Jonathan Alter | Bring in the Big Guns: Obama Prioritizes Nonproliferation

An enduring mystery of modern global politics is why the biggest threat to security the one most likely to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people has been such an afterthought.

Harvard’s Matthew Bunn puts the chances of terrorists exploding a nuclear device in the next decade at about 30 percent (others say 50). Of course, he says, no one knows the real percentage. But he asks a reasonable question: Let’s say the chances are only 1 percent. Can you imagine how any community would react to a new nuclear-power plant if it were told the odds of a meltdown were one in 100? The plant would never open. And yet the problem of loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists has, until now, been handled at the ministerial level.

President Obama’s elevation of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to the top of his agenda is an effort to restore common sense to the world’s conception of its own security. Shortly before his landmark speech on nuclear weapons a year ago in Prague, he confided to aides, “If we can do this and do health care, we will have made a huge difference.” The “this” is not his dream of eliminating all nuclear weapons, which Obama doesn’t expect in his lifetime; it’s real progress toward disarmament and fulfillment of his pledge to secure all loose nukes by 2012.

To that end, Obama is hosting 40 world leaders this week at a first-of-its-kind Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. The aim is to ask all major countries to explain what they’re doing to secure not just nuclear weapons (applicable only to the half-dozen members of that club), but also their enriched uranium and other dual-use technologies. Obama sees himself as a complacency buster. Many of these countries wrongly assume that terrorists couldn’t gain access to nuclear materials, and wrongly figure that if a device were to detonate, it would do so in the U.S. or Israel not where they live. If it does nothing else, the summit will disabuse Obama’s peer group of these myths and elevate the issue to the presidential level.

In May, many of the same nations will gather in New York to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty is the best way to hold the high ground with Iran and North Korea. Leverage doesn’t come from bombast; it comes from the world saying to rogue states, “We did our part, now you do yours.” The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that Obama, back in Prague, signed last week with the Russians is part of the same process. Reducing nuclear stockpiles (in this case by a third) is smart on its own terms but it also helps draw Russia further into efforts to isolate Tehran.

Ratifying START won’t be easy. It takes 67 votes in the Senate to approve treaties, which means that the Democrats need to bring along eight Republicans to win. Sen. Jon Kyl, the minority whip, is a bright guy who has apparently spent too much time with the John Boltons of the world: George W. Bush era conservatives who oppose almost all treaties. With some concessions (which might not be acceptable to the Russians), Kyl will likely come around on the deal. But next year or the year after, he’ll lead the opposition to ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which didn’t even get a majority of votes when it went to the Senate floor in 1999, much less two thirds. Unless the heads of the weapons labs (and Defense Secretary Robert Gates) say yes to the test ban, Obama can forget about that one.

The reductions Obama procured in Prague are better than nothing but a sign of how far he still has to go. “Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, I find it distressing that we’re not able to go to lower levels,” says Bunn, lamenting the “untransformed view” of so many defense experts. Some in the media aren’t helping. “Will the new deal leave the U.S. defenseless until it’s too late?” Fox anchor Megyn Kelly intoned last week, cueing video of a mushroom cloud. I guess I missed the teaser: will the new deal let the U.S. and Russia continue to have enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world a hundred times over?

Republicans face a test. They have to choose whether to side with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Richard Lugar, and the other reasonable adults who back most of the Obama policy Nor with the hard right, the folks who for more than half a century have impugned the motives and patriotism of liberals. The stakes are not an election or a piece of domestic legislation, but survival itself, in what former senator Sam Nunn calls “a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”

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