Asking Hillary About Nuclear Weapons

Judy Elliott on September 18, 2015
Hillary Clinton responded - briefly - to questions about nuclear weapons modernization and the military industrial complex. She agreed we have to find a way to rid the world of nuclear weapons and said she would start a high-level commission to study how to make weapons procurement decisions more resistant to the political influence of weapons makers.

Finally! I’ve spent a couple of months trying to ask Hillary Clinton about nuclear weapons. At a September 17 town hall event in Concord, New Hampshire, I finally got to do it. Here’s how it went:

Judy: There has been a lot of talk about Iran but I am so worried about U.S. nuclear weapons also. We have almost 5,000 nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert. Now there’s a plan to build … [spend] a trillion more dollars for new warheads, new planes, a whole new fleet of submarines. It’s going to make the weapons makers a whole lot of money, but I am personally terrified of nuclear annihilation. Do you support this renewed spending?

Clinton: One of the highest goals of the Obama Administration was to try to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. And we did get a treaty with Russia that was limited but at least it continued the process. Trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons – we have a long way to go, and we’re just going to have to figure out how to manage it. One of the reasons why I supported the Iran deal [was] because it put a lid on one more country with nuclear weapons at least for a number of years.

In the crowd afterwards, Arnie Alpert spoke to Clinton and pointed out that the nuclear weapons modernization plan contradicts nonproliferation goals. She replied that a trillion dollars was ridiculous and the money could be used for other needs.

I wasn’t the only voter last night to ask Clinton about military policy. Dwight Haynes, a retired Methodist minister, started off the evening’s questions.

Dwight: I’m Dwight Haines and in 1950, at the Boy Scout Jamboree in Valley Forge, I had the privilege to meet … Dwight Eisenhower. … And … after that event I heard him speak against the growing military- industrial complex. As I listened last night [to the Republican debate] … it seems to me the Republicans are determined to put more and more money into defense, regardless of what else happens. So I’m wondering, as president, would you be willing to set some kind of limits on how much we put into the defense piece of the pie? Also, will you make sure that corporations that sell weapons systems don’t influence our politics?

Clinton: Two good questions. I’m a great admirer of President Eisenhower… I think he was very far-sighted when he gave that speech about the necessity for us to be careful about the military-industrial complex, as he called it. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have always had two conflicting imperatives. We need to have a strong defense, everybody agrees with that. But how we do it and how much it costs is subject to debate. And I think we are overdue for a very thorough debate in our country about what we need and how we are willing to pay for it. Because I think some of the decisions that have been made, because of the sequester, which just cut without regard for the effectiveness of the program or the impact of it being eliminated, was much too blunt an instrument. I think we should have a high-level commission of really well-respected people from different walks of life, who have not lived their life completely in the military-industrial world, really taking a hard look, the same way we have had to in the past look at closing bases. A system was put in place where there could be somewhat less influence from Congressional politics, and I’d like to see such a commission come up with recommendations. Because what I hear all the time, that I saw as a senator – I served on the Armed Services Committee – [and] what I saw as Secretary of State is that very often the leadership of the Defense Department wants to eliminate certain spending, or wants to change it, maybe put it somewhere else where they think it’ll do more good, and … they’re stopped by Congress. So what I’m looking for is a way of avoiding that.

Clinton was not the first candidate I’ve asked about nuclear weapons (see earlier posts), but she’s among those I most wanted to hear from. She’s a front-runner and she has a lot of foreign policy experience. It was great to hear her comments about nuclear abolition and restraining the arms budget. But she needs to be more specific about her intentions.

A little background. President Obama endorsed nuclear weapons abolition during his first campaign. He reaffirmed that goal in a speech in Prague in 2009. Initial progress was exciting. The President negotiated the New Start treaty in 2010, limiting deployed warheads to 1,550 each for the United States and Russia. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review endorsed “a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.” The NPR also said the United States would not develop any new nuclear weapons.

In a June 2013 speech in Berlin, President Obama went further, suggesting that the two powers negotiate an additional one-third reduction of deployed nuclear weapons.

Apparently even deeper reductions were discussed by American policy-makers. Journalist Marc Herman reported that computer modelling at the National Defense University showed that reductions to 500 nuclear weapons for each side would provide both countries with a “minimal deterrent” sufficient to prevent a first strike from the other.[1] While it wouldn’t be nuclear abolition, such reductions would represent genuine progress.

But recently progress has stalled and a frightening new arms race is heating up.

Part of the reason, as explained by James Carroll, is that “[in] order to get the votes of Senate Republicans to ratify the START treaty, Obama made what turned out to be a devil’s bargain. He agreed to lay the groundwork for a vast ‘modernization’ of the US nuclear arsenal, which, in the name of updating an aged system, is already morphing into a full-blown reinvention of the arms cache at an estimated future cost of more than a trillion dollars. In the process, the Navy wants … twelve new strategic submarines; the Air Force wants… a new long-range strike bomber force. Bombers and submarines would … both be outfitted with next-generation missiles.” Modernization, under the guise of “life extension” for existing weapons, also involves creation of upgraded warheads, contrary to intentions stated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

This is why we need to know whether Clinton opposes nuclear weapons modernization. The problem is not just the immense expense, using money that, as she told Arnie, is needed elsewhere. (Bernie Sanders said something similar at a forum in Portsmouth last May, but like Clinton was vague about his exact stance.) Even if nuclear weapons modernization were without cost, the program represents a frightening about-face from Obama’s early progress towards nuclear abolition.

Once the Pentagon is invested in the new weapons systems, as is already happening, the new arms race will be hard to reverse. And of course, defense contractors will reap hundreds of billions of dollars building the new weapons. Their profit motives will continue to drive spending on nuclear weapons.

So here are questions we should ask Clinton and the other candidates:

· How will you put the United States into compliance with Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which states: “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?”

· If you become president, will you stop the nuclear weapons modernization program?

· Will you commit to reduce the United States’ military stockpile to 1000 nuclear weapons in your first term, and 500 in your second term?

According James Carroll, “[If] a commander-in-chief were to order nuclear reductions into the hundreds, the result might actually be a transformation of the American political conscience. In the process, the global dream of a nuclear-free world could be resuscitated and the commitment of non-nuclear states (including Iran) to refrain from nuclear-weapons development could be rescued. Most crucially, there would no longer be any rationale for the large-scale reinvention of the American nuclear arsenal, a deadly project this nation is even now preparing to launch.“

Let’s make sure that the candidates address these issues. The more of us who get out and talk to them, the better.

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[1] In 2009, a report by the Federation of American Scientists also said that reductions to “initially 1,000 warheads, and later a few hundred warheads, are more than adequate to serve as a deterrent against anyone unwise enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.”

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