NEWS ANALYSIS: The 2008 Presidential Primaries and Arms Control

Zachary Hosford

For more than a year, the 2008 presidential candidates have been traveling the country, giving speeches, writing articles, participating in debates, and shaking hands in anticipation of primaries and caucuses that are set to begin in January. Although health care reform, the state of the national economy, and the Iraq war have dominated the headlines throughout the campaign, the contenders have engaged in heated discussions on a number of arms control and nonproliferation issues.

Continuing a trend that began in the wake of the Cold War, the political discourse has tended to emphasize terrorism and threats involving rogue states more than traditional arms control issues. The discussion of the terrorist threat primarily focuses on the possibility of nuclear or radiological terrorism, with candidates scarcely mentioning the chance that nonstate actors might use chemical or biological weapons.

Still, there has been plenty of conversation on more familiar arms control subjects, including international treaties, ballistic missile defense, and the status of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Throughout the campaign, one noticeable distinction among the candidates has been the amount of emphasis they place on either unilateral or multilateral solutions, with Republicans typically endorsing the former course and Democrats generally expressing greater interest in international cooperation.

This overview does not attempt to describe the position of every candidate on every issue but will provide a sense of the range of views on the most important issues, drawing statements from recent speeches, press releases, debates, and candidate websites.


No arms control issue has received more attention than how the United States should respond to Iran’s nuclear program. Although strategies differ significantly among the candidates, the consensus on both sides of the aisle is that the next administration should not allow Iran to create a nuclear weapon.

Most Democratic candidates favor a strategy of increased engagement to achieve this goal, criticizing the Bush administration’s unwillingness to participate in direct dialogue with Tehran. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have at times advocated negotiations with Iran’s leaders without any preconditions, although Obama’s campaign has backed off somewhat from that statement. The Bush administration has said it is only willing to negotiate with Iran after it is has suspended its uranium enrichment and heavy-water reactor programs, which can be used either for peaceful or military purposes.

In a June debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) emphasized that the United States “always talked” to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, endorsing direct but conditional, mid-level discussions with Iran. Clinton ruled out presidential-level negotiations.

Similarly, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ website notes that he has advocated negotiations with Iranian leaders “who have met a number of criteria,” including a commitment to diplomacy and recognition both of international law and the state of Israel. In a June debate, he indicated a willingness to reward Iran with economic incentives and nuclear fuel supplies controlled by the international community but threatened to punish the country with increased sanctions if it did not cooperate.

Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has endorsed implementing progressively more restrictive economic sanctions against Iran, saying in a February speech that he prefers a policy of “diplomatic isolation” that would treat Ahmadinejad like a “rogue.” Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has criticized the efficacy of the international community’s past negotiations with Iran, urging the United States to impose sanctions through the UN Security Council, taking unilateral steps only if cooperative measures fail. Among his proposals is the suspension of Tehran’s World Bank funding.

The majority of candidates from each party would not rule out the eventual use of military force, but some have been more willing than others to discuss a potential attack. In a June Republican debate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite predicting that conventional weapons could potentially disable Iranian nuclear facilities, said he would not preclude the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Likewise, Clinton asserted in a Foreign Affairs article that “all options must remain on the table.”

By contrast, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel (D) described such an approach as “immoral” in an April Democratic debate. Similarly, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson promised in an August Democratic debate to implement a no-first-use policy with regard to nuclear weapons and has argued that threats of military force against Iran are counterproductive.


In an October debate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) admonished his fellow Democrats for paying more attention to Iran than Pakistan, warning that Pakistan could pose a greater threat to the United States. Pakistan, he said, already possesses large quantities of highly enriched uranium, a material used to produce nuclear weapons, while Iran is believed to be at least several years away from being able to construct such a device. The threat is compounded by the recent turmoil within the Pakistani government, prompting fears that the country’s nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands (see pages 11-17 ).

Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee, unimpressed with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s record on fighting terrorism, implores the United States on his website to “get tough” with the Pakistani leader. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), however, cautioned in an August debate that Musharraf is “the only person that separates us from a jihadist government in Pakistan with nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear Terrorism

Concerns over Iran and Pakistan have renewed focus on how to prevent nuclear terrorism. Although all of the candidates have underscored the importance of this issue, some have concentrated more on the need to support and expand international threat reduction programs, while others tended to focus on governmental restructuring and domestic proposals.

Richardson, who served as secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, has said in answering a survey from the nonprofit Council for a Livable World that there is a need for improved performance by threat reduction programs. He praised the “successful” Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a Department of Energy program to remove and secure “high-risk nuclear and radiological materials and equipment around the world,” although he acknowledged that “huge security gaps still remain.”

Richardson also lauded the Bush administration for the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global program dedicated to interdicting shipments of weapons of mass destruction, but he criticized the administration for not spending the $200 million allotted to the Energy Department’s Material Protection, Control and Accounting program, a security-upgrade initiative to protect Russian nuclear warheads and weapons-grade fissile material. Edwards also joined in the criticism, promising to boost spending on cooperative threat reduction programs, something he says currently amounts to less than 1 percent of the total defense budget. Obama won Senate passage of legislation calling for the President to submit to Congress a comprehensive plan for ensuring that all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material at vulnerable sites around the world are secure by 2012 from terrorists.

Romney, however, is promoting international cooperation in a different way. In a speech at Yeshiva University, he advocated developing a “new body of international law” that would make nuclear trafficking a crime against humanity, on par with genocide. His plan would allow for “universal jurisdiction” so that “charges can be brought up at any court, to help prevent traffickers from hiding in complicit or weak countries.”

On the domestic front, Clinton and Romney have each proposed plans to create a high-ranking position specifically dedicated to preventing nuclear terrorism. Edwards says he would improve efforts by increasing governmental efficiency, singling out various redundancies within the system.

Taking a slightly different tack, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) proposed in an August debate that the United States attempt to deter an act of nuclear terrorism by threatening to bomb Islam’s holiest sites.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and the NPT

There exists widespread rhetorical support for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but several candidates have said there is a need to revisit it in light of new geopolitical realities. Much of the discussion has involved the proposed creation of an international fuel bank, which would make fuel for peaceful purposes available to non-nuclear-weapon states, thereby perhaps diminishing the need for those states to establish enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing programs of their own.

Obama has introduced legislation authorizing $50 million to start an international nuclear fuel bank under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Both Clinton and Romney have emphasized low nuclear fuel cost as a critical facet of such a plan. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Clinton proposed a “supplement” to the NPT, designed to constrain the number of countries “that pose proliferation risks,” and would guarantee “secure access” at “reasonable prices.” Romney has called for the United States to “take the lead” in the initiative but to provide fuel only to those countries “willing to abide by very high standards for safety and security.”

Edwards wrote in Foreign Affairs that, within six months of taking office, he would create a Global Nuclear Compact to “bolster” the NPT by closing any “loopholes” through which rogue states might attempt either to misuse nuclear facilities or divert material to illicit weapons programs. Obama supports a provision in the treaty that would automatically trigger “strong international sanctions” against countries found to be in violation of their obligations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the few Republicans to specifically address the NPT, would make larger changes than those proposed by the Democrats. In particular, he said in Foreign Affairs that he opposes Article IV of the treaty, in which nuclear states agree to assist the “exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information” for peaceful purposes to other states, especially to non-nuclear-weapon ones.

McCain disputes the assumption that nuclear technology can spread without subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons programs and would revisit the basic concept that non-nuclear-weapon states “have a right to nuclear technology.”

McCain also endorses reversing the “burden of proof” for states suspected to be in violation of the treaty, with “an automatic suspension of nuclear assistance to states that the agency cannot guarantee are in full compliance with safeguard agreements.” In addition, McCain says he would “substantially” increase the IAEA’s annual budget to improve its ability to fulfill its monitoring and safeguarding duties.

National Missile Defense

The candidates generally divide along party lines on the issue of long-range ballistic missile defense. Implicitly or explicitly, the debate involves the concept of deterrence. Some Democrats argue that the Cold War tenet still applies to today’s geopolitical situation, while the leading Republicans are convinced that a nuclear-armed, ballistic missile-capable Iran cannot be deterred as the Soviet Union may have been.

