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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley November 30, 2010

Sen. Jon Kyl says Obama nuclear arms policy is a "march toward zero"

In a discussion of the new START treaty on NBC's Meet the Press on Nov. 29, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) outlined several reservations he has with the proposed treaty to control nuclear arms.

Kyl said he had concerns with provisions related to such things as missile defense and modernization of the nuclear arsenal.

But more than that, Kyl said he has a major philosophical difference with President Barack Obama's administration with regard to arms control -- namely whether the goal should be for a world free from all nuclear weapons.

"You have questions extraneous to the treaty but within the context, which is, is this all that's standing between us today and the administration trying to negotiate even deeper, further cuts, which it's indicated that it wants to do in its march toward global zero, something that a lot of us disagree with," Kyl said.

We looked into several comments made by Kyl about the new START treaty, but here, we are weighing whether it's accurate to characterize the Obama administration's position on nuclear arms as a "march toward global zero."

There's little question that Obama's stated goal -- even before he became president -- has consistently been a world free of nuclear weapons.

Some examples:

* A presidential campaign position paper on foreign policy promised that Obama "will make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear policy."

* In his defining speech on nuclear weapons as president, Obama on April 5, 2009, told an audience in Prague, "So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

* And in remarks at the United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament on Sept. 24, 2009, Obama said, "The historic resolution we just adopted enshrines our shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. And it brings Security Council agreement on a broad framework for action to reduce nuclear dangers as we work toward that goal."

In that United Nations speech, Obama quoted former President Ronald Reagan, who said, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war. We must never stop until all -- we must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth."

"That is our task," Obama said. "That can be our destiny. And we will leave this meeting with a renewed determination to achieve this shared goal."

So there is no debate that a "march toward global zero" has been Obama's stated goal. But just how fast does Obama plan to march?

In every case, Obama's statements about working toward a world without nuclear weapons are closely followed by a major qualification:

"America will not disarm unilaterally," Obama stated in the campaign literature. "Indeed, as long as states retain nuclear weapons, the U.S. will maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure and reliable."

"I'm not naive," Obama said in Prague. "This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, 'Yes, we can.'"

That's why, in 2008, PolitiFact gave a False rating to a claim in a chain e-mail that Obama wants to "unilaterally disarm our nation."

In fact, Obama's nuclear policy closely mirrors that espoused by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn in two opinion pieces published in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 and 2008. In the second piece, titled "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," they wrote that, "Progress must be facilitated by a clear statement of our ultimate goal. Indeed, this is the only way to build the kind of international trust and broad cooperation that will be required to effectively address today's threats. Without the vision of moving toward zero,
we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral. In some respects, the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is like the top of a very tall mountain. From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can't even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can't get there from here. But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore. We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible."

The authors have significant foreign policy experience: Shultz was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan; Perry was defense secretary under Bill Clinton; Kissinger was secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; and Nunn was chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. And their policy was supported by numerous foreign policy experts at the time. But not all. Some foreign policy experts argued that their proposal would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

Kyl's statement about Obama's "march toward global zero" may have been a bit of a bumper sticker slogan, but it was also "completely accurate" and an "unusually candid" assessment of the differing philosophies on nuclear arms reduction, said John Pike, director of, a Web site that specializes in information about defense, the military, weapons of mass destruction and homeland security.

"There are two different churches that people go to on this issue," Pike said. "I think Kyl worships at the church that nuclear weapons are a good thing," he said. Kyl's position is that nuclear weapons can't be uninvented, he said, and that the U.S. wouldn't be as safe without them. "And that's not the church that Mr. Obama attends."

Some may argue over how quickly Obama intends to "march toward global zero" -- Obama has said he's not even sure it's possible in his lifetime. Obama has always noted that as long as other countries retain nuclear weapons, the United States will maintain a strong nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, Obama has consistently and repeatedly stated that his ultimate goal is to enact policies that bring the world closer to his ultimate goal: a world without nuclear weapons. And so we rate Kyl's statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

MSNBC website, Transcript of Meet the Press interview with Sen. Kyl, Nov. 28, 2010

Obama campaign website, "Confronting 21st Century Threats"

PolitiFact, "Obama wants to reduce stockpiles, not disarm," by Angie Drobnic Holan, July 15, 2008

University of Texas, Address by President Ronald Reagan to the Nation and Other Countries on United States-Soviet Relations, Jan. 16, 1984

White House website, Remarks by President Obama at the United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, Sept. 24, 2009

White House website, Remarks by President Obama in Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009

Wall Street Journal, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, Jan. 15, 2008

Interview with John Pike, director of, Nov. 30, 2010

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Sen. Jon Kyl says Obama nuclear arms policy is a "march toward zero"

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