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Obama pledges fewer nukes. How low would he go?

President Obama used a speech in South Korea on Monday to repeat his goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, making it absolutely clear that the U.S. arsenal will continue to shrink while he's in the White House.

The only thing not clear yet is by how much.

Obama told South Korean university students that he is proud that the U.S. and Russia now field the fewest nuclear warheads since the 1950s, and he reviewed the policies that he hopes will provide a baseline for the eventual abolition of nukes:

As President, I changed our nuclear posture to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I made it clear that the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. And we will not pursue new military missions for nuclear weapons. We’ve narrowed the range of contingencies under which we would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. At the same time, I’ve made it clear that so long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll work with our Congress to maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal that guarantees the defense not only of the United States but also our allies -- including South Korea and Japan.

My administration’s nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited to today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism. So last summer, I directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces. That study is still underway. But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. Even after New START, the United States will still have more than 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons, and some 5,000 warheads. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.

So when will we see the much-discussed Obama administration nuke review? Just as with everything else this year, it might not appear until after Election Day. The hint for that came during a conversation between Obama and outgoing Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, which was picked up by microphones that they may not have realized were turned on. They picked up Obama asking Medvedev for "space" on the perpetual diplomatic bugbear of European missile defense. "It can be solved," he said, but the president said he would have more "flexibility" after his election.

"I transmit this information to Vladimir," Medvedev said -- referring to incoming President Putin.

Conservatives were not pleased. Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner jumped on the comments, announcing that "I want to make perfectly clear that my colleagues and I will not allow any attempts to trade missile defense of the United States to Russia or any other country."  Our phriend Phib asked this: "Isn't it a bit strange to coordinate with foreign nations AGAINST your own electorate and its representatives?"

The politics are what they are, but let's leave that aside for a moment. The important piece of information is that Obama wants to wait until he and Putin are installed in fresh new terms, giving them a little more oomph with their respective countries. Putin is locked in. Assuming Obama wins reelection, his request for pause could mean he's got something big up his sleeve -- even the much-discussed notion of cutting the arsenal by as much as 80 percent.

No one can say what'll happen, but it's probably safe to make a few predictions: Despite Turner's bombast, Russia will probably not make a comprehensive deal on missile defense or nuclear warheads. Missile defense is too important a domestic political issue for Putin, and he'll probably spend as much of his new term denouncing it as making concessions. Likewise for nukes -- with its conventional forces a shell of their former selves, Russia's defense doctrine depends on its strategic forces, another reason for its opposition to the Euro-shield.

Then there are the defense hawks and strategic forces advocates in the U.S., who will still be around in a second Obama term, and likely just as opposed to major cuts or concessions as they are today. Unless Democrats seize control of both houses in a huge tidal wave for the president -- which does not seem likely -- Obama could face as much gridlock in his second term as he does now, and that may mean the nukes stay where they are.

There is one other important detail here, however, over which the president will have mastery in both this term and his possible next one: His promise not to build any new nuclear warheads. That means that as the weapons in the existing arsenal age out of service and are disassembled, no new ones would take their place -- at least for now. Maybe Obama's proposal could call for the world's nuclear powers to just let their arsenals age into oblivion, with periodic reductions along the way.

Is it worth trying? Or is a world without nuclear weapons effectively impossible?

What do you think?

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