Clinton, Bush and Obama: transitional options.

Author:Warren, Aiden
Position:Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama on nuclear weapons - Essay


While the significance of nuclear weapons has remained a significant pillar in U.S. security policy across the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, there have been subtle differences and notable variations. In terms of the Clinton administration, it is evidently clear that it ignored its historic opportunity to reverse decades of dangerous and provocative nuclear weapons planning. The administration retained much of the existing U.S. nuclear weapons policy and force posture in the decade after the demise of the Soviet Union and affirmed the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. Additionally, the Clinton administration began to develop targeting options and did not rule out the possible first use of nuclear weapons. It was, however, the Bush Doctrine and its accompanying guidance documents that expanded the Clinton 'base,' foreshadowing a new nuclear era in which the once termed 'weapon of last resort' became a usable and necessary post 9/11 preventive (1) war-fighting option. The Bush administration vied for a renewed role for nuclear weapons through upgrading U.S. offensive forces, deploying missile defences, reconfiguring communications and satellite systems, developing new weaponry, and overall, revitalising the nuclear complex. With the election of Barack Obama, there has been an attempt 'adjust' the nuclear option with the release of the Congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), ratification of the New Start Treaty and drive for Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification. However, despite assertive rhetorical notes and promises in relation to limiting the role of nuclear weapons by his administration, Obama has stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that lingered since the Cold War. Instead, the Obama administration's nuclear actions have been transitional rather than transformational-in which the pursuit of disarmament has been balanced with compromising measures to retain America's nuclear preponderance.


Despite the Clinton administration's elimination of many specific targets from the U.S. war plan and reduction of the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the central tenets of the U.S. deterrence strategy and nuclear employment plans remained relatively unchanged and intact. (2) Additionally, during the 1990s, Clinton began to develop targeting options for the use of nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological attack from states other than Russia, and, in its declaratory policy, the administration did not rule out the possible first use of nuclear weapons in these circumstances. (3) The Clinton administration argued that Russia had the capacity to-again-present a threat to the United States in the future; 'not because its intentions are hostile, because it controls the only nuclear arsenal that can physically threaten the survivability of U.S. nuclear forces.' (4) Furthermore, officials in the administration argued that 'a stable transition in Russia is by no means assured,' and therefore, the United States 'must hedge against the possibility that Russia, which continues to maintain a formidable nuclear arsenal consisting of thousands of deliverable strategic and tactical warheads, could re-emerge at some time in the future as a threat to the West.' (5)

In contrast, there were many commentators who believed that the United States should redefine its nuclear weapons strategy and force posture. They argued that in the absence of the global threat from the Soviet Union, the United States could maintain its deterrent posture with a far smaller number of nuclear weapons; many proposed reductions to levels of around 1,000 warheads. Some even argued that due to its overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, the United States could defeat almost any potential adversary without threatening to resort to nuclear weapons. (6) Several studies came to the conclusion that a policy of 'nuclear abolition' could be a practical-albeit long term-goal for the United States and other nations with nuclear weapons, and that the United States should use its nuclear weapons only to deter the potential use of nuclear weapons by other states. As argued by Michael Gordon, as the Cold War came to its conclusion, 'so did the notion that nuclear weapons could be used to fight a war.' While the United States did not 'give up its option to make the first use of nuclear weapons against a Warsaw Pact attack, it cast the use of such weapons as a last resort. With the end of the Cold War, the need for nuclear weapons seemed to fade further.' (7)

However, by the end of the 1990s many critics of the Clinton administration argued that the U.S. nuclear posture looked very much as it had at the beginning of the decade. While the number of deployed nuclear weapons had declined-reflected in its implementation of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) as well as the completed withdrawal of most of its non-strategic nuclear weapons-the administration maintained that nuclear weapons remained important as a means to deter the range of threats faced by the United States. As argued by Secretary of Defence Perry in his Annual Report for 1995, 'recent international upheavals have not changed the calculation that nuclear weapons remain an essential part of American military power. Concepts of deterrence ... continue to be central to the U.S. nuclear posture.' (8) Thereby, the United States would continue to "threaten retaliation, including nuclear retaliation, to deter aggression against the United States, U.S. forces, and allies." (9) In theory, this deterrent strategy extended beyond Russia in which 'the United States must continue to maintain a robust triad of strategic forces sufficient to deter any hostile foreign leadership with access to nuclear forces and to convince it that seeking a nuclear advantage would be futile.' (10) Furthermore, according to the Clinton administration, 'nuclear weapons serve as a hedge against an uncertain future, a guarantee of our security commitments to allies and a disincentive to those who would contemplate developing or otherwise acquiring their own nuclear weapons.' (11)


While maintaining the nuclear role as affirmed under Clinton, the Bush administration provided a different description of what this role would entail. Indeed, the greatest dichotomy between the Clinton and Bush nuclear strategies, and certainly the most contentious, was the Bush administration's unbridled determination in not allowing enemies of the United States to strike first, emphasising that the risks of inaction or containment in specific cases, may be outweighed with the risks associated with action. The National Security Strategy of 2002 stated that in the face of a looming threat, the United States 'will, if necessary, act pre-emptively' to 'forestall or prevent hostile acts by our adversaries.' (12) While discussion pertaining to 'pre-emption' was certainly evident during the Clinton administration, the sentiments were articulated through terms such as, 'potential future requirements,' 'prospective utility' and 'potential liabilities'-with the required strategic and operational framework and military capacity to enact such an approach perceived as an impossibility that could derail the Defence Counter-proliferation Initiative (CPI). Under the Bush administration, however, such 'issue' considerations were lowered as nuclear options came to the forefront of national strategy.

The urgency that motivated Bush in 2002 and subsequent years derived from two underlying arguments: that WMD and missile capabilities would continue to proliferate from both adversarial state and non-state actors; and that the use of such weapons against U.S. forward-deployed forces, U.S. friends and allies-or even U.S. or allied homelands-was increasingly likely. In response, the United States sought to advance its security along two parallel and mutually reinforcing lines-that being, an assertive and proactive drive against security challenges emerging from the pro-life ration terrorism nexus, while bolstering homeland security and transforming military capabilities as a means to deter, protect against, and nullify the effects of an attack. It is with this in mind that Bush actively sought to devalue the appeal of WMD and missiles and to impede the dire consequences to U.S. interests should adversaries successfully execute such attacks. (14) Therefore, while it has been argued by some commentators that Bush continued a policy that was initiated by the Clinton administration, his National Security Strategy of 2002, or 'doctrine,' and subsequent nuclear weapons guidance documents, (15) focussed on a more assertive counter-proliferation route as a means to impede or remove existing adversarial holdings of WMD before they could be used.

This was clearly evident with the release of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), in which the Pentagon outlined a list of contingencies and targets where nuclear weapons might be used. The NPR expanded the role of nuclear weapons beyond the primary role of deterring a nuclear attack, and suggested that nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack or in retaliation for use of biological or chemical weapons. Additionally, the document stipulated that the U.S. must develop new nuclear weapon capabilities as a means to defeat 'hardened and deeply buried targets' in states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -including Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Leaked to the media in early 2002, the NPR illustrated Bush's view on how nuclear weapons could be used in three different scenarios: against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or 'in the event of surprising military developments.' The 2002 NPR proposed that the U.S. be prepared to launch a nuclear strike to decimate stocks...

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