Nuclear summit means hard work for Obama

Rep. Buck McKeon Contributor
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This week, President Obama welcomes leaders from more than forty countries to the United States for a nuclear security summit. Most of the discussions will focus on the president’s vision to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world by 2012 and reinforcing existing commitments, but the signing of a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia and the release of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review will garner significant attention. Considering all of these elements, this summit will require some heavy lifting by President Obama and his national security team.

First and foremost, the president must convince U.S. citizens that the weapons reductions and nuclear policies outlined in the new START Treaty and Nuclear Posture Review will strengthen America’s national security. Our nation’s nuclear arsenal and industrial complex are aging and must be modernized in order to ensure continued safety, security, and reliability. The president should be able to reassure American citizens that their government will take the necessary steps to ensure the U.S. retains an effective nuclear deterrent.

Second, the president must convince our allies that the United States will continue to provide a robust nuclear umbrella to the more than thirty-five countries that rely upon it today. The Strategic Posture Commission recently remarked that a robust U.S. nuclear deterrent is still required “to assure allies of the U.S. commitment to their security.”

While the Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that “the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons…contribute to [NATO] cohesion and provide reassurance to allies and partners who feel exposed to regional threats,” press reports suggest that President Obama’s administration has also been quietly exploring whether the United States can remove its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. The president should not work against his own Nuclear Posture Review, which calls for retaining the capability to forward-deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on tactical aircraft in Europe.

Third, the president must rally the international community to force crippling sanctions upon countries that covet membership in the nuclear club. Fundamentally, the administration believes that U.S. nuclear reductions will “restore our moral leadership” to encourage others to do the same. However, the weakness in this approach is that it assumes regimes like Iran and North Korea will curb their nuclear ambitions; Pakistan and India will reduce their nuclear arms; and Russia and China will be more inclined to support sanctions against Iran, as a result of U.S. stockpile reductions.

It would be unwise to base America’s nuclear policy and corresponding national security on such faulty assumptions. The United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile by nearly 80 percent since the end of the Cold War. During that time, Iranian or North Korean nuclear ambitions have shifted into overdrive.

Fourth, the president must demand greater transparency from countries that currently possess nuclear weapons. The international community has focused on the negotiations between the United States and Russia recently, but many other countries currently possess nuclear weapons. Some of these, such as the China, cloak their capabilities under a heavy shroud of secrecy. The president should demand that these countries follow the lead of the United States and Russia by unveiling more information about their programs in order to downgrade the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Finally, the president must send the message to potential adversaries that, despite perceptions, the United States will not hesitate to respond with strategic weapons if attacked. The Nuclear Posture Review rightly focuses on denying al-Qaeda and their extremist allies from obtaining nuclear weapons, equipment, and technologies. However, the United States must remain committed to ensuring all options are on the table to respond to a rogue biological or chemical attack against the United States or our allies and partners.

Many people in the United States and across the globe have heaped praise upon the president for his pledge to seek a world without nuclear weapons. However, as French President Nicholas Sarkozy noted last fall, “We live in a real world, not a virtual one.” This is a point that the president’s administration acknowledges as well. America’s nuclear stockpile will continue to serve as a deterrent to potential adversaries—whether they are state or non-state actors—for years and decades to come.

U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) serves as the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon represents California’s Twenty-Fifth Congressional District, which includes Fort Irwin, Edwards Air Force Base, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, and the Marine Mountain Warfare Training Center.