Four months into his presidency, at a summit in Prague, Barack Obama pledged to take “concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.” Yet nearly eight years later, he presides over a program to modernize the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of $35 billion a year through the next decade and beyond. To those who accuse him of hypocrisy, Obama has said that he always regarded a nuclear-free world as a long-term goal, unlikely to be met in his lifetime, much less his time in office—and that his modernization program is designed not to build more or more deadly nuclear weapons but rather to maintain and secure the arsenal the United States has now.
This claim is true, by and large, but it leaves open a bigger question: Does the United States need the arsenal it has now? Obama seems to be mulling this very question as his tenure winds down. In a June 6 speech to the Arms Control Association, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, noted that “the modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress,” and that the president “will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.” In one sense, Rhodes was merely repeating the concern that Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, had expressed back in February—that the nuclear plan’s price tag would force tradeoffs in an era of budget constraints and that if this meant cuts in conventional forces, then that would be “very, very, very problematic.” But other officials have said that the review Rhodes mentioned is propelled not only by budgetary dilemmas but by questions of strategy and history, too.
Rhodes’ statement set off alarm bells in certain corridors of Congress. In a June 16 letter, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, both Republicans, reminded Obama that during the debate over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010,