The Cable

Pentagon: Obama's nuke strategy delayed

The Obama administration's rollout of its new nuclear strategy will be delayed until March, the Pentagon told Congress last week.

The notification came in the form of a letter from Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller to Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, respectively. The letter, obtained by The Cable, said that the new strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be delivered to Congress on March 1, not Feb. 1 as was previously planned.

The announcement comes amid reports that the NPR is mired in an internal administration debate over some key issues, such as whether or not to abandon a "first use" policy, how many nuclear weapons are needed for whatever missions the NPR identifies as crucial, and how far the review will go toward advancing President Obama's stated goal of a future world free of nuclear weapons.

But arms-control advocates see the delay as not so surprising (what review isn't delayed in Washington?) and they argue that the postponement will give the administration more time to give the NPR the senior-level attention it deserves.

"It's not particularly surprising. I believe it's due to the fact that principals haven't been able to really dig in to the substantive issues of the NPR," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Some who favor sharp reductions and more commitments to a nuclear drawdown see the delay as one last chance to have their views considered by the White House and the National Security Council, which may have a different take than the Pentagon on some issues. For example, the Pentagon is said to be against adopting a "no first use" policy and may still be pushing for a new class of nuclear warhead.

The Bush administration program to build a new warhead, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, is dead, senior administration officials such as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher have said repeatedly. But Tauscher and other have also indicated that they would present a budget in February that meets Senate Republican calls for "stockpile modernization," although there is no consensus on what that means.

"The trouble in the debate is that the term ‘modernization' gets used to describe a number of things, from new weapons to improvements to the nuclear weapons complex, and other things as well," said John Isaacs, executive director at the Council for a Livable World, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the goal of zero nuclear weapons that Obama announced in his Prague speech.

All 40 Senate Republicans and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman penned a letter to Obama in December specifically outlining several points they said must be included in the stockpile modernization program, which they are demanding in order to support the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which is being negotiated now.

The relationship between the NPR and the START follow-on agreement is an interesting one. It would seem that the administration would have to know its overall nuclear policy before negotiating weapons levels, and yet the START agreement may come out before the NPR.

Administration officials have told The Cable that the NPR tasked out a set of weapons numbers to inform the START negotiations months ago, so there shouldn't be any problem. Besides, the NPR is setting policy for future reductions, not just those to be agreed to in this negotiation, experts point out.

But for Senate Republicans, that explanation is simply not enough.

"The key thing for senators is, they do not understand how officials are in Geneva discussing force-level reductions and meanwhile the NPR is apparently delayed," said one senior GOP senate aide, adding that the GOP was not being briefed on the NPR's progress.

Meanwhile, the aide said that the follow-on START agreement could be ratified in the Senate only if the stockpile-management aspects of the president's budget meet the demands in the letter and if there is no link between START and missile defense, despite statements from the Russian side.

"If we wanted to kill the treaty, we would just let them negotiate a bad treaty and then kill it in the Senate," the aide said. "We're trying to help them come up with a treaty that can pass muster in the Senate."

UPDATE: Lt. Col. Jonathan Withingon, spokesman for the Pentagon policy shop, e-mails in this explanation in response to our request for an explanation for the delay. "As we're nearing completion, the Department requires additional time to appropriately address the range of complex issues under consideration in the Nuclear Posture Review."

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Yemen, Israel, North Korea, Abdulmutallab

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Wednesday's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:

  • Kelly started off what might be his last briefing (He's headed to be the DCM in Vienna) by touting the increased assistance to Yemen contained in the recently signed fiscal 2010 appropriations bills. "We expect the total fiscal year-2010 assistance to be as much as $63 million," he said, "This amount represents a 56-percent increase over fiscal year 2009, and a 225-percent increase over fiscal year-2008 levels." That doesn't include 1206 funds for counterterrorism, which totaled $67 mission in fiscal 2009.
  • The closing of the U.S. embassy in Yemen was made official on Jan. 3, but based on a notice sent out about a specific threat on Dec. 31, Kelly said. Anyway, it now appears to be back open again. No comment on whether the four al Qaeda would be bombers who were captured by the Yemeni government were the only set of four terrorists State was looking at. "There is an ongoing threat, particularly in places like Yemen, where you have an active al Qaeda presence," Kelly said.
  • No direct comment on the reports that there is an imminent meeting planned between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Kelly may have slipped up by saying, "We're not going to discuss any of the private correspondence or private discussions that we've had with either side, including with the Israelis." The thing is, nobody asked about private correspondence with the Israelis, leading much of the press corps to speculate that letters prepping the resumption of talks had been prepared. Asked why he mentioned correspondence and discussions, Kelly said, "That's what's written down here."
  • The State Department is not changing its tune based on the seemingly positive New Year's statement put out by the North Korean regime, which said, "The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship between the DPRK and the USA." But Kelly did take the opportunity to call for the release of American missionary Robert Park.
  • There's a new travel alert for India, warning of the continued danger of terrorist attacks in places where westerners congregate.  "It's not necessarily keyed to some specific, dire terrorist threat though," Kelly said.
  • Lots of discussion of the Visas Viper cable for underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. You can read all about it here and here.

And here are Kelly's (maybe) farewell words to the press corps:

I just want to say that, you know, I came into this job. I was in a panic before I came up here. I thought, this has got to be the most stressful job in the State Department.

In fact, it's the most interesting and stimulating job in the State Department. It's because of you guys. I've really enjoyed the give-and-take that we've had in the last eight months.

And who knows? We may still continue to do it, because the world's greatest deliberative body has to confirm me. And I hope they do.

Oh, one more thing. Hi, Mom.

(Correction: Netanyahu's title corrected to "prime minister.")