There is a new urgency and momentum on nuclear issues in Congress. Triggered initially by an impetuous president’s unfettered ability to launch a nuclear strike, concerns have mounted as Trump administration policies worsen already serious nuclear threats.
Members are rousing to action with new leadership, legislation and focus. They and the public at large are alarmed by the administration’s determined destruction of the nuclear safety net created by Republicans and Democrats over the past fifty years. The United States is leaving established treaties, building new nuclear weapons, devising new nuclear war-fighting doctrines and issuing threats of regional wars -- often without consultations with our allies or Congress. Now, with control of the House of Representatives and the launch of presidential campaigns, nuclear security is again a key issue for Congressional Democrats.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) wants to “reset our policy on nuclear weapons.” We cannot afford the new weapons now on order, he told a nuclear conference in November. He called for a new “nuclear policy that reduces the number of weapons and reduces the likelihood of any sort of nuclear conflict.”
Smith quickly scheduled a hearing on an alternative nuclear posture that would provide a robust nuclear deterrent of about 1,000 weapons - one quarter of the current operational force - at substantial savings and with more stabilizing policies.
As part of his efforts, Smith also introduced “No First Use” legislation with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to prohibit any president from ever using a nuclear weapon first. This is, in part, a reaction to the administration’s expansion of the planned uses of nuclear weapons to include a broad range of non-nuclear contingencies, including using nuclear weapons in response to a cyber attack.
“Smith and Warren are now openly defying that Trump doctrine,” writes James Carroll in The New Yorker, “‘No first use’ can be understood as a kind of mantra, a symbol of a larger purpose—to move away from the decades-old paralysis of nuclear mania.” Smith and Warren agree on the three core principles of a new nuclear policy that Smith articulated at the November conference and Warren summarized in her foreign policy speech at American University later that same month: “No new nuclear weapons...More international arms control, not less...No first use.”
They are not alone. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) reintroduced a bill that would force future presidents to obtain congressional approval before launching a nuclear first strike. “Trump’s brand is to be unpredictable and rash, which is exactly what you don’t want the person who possesses the nuclear football to be,” said Lieu at the legislation’s press release. They expect to greatly increase the nearly 100 House and Senate co-sponsors they got on similar legislation last session.
Trump’s resurrection of “Star Wars” plans to weaponize space and his reckless withdrawal from Ronald Reagan’s Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia worries Democrats from top to bottom. “The Trump administration is risking an arms race and undermining international security and stability,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Feb. 1.
Similar condemnations came from Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who heads the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee, from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This is not just good national security policy, it’s good politics. Polls show that killing the INF is hugely unpopular with the American public. 77 percent of Democrats oppose Trump leaving the treaty, as do 55 percent of Republicans.
The emerging Democratic unity on forging a new nuclear policy goes beyond No First Use and the INF Treaty. Whatever bipartisan consensus there was to spend trillions of dollars on new nuclear weapons is now dead. Reed called the time of death on Feb. 1. “The modernization of our nuclear arsenal has always been tied to arms control,” he said. “This was part of the New START bargain, but now we appear headed in the wrong direction.” With a growing list of domestic initiatives to fund, Democrats will increasingly look at cuts to the military budget overall and the nuclear budget specifically.
The Republican pushback came quickly. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, said that the Warren and Smith’s No First Use proposal “betrays a naïve and disturbed world view.” Such dismissal will no doubt come from many quarters. Members will be hit with a barrage of visits, articles and attacks from defense contractors and conservatives eager to grow the military budget and discredit even modest cuts.
The debate is now joined. It should be welcomed as a new grappling with an unexamined set of nuclear questions, including just how many weapons we need for deterrence and whether America is safer with treaties or without. The House will be the proving ground for new strategies on these issues; the presidential campaign trail the test of their popular support.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a rough ride.
Originally published in The Hill: Why Democrats are pushing for a new nuclear policy
Photo: US Capitol at dusk Flick (cc) / James McNellis