Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tasks From Obama’s Big Speech: Cutting Nukes, Bringing Home Troops

President Obama will focus on two major national-security tasks in his State of the Union speech tonight. He’ll be able to pull off one of them without opposition.

The easy one will be cutting the size of the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan by half. Much, much harder will be reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile, especially if Obama wants to do so unilaterally.

Start with the hard one. Obama is expected to reiterate his first-term call for a nuclear-free world — a goal that looks farther away than ever with North Korea’s newest nuclear detonation. Last week, the Center for Public Integrity reported that the administration had reached consensus that the U.S. nuclear stockpile could be reduced by as much as a third, including short-range nukes, which are outside the scope of the most recent U.S.-Russia arms-control accord.

If Obama really intends to commit to this, he’ll have to spend a lot of political capital. His 2010 arms control deal with the Russians, which represented a more modest cut than this new reported plan, barely squeaked through the Senate in late 2010. Obama had to push ratification for the accord through a lame-duck Senate to avoid larger Republican opposition. At his acrimonious confirmation hearings to be defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, an advocate for cutting the nuclear stockpile, was made to swear up and down that he opposed unilateral nuclear reductions. Republicans are not going to let Hagel forget that at the Pentagon, and they’re in an excellent position to deny the White House a follow-up nuclear treaty with the Russians.

Obama is in a much stronger position to announce, as he reportedly will, that he’ll reduce U.S. troop strength in America’s longest war by 34,000 over the course of 2013. Even if Congress wanted to stop the drawdown, it has no viable mechanism for doing so. As it happens, it doesn’t: sometime last year, the last bulwark of Republican support for sustaining the war beyond 2014 collapsed. Americans want out of Afghanistan by margins of between 71 and 79 percent, according to a new Washington Post poll. The new general running Afghanistan, Joseph Dunford, knows his task is to pull most troops out by 2014 without chaos reigning.

Halving the troop presence in Afghanistan this year, when Afghan forces are supposed to begin taking control of the war, indicates a more cautious approach than a restless public might favor. But what Obama probably won’t say is that there’s an emerging plan, as reported by Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Post, to keep 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as a residual force. Apparently post-2014 Afghanistan won’t look like Korea: rather than keeping that force there indefinitely, the administration is considering cutting it to below 1,000 troops by 2017.

That’s the closest thing Obama has come to actually following through on his rhetoric of ending the Afghanistan war — although whether he’ll actually do it before his second term ends is a massively open question. Still, Obama has leverage to do it that he can only dream of having for his anti-nuclear agenda. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Obama's day: Selling the gun-control plan

It's a day of selling for President Obama, selling his plan to battle gun violence.

The president travels to Minneapolis to visit the city's Police Department Special Operations Center and discuss "his comprehensive set of common-sense ideas to reduce gun violence," the White House schedule says.

Obama's plan includes universal background checks for all gun buyers, a renewal of the assault weapons ban and restrictions on the capacity of ammunition magazines, along with new school safety and mental health programs.

Why Minneapolis?

"Minneapolis is a city that has taken important steps to reduce gun violence and foster a conversation in the community about what further action is needed," the White House says.

That includes a youth violence initiative that has seen some success. In addition, sheriffs in Minnesota have worked to improve the state's background check system on gun purchases.

"President Obama will visit with members of the community about their experiences and discuss additional steps that can be taken at the federal level to reduce gun violence," the schedule says.