Originally published at truthout.org

What should the world expect from the new US president on the nuclear front?

The question may sound distant and largely disconnected from the current context, where the financial crisis looms as his administration’s first priority. No one can be blamed, however, for raising it, as nuclear weapons form one of the main issues on which Barack Obama differentiated himself clearly from his rivals – during the battle for the Democratic nomination as well as the war for the presidency.

Obama did so dramatically on August 2, 2007, when confronted with a query about use of the ultimate weapon in the war on terror and against proliferation. He declared: “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance.” He then added: “Involving civilians.”

Obama then said, “There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.” That brought reactions bordering on ridicule. “It’s naive to say,” sneered a dismissive John McCain, “that we will never use nuclear weapons.” Hillary Clinton came out with a stronger-than-Republican rebuff: “”Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrence to keep the peace. And I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons.”

“Presidents,” she added for good measure, ” never take the nuclear option off the table.”

As president now, will Obama keep the terrible option off the table? This and other questions of his nuclear outlook reflect more than ideal curiosity in regions on which the new president’s foreign policy focuses. In South Asia, one of such regions, the questions acquire added urgency.

Before coming to the region with two nuclear-armed rivals, a little more about what Obama has let the world know so far about his mind on the weapons of mass destruction that provided only an excuse for war to his predecessor.

In Obama’s inaugural address, the subject figured only in the sentence: “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.” He, however, had made clearer promises during the campaign.

In a speech at DePaul University in Chicago in October 2007, he added his voice to an anti-nuke plan endorsed earlier by a bipartisan group of former government officials from the Cold War era, including Henry Kissinger. The group had wanted the US to start building a global consensus to reverse a reliance on nuclear weapons that had become “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” Obama set a goal of eliminating nuclear weapons in the world, adding that the US must greatly reduce its stockpile of nuclear arms as well.

Speaking at Purdue University in Indiana in July 2008, he declared: “It’s time to send a clear message to the world: America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons.” He added: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong deterrent. But we’ll make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy.”

The promises compelled attention because of the contrast they presented to what the world had been hearing from the White House. As a summary by the New York-headquartered Natural Resources Defense Council put it years ago: “The Bush administration assumes that nuclear weapons will be part of US military forces at least for the next 50 years. Starting from this premise it is planning an extensive and expensive series of programs to sustain and modernize the existing force and to begin studies for a new ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) to be operational in 2020, a new SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) and SSBM (surface-to-surface ballistic missile) in 2030, and a new heavy bomber in 2040, as well as new warheads for all of them.”

Nuclear weapons were to continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties” that provide “credible military options” for holding at risk “a wide range of target types” important to a potential adversary’s threatened use of “weapons of mass destruction” or “large-scale conventional military force.” The neocon regime wanted a return of the US to nuclear testing, even as Bush promoted the idea of battlefield nukes like bunker-busters.

Obama has never disowned the general declarations of his intent on nuclear disarmament, but has increasingly been couching it in anti-terrorist terms. A more detailed “foreign policy agenda” delineated on the White House web site cites terrorism as the top-priority target of his administration’s plan of action in this area.

After recalling Obama’s record as a senator in taking congressional action to counter “the threat of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon and the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes,” the agenda states: “Obama and (Vice President Joseph) Biden will secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years. While working to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear material, Obama and Biden will negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material. This will deny terrorists the ability to steal or buy loose nuclear materials.”

The agenda is silent on US fears of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands, but these continue to be voiced. Threats of American efforts to “take out” Pakistan’s nuclear arms have been heard, from time to time, ever since the fall of the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, presumed somehow to have made these weapons pilferage-proof. Apprehensions in that regard have been revived after David Sanger’s article earlier this month, based on his book, “The Worst Pakistan Nightmare for Obama.”

Pakistan’s army and its civilian government have hastened to assure the US of the safety and security of their nuclear weapons. The Pakistani media have made clear a public resentment, which Islamabad could not officially articulate, over the implications of what are seen as Washington-Pentagon insinuations. Indignant note is made of the fact that, while there is panic over Pakistan’s weapons, India’s nuclear arsenal is not seen as a serious problem at all.

The second task listed in the agenda – strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – has an India link, too. The agenda, however, takes no note of the blow that, according to the world peace movement, the US-India nuclear deal has dealt the treaty distinguished for its increasing brittleness over the years.

Instead, the agenda says: “Obama and Biden will crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.” To many, the formulation would seem to reflect the false priorities that have weakened the “world nuclear order” that the NPT allegedly represents.

The only way to strengthen the treaty would seem to lie in serious and sincere action by the leading nuclear powers on Article VI of the NPT. The provision, introduced under international pressure, says: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The agenda, in fairness to its formulators, addresses this issue as well. Talking of the third task of the new administration on the nuclear weapons front, the document says: “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. Obama and Biden will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But they will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. They will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the US-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

This, however, is easier said than done. A weighty Bush legacy of nuclear militarism is waiting to be lived down. Officially, the Obama administration is bound to an extent by the interim report of a bipartisan congressional commission, released as recently as last month, which talks about the US teetering “on the brink of losing the capability to maintain its nuclear weapons.”

The new president cannot listen to this argument and make the nuclear leap he has promised. Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association offers a strikingly different counsel: “If Obama directs the Pentagon to conduct a congressionally mandated nuclear posture review on the basis of this ‘core deterrence’ mission, then Washington and Moscow could each slash their respective arsenals to 1,000 or fewer total warheads. This would open the way for Obama to fulfill his campaign pledge …”

Obama faces a challenge to his drive for a change in the US nukes policy not only from the old policies he seeks to discard, but also from personalities whom he prefers to retain in the administration. Reports about a conflict of views on a crucial issue between him and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have not been officially rebutted so far. Gates continues to press for a reliable replacement warhead (RRW) program, while the president’s agenda (quoted above) asserts without ambiguity that the new administration “will stop the development of new nuclear weapons.”

Obama has shown courage in acting for the closure of the Guantanamo torture chambers, in defiance of powerful defenders of “anti-terrorist” atrocities. Will he move forward towards nuclear disarmament in the face of inevitable opposition from the military-industrial complex?