April 7, 2010— -- President Obama says his new nuclear policy restricts the use of weapons while continuing to protect the United States and its allies, but some Republican critics argue that the world is now less safe and that the president's vision of a nuclear-free world is unrealistic.
It's unclear if the pushback will impact the pending Senate vote on ratification of the U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament treaty that Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to sign Thursday in Prague.
White House officials are increasingly expressing concern that the polarized political atmosphere might impact what is traditionally a bipartisan vote. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs again brought up past votes on arms treaties: the 1972 SALT I [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement], which was ratified by a vote of 88-2, START I in 1992 (93-6), START II in 1996 (87-4) and SORT [Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty] in 2003 (95-0).
In a major policy shift, the president is pledging to not use nuclear weapons against any country that has signed and is abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if they attack the United States with chemical or biological weapons. The United States also will not conduct any new nuclear testing or develop new nuclear weapons, but it will continue to modernize its infrastructure and bolster the development of other conventional weapons.
The new nuclear policy, announced Tuesday, has Republican critics up in arms. They argue that the U.S. government is making the concessions without getting anything in return.
"If you look at the issue of threat based, the world is not getting safer, the risks to the United States are certainly increasing," Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, told ABC News. "It does overall diminish our options, and I think certainly that the American people should be concerned that the president would take this kind of action and get nothing in return."
The House does not vote on treaties, but Turner said he would need to further study the new agreement with Russia before being able to express support for it.
GOP senators from Arizona John McCain and Jon Kyl expressed concern about the message the new policy will send to countries seeking nuclear weapons.
"The Obama Administration must clarify that we will take no option off the table to deter attacks against the American people and our allies," they said in a combined statement. "We believe that preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation should begin by directly confronting the two leading proliferators and supporters of terrorism, Iran and North Korea.
"The Obama administration's policies, thus far, have failed to do that and this failure has sent exactly the wrong message to other would-be proliferators and supporters of terrorism."
Across the airwaves, the president's pledge fueled the outrage of conservatives.
"I think the only thing that would work with Iran is they're thinking that there's a military consequence that could be faced if they become nuclear, and the farther he moves away from that, the more difficult his role with Iran is going to be," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on CNN.
Obama and administration officials, however, argue that the new policy sends exactly the right signal to Iran and North Korea, that by not complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing nuclear weapons, they are less safe.
"I actually think that the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] has a very strong message for both Iran and North Korea," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday. "We essentially carve out states like Iran and North Korea that are not in compliance with NPT."
The message to these countries, Gates said, "is that if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that's covered in the NPR. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you."
Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, agreed, saying that the new policy should be welcomed and that it maintains "a very tough line" on Iran.
"The president is clearly signaling that we are really decades away now from the end of the Cold War," he said. "That the real threats are no longer just those nuclear weapons states that bedeviled us in the past but they're the terrorist groups, and they're the renegade states like Iran and North Korea that are truly disruptive and a threat to the world.
"It seems to me that this new nuclear policy review by the Obama Administration strengthens the ability to the United States to counter that threat and safeguard American interests."
New Nuclear Policy Stirs Criticism From Conservatives
The president made it clear at the onset of his administration that he would work to reduce nuclear arsenals around the world, a promise he reaffirmed in Prague last year.
Obama hailed the new policy Tuesday as a "significant step forward" in fulfilling his pledge and reaffirmed his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
"To stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear terrorism and pursue the day when these weapons do not exist, we will work aggressively to advance every element of our comprehensive agenda, to reduce arsenals, to secure vulnerable nuclear materials and to strengthen the NPT," he said in a statement. "These are the steps toward the more secure future that America seeks, and this is the work that we are advancing today."
Critics don't see it that way.
"Proliferation is actually increasing at a time when the president believes that if he takes unilateral action to diminish our options, others will follow," Turner said. "And I don't think we've ever seen any emphasis where the United States has diminished its arsenal and resulted in other countries being motivated to not seek nuclear weapons."
Tuesday's announcement came at the beginning of a week and a half devoted to nuclear talks. Obama will sign the new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty with Medvedev in Prague Thursday and the United States will host a nuclear summit next week in Washington, D.C., attended by delegates from 47 countries.
ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.