Obama proposes cutting nukes by a third

President Obama’s proposal to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as a third got a cool reception Wednesday from Republicans and some Democrats, who accused him of seeking unilateral disarmament.

Obama said he intends to seek negotiated cuts with Russia and announced plans to host a 2016 conference aimed at improving the security of nuclear weapons worldwide. He also called for a treaty to end the production of fissile material. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who supports the push to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile, said that the prospects of passing another treaty in the Senate could be difficult.

He pointed to the “Law of the Sea” treaty, which had the support of all the military leaders but failed last year to get enough Republican support for the required two-thirds majority.

“Any treaty around here these days is a bit of an uphill climb,” Levin told reporters Wednesday. 

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday slammed the proposal, warning it would make negotiating with Russia more difficult. 

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called the move “misguided and dangerous.” 

“What Obama sees as compromise, [Vladimir] Putin sees as weakness,” Ayotte said. “The U.S. should negotiate with the Kremlin from a position of strength.” 

Pariser Platz is seen filled with visitors as President Barack Obama speaks at the Brandenburg Gate on June 19, 2013, in Berlin. (Source: Getty Images)

Obama announced the initiative in a speech at Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate, before a much smaller crowd than the one that greeted candidate Obama in the summer of 2008.  

Six thousand tickets were handed out for the event organized by the German government; hundreds of thousands attended his previous speech, which was open to the public. 

“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” Obama told the crowd.  

U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama arrives to give a speech on July 24, 2008, next to the Victory Column, a Berlin landmark. (Source: Getty Images)

Separately, the White House directed the Pentagon to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons. It ordered that guidance be revised to only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances, and that the use of non-nuclear weapons be examined as possible deterrents.

In 2010, Congress approved the START treaty that gradually reduces each country’s nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 weapons each over the next five years. 

Under the new proposal, Obama will ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to match his proposed cut of another 500 weapons.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) argued that Russia had failed to live up to previous treaty agreements.

“It’s crazy,” McKeon told The Hill. “Why are we interested in further talks? They’re one of our big problems in Syria, and we know they’re violating nuclear treaties, and we’re trying to be nice to them? I don’t get it.”  

In Berlin, the president insisted that even with the proposed cuts, the United States could “ensure the security of America and our allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent.”

But on Capitol Hill, even some Democrats voiced concern with the president’s plan.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the president is proposing, and we need answers. I won’t support anything that puts our national security in jeopardy,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Sen. Jon Tester, also a Democrat from Montana, said the president’s plan “would be misguided.”

“I will not support any short-sighted effort that threatens our national security,” Tester said.

An aide to Putin told Reuters on Wednesday that Russia and the U.S. should involve other nuclear powers in any potential discussions.

“It’s necessary to bring other countries that possess nuclear weapons into the process,” foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said.

The president has long been an advocate for nuclear disarmament, saying in a 2009 speech in Prague that aging nuclear stockpiles were “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”

Anti-nuclear organizations and some allies on Capitol Hill applauded the move.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she “strongly agree[d]” with the president’s “intention to realign the U.S. nuclear posture to meet 21st century threats.”

“It is my strong belief that the world will be better off without an unnecessarily high number of these powerful weapons,” she said in a statement. “The Cold War is long gone and the United States and Russia must do more to adjust their deterrents to practicable standards.”

Global Zero, an international advocacy group advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons, said in a statement that the president’s remarks “pave the way for the critical step to set the world’s course to zero nuclear weapons.”

House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (Wash.), who has fought Republicans in the committee over spending more on nuclear weapons and missile defense, also applauded the president’s remarks.

“The president’s announcement today will allow the United States to lead the way on nuclear weapons reductions in a manner that strengthens our national security,” Smith said. “The president clearly understands that a strong nuclear deterrent remains essential. We have, and would retain, the ability to destroy the world many times over.” 

—This post was first published at 10:43 a.m. and updated at 7:05 p.m.