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– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
NEWS ANALYSIS: Major Policy Shifts Unlikely With Democratic Congress
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Miles A. Pomper

Democrats take control of Congress this month for the first time in a dozen years, but their ascension is likely to lead to only modest shifts in U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policies, say congressional aides and independent experts.

After all, Republican president George W. Bush will still be at the helm setting the course for the U.S. agenda on these issues. The 2008 election campaign will soon cause many lawmakers to focus more on scoring political points than on piling up legislative or foreign policy victories. Additionally, although lawmakers claim to place high priority on nonproliferation, Congress’s foreign policy agenda is likely to be dominated by the search for a means to stabilize Iraq and extract U.S. forces.

Not to mention that a Republican-led Congress had already stymied some of Bush’s more controversial initiatives, particularly those that would have significantly altered the nature of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal and the nuclear posture inherited from the Cold War. (See ACT, November 2006. ) Democrats will surely push back just as hard and probably a little bit harder, but the outcome will likely be similar.

Indeed, the most dramatic changes in the arms control and nonproliferation arena may have already occurred when November’s election results encouraged the postelection resignations of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton.

Rumsfeld championed deployment of the rudimentary Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system and the idea of placing interceptors in space. His departure could enhance the ability of Democrats, already skeptical of these systems, to restrict planned missile defense deployments, particularly the idea of creating a test bed for such systems in space.

Bolton, a skeptic of multilateral treaties and organizations, had helped scuttle efforts to move forward on such measures as a 2005 UN effort to craft an action plan on disarmament. (See ACT, October 2005. ) He also called for taking a hard line with Iran and North Korea, two countries known or suspected to be pursuing nuclear weapons. Bush’s choice of a successor to Bolton may say a great deal about whether he will seek to continue these policies or hew to the somewhat more diplomatic approach that Condoleezza Rice has been carving out since she became secretary of state two years ago.

To be sure, some changes will certainly be in store in the way Congress handles these issues as Democrats take charge on Capitol Hill. But given their narrow margin and the fact that many of these issues naturally fall to the executive branch, their scope will likely be fairly limited.

More Aggressive Oversight

House of Representatives and Senate foreign affairs and armed services panels are pledging to take a closer look at the ongoing nuclear crisis with Iran and North Korea, as well as tackle longer-term issues such as the potential for future strategic weapons accords with Russia. They are also aiming to provide a reality check on much-touted administration initiatives aimed at preventing terrorists or “rogue” states from transferring nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and related technology, including requiring the administration to make explicit budget requests for some of these efforts.

One administration proposal that could face tough sledding on Capitol Hill would be an effort to strike a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. Lawmakers have grown dissatisfied with Moscow in recent years, with the Kremlin’s continued cooperation with Iran a particular sore point. One aide, noting that it took more than a dozen years for Congress to approve a similar accord with China, asked rhetorically, “Is Russia’s proliferation record so much better than China that they don’t need to be treated similarly?”

More Money and Flexibility for Threat Reduction Activities and Less for Missile Defenses

Democrats have long championed adding funds for programs that dismantle, secure, and destroy nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons arsenals and related materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Democrats want to repeal restrictions that have sometimes blocked program elements, such as some chemical weapons destruction efforts in Russia, from being carried out.

Moreover, increasing funds for such activities was one of the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pledged to turn the panel’s recommendations into law. The bill also calls for the creation of a White House office to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly to terrorism groups, and the creation of a bipartisan independent commission to offer recommendations on U.S. policy in this area.

One particular program to which Congress will likely add funds is the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. The program seeks to repatriate Russian- and U.S.-origin nuclear fuel from sites abroad, shut down highly enriched uranium-fueled reactors or convert them to the use of low-enriched uranium fuel, and secure radioactive materials worldwide. How much Congress might add is uncertain. Aides said that the administration is already assuming such additions; they have been told that the White House will propose cutting these programs as part of its fiscal year 2008 budget request to prod Congress to restore funding only to current levels.

If real increases in threat reduction programs occur, they are expected to be paid for by cuts in missile defense. Alluding to the mixed testing record of the GMD system last November, new Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters that “it’s a mistake to purchase all of these missiles before we know that they’re going to work.”

Although Levin acknowledged that considerable funding for the GMD system will go forward, congressional aides said they see little prospect of supporting administration plans to create a space-based test bed before Bush leaves office. Other programs are expected to be trimmed slightly.

Less clear is the fate of administration plans to deploy ground-based interceptors in Europe. Last year, Congress hedged its bets by providing funds for site preparation but permitting potential interceptors to be deployed elsewhere. There is little Democratic enthusiasm for funding the effort while a U.S. system remains unproven and howls of protest continue from Russia. Still, news reports indicate that the administration may attempt to undercut congressional opposition by picking a site in Poland before lawmakers have an opportunity to act.

Challenges to New Bush Administration’s Plans for Revamping the Nation’s Nuclear Posture

Recent studies indicating that plutonium pits will last longer than previously expected “have taken a lot of urgency” out of the administration’s proposal to create a new nuclear warhead to replace existing types, said a House committee aide. Likewise, an administration plan to substitute conventional warheads for nuclear ones on Trident submarines is expected to be put on ice, pending the conclusion of a National Academy of Sciences study on the wisdom of the plan.

Fuel-Cycle Decisions on Hold

The previous Congress’s failure to pass legislation funding the Department of Energy for the current fiscal year has put several initiatives of the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration on hold (funding is continuing at previous-year levels under a continuing resolution). These include the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which aims to develop new nuclear fuel-cycle technologies, including new forms of spent-fuel reprocessing. The administration claims these technologies will help nuclear power play a growing role in meeting U.S. and global energy needs while reducing the danger that civilian nuclear programs might be diverted for nuclear weapons purposes. But some lawmakers have questioned the technical, diplomatic, and financial basis of the GNEP program, and some are concerned about the proliferation risks of promoting reprocessing research.

The failure to pass the Energy Department funding bill also has left unresolved how to meet the U.S. part of a 2000 U.S.-Russian commitment under which each country is to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium. The initial agreement called for the material to be blended down into mixed-oxide fuel for nuclear reactors. But last year, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) successfully argued for having U.S. plutonium rendered unusable for weapons by immobilizing it with glass or ceramic in storage casks, although he failed to convince his Senate counterparts. With the Democratic victory, however, the two major antagonists in this and other disputes concerning the energy and water appropriations bill—Hobson and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) —no longer wield a chairman’s gavel.