WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's ambitious plan to begin phasing out nuclear weapons has run up against powerful resistance from officials in the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, posing a threat to one of his most important foreign policy initiatives.
Obama laid out his vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague in April, vowing the United States would lead the way. Now, the administration is locked in internal debate over a secret policy blueprint for shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal and reducing the role of such weapons in military strategy and foreign policy.
Officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere have pushed back against administration proposals to cut the number of weapons and narrow their mission, according to U.S. officials and outsiders who have been briefed on the process.
White House officials, unhappy with early Pentagon-led drafts of the blueprint known as the Nuclear Posture Review, have stepped up their involvement in the deliberations and ordered that the document reflect Obama's preference for sweeping change, according to the U.S. officials and others.
The government maintains an estimated 9,400 nuclear weapons, about 1,000 fewer than in 2002. But Obama believes that stepping up efforts to reduce the stockpile will give U.S. officials added credibility in their quest to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone international arms control pact.
The Pentagon has stressed the importance of continued U.S. deterrence, an objective Obama has said he agrees with. But a senior defense official acknowledged that some officials are concerned the administration may be going too far. He described the debate as "spirited . . . I think we have every possible point of view in the world represented."
The debate represents another collision between Obama's administration and key parts of the national security establishment, following earlier scrapes over troop levels in Afghanistan and missile defenses in Eastern Europe. But more than those issues, the future of U.S. nuclear weapons policy is directly tied to a series of initiatives Obama has advanced as a prime goal of his presidency.
"This is the first test of Obama's nuclear commitments," said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg, who held senior foreign policy positions in the Clinton administration. "They can't afford to fall short at the outset."
Congress called for the nuclear review and placed the Pentagon in charge. Similar reviews were conducted near the beginning of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations, but Obama's is the first in which substantial changes stand to be made both in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and how they are to be used.