The Politics of Arms Control in the Second Bush Term

By Pomper, Miles A. | Arms Control Today, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Arms Control in the Second Bush Term


Pomper, Miles A., Arms Control Today


President George W. Bush won re-election last month despite attacks on his arms control and nonproliferation record from his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. So, it is hardly surprising that Bush and his supporters would view his second term as an opportunity to continue as before.

Indeed, lawmakers from both parties say that all signs point to Bush pushing ahead in the same direction. Even though there is no clear popular mandate on arms policy in the returns, the president sees the election as an endorsement of his performance as commander-in-chief. In addition, with a stronger Republican presence on Capitol Hill and a cabinet that more clearly shares his foreign policy views, Bush can expect to face fewer institutional obstacles to his more assertive approach.

Yet, the president may have less latitude than his opponents fear or his supporters believe. Bush may be constrained by the ongoing U.S. Involvement in Iraq; the growing U.S. budget deficit; and the need to mend tics with European allies and maintain relatively warm relations with two other major nuclear-weapon states: Russia and China.

These dynamics are likely to be particularly important in domestic U.S. policy debates over how to deal with North Korea's and Iran's nuclear activities and the safeguarding of unconventional weapons and materials located in the former Soviet Union. They may also play out in votes on developing new nuclear weapons or constructing additional missile defenses.

During his campaign, Bush made clear that he believes the primary threat to U.S. national security lies not so much in the worldwide spread of nuclear and other weapons, but in who has them. "The biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network," Bush said during the first presidential debate.

Unlike Kerry, Bush and his aides see many formal arms control agreements as unenforceable, time-consuming, and a self-defeating restraint on the United States, instead, they would prefer that states individually enact and enforce laws to deal with proliferation threats and join in ad hoc coalitions to counter them when necessary. They place greater stress on "supply-side" mechanisms aimed at preventing weapons technology from leaking to terrorists or other countries than "demand-side" measures aimed at curbing the appetite for such weapons.

In their debates, Kerry skewered Bush's emphasis on military rather than diplomatic solutions to nonprollferation issues, most notably the administration's decision to invade Iraq on the grounds, later proven unfounded, that it possessed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Having rebuffed the criticism by winning re-election, Bush is expected to continue giving greater prominence to more muscular counterproliferation tools such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to interdict unconventional weapons en route to "rogue states" or terrorists. Bush's nominee for secretary of state, his first-term national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, shepherded through a national security strategy calling for greater use of such counterproliferation tools in contrast to traditional arms control approaches.

The new administration is also expected to continue a controversial drive for an expanded nuclear weapons infrastructure that would quickly permit the development of new nuclear weapons if they were viewed as needed to counter a new or resurgent foe or cope with technical problems in the existing arsenal.

Iran and North Korea

With regard to specific countries, major questions remain unanswered, particularly whether Bush will choose to continue his relatively hands-off approach to the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran, where other countries have often played the lead role. During the campaign, Kerry said Bush had not done enough to slow the progress of Iran's or North Korea's nuclear program and called for more direct diplomatic involvement by the United States. …

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