Perhaps the most vocal of the unilateral missile defense supporters has been McCain. Regarding Russian opposition to the proposed interceptor and radar sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively, McCain said in an October debate that he would support implementation “first thing…and I don’t care what [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] objections are to it.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) responded to McCain’s comments by taking a more conciliatory approach. He said that the United States should accept Russia’s offer of collaboration on a sea-based missile defense program. Specifically, Hunter proposed positioning of Aegis missile defense cruisers in the Black Sea to thwart a potential Iranian missile launch.

 Giuliani has urged the United States to “press ahead” with a national missile defense system, saying Iran will pose an even more significant threat once its nascent nuclear weapons program is mated to a ballistic missile program.

He accused Democratic candidates of mischaracterizing the nature of the threat, stating that the country can “no longer rely on Cold War doctrines such as mutual assured destruction in the face of threats from hostile, unstable regimes.”

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has dismissed the notion that Iran requires a new approach, calling the system “unnecessary.”

In a May speech, Edwards pledged to thoroughly review defense spending, including the national missile defense program, which he labeled as “costly” and “unlikely to work.” Richardson, who describes the system as “failing,” promised in a press release to save $8 billion by significantly “scaling back” the program if elected president.

The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

Addressing the size and nature of the U.S. nuclear arsenal does not seem to be high on Republican candidates’ list of priorities. By contrast, many Democrats have aligned themselves with the authors of a January Wall Street Journal opinion article—former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)—in supporting a reduction in the nuclear stockpile. There is, however, some disagreement among Democrats on how to implement such reductions without jeopardizing national security.

Many Democrats have called for the resumption of bilateral arms control negotiations with Russia, with Richardson in a press release supporting an arsenal reduction to no more than 1,000 missiles and 600 deployed warheads, enough to maintain “an ample nuclear deterrent against any foreseeable threat.” Others avoided proposing specific figures, although Edwards and Obama have not shied away from mentioning disarmament as the ultimate goal. Obama acknowledged in a speech at DePaul University that the process will be a “long road,” and Edwards says that disarmament is the only way to address the international community’s inability to stem nuclear proliferation under the current system.

Discussion of the U.S. arsenal also included debate over the merits of producing a new generation of nuclear weapons, particularly their potential effect on halting the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Several Democratic candidates have argued that programs such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) would have a negative effect, while others maintained that hostile states would continue to pursue nuclear weapons programs regardless of any decision by the United States to construct new warheads.

Clinton, who said that constructing new nuclear weapons would have no effect on states such as North Korea and Iran, vociferously opposes the RRW program. She criticizes the Bush administration in the Council for a Livable World survey for “planning to rush ahead with new nuclear weapons without any considered assessment” of their potential impact on global nonproliferation efforts.

Biden also stated that he would scrap the RRW program, although he left the door open for a new weapons design in the future. Obama takes a softer tone as well, calling the decision to proceed with the RRW program “premature” but declining to reject it completely. Richardson has proposed cutting the RRW and other new nuclear weapons programs, which by his calculations would save a total of $5 billion.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear explosions, has drawn little attention from the Republicans but widespread support from the Democratic candidates, who often associate U.S. refusal to ratify the treaty with a perceived decline in global nonproliferation leadership.

Both Richardson and Clinton are strongly critical of the Bush administration’s “unilateralist” stance regarding the treaty, with the latter, in the Council for a Livable World survey, accusing the administration of weakening U.S. national security. Edwards, in the same survey, endorsed the CTBT’s ratification, citing its potential positive effects on the nuclear weapons policies of countries such as India and Pakistan. In a Foreign Affairs article, Obama urged the United States to ratify the treaty given “recent technological advances” in verification and called for the United States to pay its full contribution to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in the meantime.

Although positions have been taken for the primaries, they may change once the parties have chosen their respective nominees. Moreover, the course of events involving Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, as well as unpredictable terrorist activities, could play a significant role in shaping the landscape to which all of the candidates will have to adjust.