WASHINGTON — The Obama administration faced renewed heat from Congress last week on a number of national security fronts, ranging from the president’s new proposal for reducing US and Russian nuclear arsenals to the recent decision to supply arms and supplies to the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
Just days after House Republicans passed a fiscal 2014 defense budget that seeks to restrict presidential actions regarding nuclear arms reduction talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama doubled down on his oft-stated goal of a nuclear weapons-free future during a June 19 speech in Berlin.
Using the historic Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop, which American presidents since John F. Kennedy have utilized as a launching pad for ambitious initiatives aimed at the former Soviet Union, Obama called for a reduction in the two countries’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.
The move would come on top of the reductions called for under the 2010 New START treaty signed by the two Cold War rivals. Together, the two countries account for about 90 percent of the world’s estimated 17,000 nukes.
Back home, Capitol Hill Republicans, already wary of the president’s 2010 New START deal, lashed out against the proposal.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., quickly complained that the president’s proposal amounts to “unilateral disarmament.” He was later called by Secretary of State John Kerry, who assured him that any further reductions in nuclear stockpiles would be codified in a treaty, which would then be subject to Senate approval.
The head of the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., quickly released a statement saying it “strains credulity” that the White House is looking to negotiate “a new round of arms control with the Russians, while Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty.”
McKeon said that he has asked the president to more thoroughly investigate Russian violations, but has yet to receive any response from the White House.
Under New START, the United States and Russia pledged to reduce their nuclear warhead arsenals to 1,550 by 2018. Obama’s new proposal would reduce that number to about 1,000 warheads.
In its version of the 2014 defense budget passed June 5, the House passed legislation banning further reductions in nuclear stockpiles on top of those already agreed to under New START until the US can confirm that Russia is holding up its end of the deal.
But the proposed reduction doesn’t fully describe the American nuclear arsenal.
The United States could have as many as 4,800 warheads between its deployed stock and what is called its “hedge” or reserve stock. There are more than 1,800 deployed warheads at the ready, and it is believed that there are at least 2,500 reserve warheads spread among various installations in the United States.
If there was a need to bring reserve warheads back to readiness, “some would take weeks and others could take a matter of months,” said Kingston Reif, the director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. But in general, the majority of them “could be uploaded back to the deployed force relatively quickly.”
While there is no specific proposal to trim the hedge warheads, Reif said he presumes there will be some reduction there as well.
Overall, though, “it seems clear that we’re going to maintain a significant hedge, if and when this happens,” he said.
Despite such assurances, a relatively new but close ally of Senate Republican hawks, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., called the president’s proposal “misguided and dangerous.”
“What Obama sees as compromise, Putin sees as weakness,” she said. “The US should negotiate with the Kremlin from a position of strength and make clear that we are not willing to ignore Putin’s continued support of Assad’s murderous regime.”
Ayotte’s reference to the bloody civil war in Syria is another front where the president is taking heat from Congress.
The United Nations recently estimated that 93,000 civilians have been killed in two years of fighting, and the United States and its allies believe the regime also recently used chemical weapons against civilians.
A letter sent to Obama on June 19 signed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; and Carl Levin, D-Mich., warns that Assad’s forces are regaining the upper hand after months spent on the defensive.
The letter calls on the US to “take specific steps to change the military balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime and its foreign supporters,” which would include airstrikes against Syrian military airfields.
In a sign of how complex the debate is, on June 20, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took to the Senate floor to argue against arming rebels, while explicitly calling for American military intervention.
Arming the rebels is “a recipe for disaster,” he said, since the weapons would likely fall into the hands of the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate fighting in Syria.
“Don’t give weapons to people who hate us,” he pleaded.
Instead, the US and its allies should be making plans to go into Syria to “destroy the chemical weapons and get out,” Cruz said.