU is still distant, this doesn’t mean that it should be downgraded as a pursuit, as you rightly suggested (“Research into advanced detection technologies should proceed….).

The important goal, I think you’ll agree, is to make sure that the next president’s counter nuclear proliferation strategy includes detection capabilities because such science serves a dual role of helping to secure the sources and roll back proliferation (inspections), as well as combat the threat of smuggled nuclear weapons.

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