Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nuclear Freeze

Nonproliferation by the Numbers

Have the U.S. nuclear numbers been released yet? Watch your newsfeed for this major strategic development. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is planning to declassify the exact number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. inventory and announce it to the public at the NPT conference that opens today. Says the Post: “[T]he administration is seeking a dramatic announcement that will further enhance its nuclear credentials as it tries to shore up the fraying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

The Post notes objections from intelligence and defense officials who worry about forensic analysis by terrorists. But the revelation of previously classified numbers isn’t what matters here. Unclassified public estimates will turn out to have been pretty accurate. The policy problem is the Obama administration’s apparent belief that more transparency from the U.S. is what the nonproliferation effort needs.

North Korea and Iran have pursued nuclear-weapons programs for years without any effective response from the UN under the auspices of the NPT. Russia and China proliferate at will for their own purposes. Now Egypt proposes to make the Obama NPT policy a forum for confronting Israel and linking both Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear programs to the WMD-free Middle East initiative. The NPT is alternately ignored when it’s inconvenient and exploited when it makes a ready diplomatic weapon against regional rivals. And the Obama administration thinks the problem here is that the U.S. hasn’t published the nitty-gritty numbers on our nuclear arsenal?

In fact, of all the things the U.S. could do, this one has the least relevance to Obama’s avowed purpose of keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists. Terrorists certainly won’t be impressed by bureaucratic gestures. And even if another national leader had the surreal sense of invulnerability that seems characteristic of Obama, and were willing to publish his country’s actual numbers, there would be no benefit for nonproliferation in a paroxysm of national revelations.

On the other hand, this kind of gesture is just the sort of thing critics of Israel can endlessly berate the Israelis for not making. Assuming that India and Pakistan also decline to follow the U.S. lead, they will have another grievance against each other to add to their lists. Elements of Obama’s domestic constituency can celebrate the action, of course, and their counterparts in Europe can nod approvingly. Perhaps that’s what it’s really all about in the end: requiting the inchoate longings of the Nuclear Freeze movement Obama applauded in college. That movement saw America as the world’s big problem. Much of it still does.

Have the U.S. nuclear numbers been released yet? Watch your newsfeed for this major strategic development. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is planning to declassify the exact number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. inventory and announce it to the public at the NPT conference that opens today. Says the Post: “[T]he administration is seeking a dramatic announcement that will further enhance its nuclear credentials as it tries to shore up the fraying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

The Post notes objections from intelligence and defense officials who worry about forensic analysis by terrorists. But the revelation of previously classified numbers isn’t what matters here. Unclassified public estimates will turn out to have been pretty accurate. The policy problem is the Obama administration’s apparent belief that more transparency from the U.S. is what the nonproliferation effort needs.

North Korea and Iran have pursued nuclear-weapons programs for years without any effective response from the UN under the auspices of the NPT. Russia and China proliferate at will for their own purposes. Now Egypt proposes to make the Obama NPT policy a forum for confronting Israel and linking both Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear programs to the WMD-free Middle East initiative. The NPT is alternately ignored when it’s inconvenient and exploited when it makes a ready diplomatic weapon against regional rivals. And the Obama administration thinks the problem here is that the U.S. hasn’t published the nitty-gritty numbers on our nuclear arsenal?

In fact, of all the things the U.S. could do, this one has the least relevance to Obama’s avowed purpose of keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists. Terrorists certainly won’t be impressed by bureaucratic gestures. And even if another national leader had the surreal sense of invulnerability that seems characteristic of Obama, and were willing to publish his country’s actual numbers, there would be no benefit for nonproliferation in a paroxysm of national revelations.

On the other hand, this kind of gesture is just the sort of thing critics of Israel can endlessly berate the Israelis for not making. Assuming that India and Pakistan also decline to follow the U.S. lead, they will have another grievance against each other to add to their lists. Elements of Obama’s domestic constituency can celebrate the action, of course, and their counterparts in Europe can nod approvingly. Perhaps that’s what it’s really all about in the end: requiting the inchoate longings of the Nuclear Freeze movement Obama applauded in college. That movement saw America as the world’s big problem. Much of it still does.

Read Less

Nukes Don’t Kill People

If you’ve seen the 1995 Rob Reiner movie The American President, with Michael Douglas as the title character, you recognize the Obama posture at this week’s nuclear summit. I saw the movie at a theater in Dallas and have told the story many times about its political punch lines falling flat with the Texas audience. There was the line uttered by Annette Bening, the female lead and presidential love interest, about turning any car with an internal combustion engine into a collector’s item. That produced only a restless silence. And there was this passage from the rousing, climactic speech delivered by Douglas in the final minutes of the movie:

You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns.

The Hollywood Congress onscreen applauded uproariously, but these lines got no appreciation from the Texas movie crowd. A good three-fourths of it would, I suspect, have informed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin that guns don’t kill people — people kill people.

Barack Obama has believed, since his undergraduate days in the Nuclear Freeze movement, that nukes kill people. He may honestly think you cannot address global security without getting rid of enriched nuclear material; it’s hard to say. But he’s gonna get the nukes.

And so, like a mayor trumpeting a handgun turn-in program, he is getting the nukes out of the hands of the law-abiding. His takers to date include Ukraine, which will reportedly turn its enriched uranium over to Russia; Chile, which had already concluded an agreement to send its high-enriched uranium — used for nuclear reactors — to the U.S.; and Mexico, which will accept help from the U.S. and Canada to convert its reactors from high-enriched uranium to lower-enriched fuel.

Many commentators have pointed out that it makes little sense to hold a nuclear summit in 2010 and give scant attention to Iran, North Korea, and unstable Pakistan. But that perspective assumes a moral and prioritized approach to the problem: one that recognizes the motives of the human actors most likely to have weaponized nuclear components at their disposal in the near future.

Obama’s prophylactic approach, by contrast, is abstract, bureaucratic, and incremental. It weighs the problem by the kiloton of enriched uranium, as the anti-gun left weighs the crime problem by the number of .38 Specials not yet confiscated from the public. From this perspective, any transfer of physical material from one form of custody to another can be seen as a big, important step in the right direction.

But such symbolic physical transfers are important only if our most immediate global security threat really is terrorists, in the generic, getting hold of enriched uranium that could be anywhere. We have good reason to conclude otherwise. Islamic terrorists are much more likely to get nuclear material from Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea than from any other source. In the race to assemble a nuclear device that can be used against Israel, North America, or Europe, Iran holds the lead over any terrorist group. North Korea, meanwhile, can already range South Korea and Japan with a nuclear weapon.

Our greatest nuclear threat is not addressed at all by the uranium transfers commemorated with such fanfare at this week’s summit. The Obama administration would do well to heed the skeptical wisdom of Texas film audiences and remember that nukes don’t kill people; people kill people.

If you’ve seen the 1995 Rob Reiner movie The American President, with Michael Douglas as the title character, you recognize the Obama posture at this week’s nuclear summit. I saw the movie at a theater in Dallas and have told the story many times about its political punch lines falling flat with the Texas audience. There was the line uttered by Annette Bening, the female lead and presidential love interest, about turning any car with an internal combustion engine into a collector’s item. That produced only a restless silence. And there was this passage from the rousing, climactic speech delivered by Douglas in the final minutes of the movie:

You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns.

The Hollywood Congress onscreen applauded uproariously, but these lines got no appreciation from the Texas movie crowd. A good three-fourths of it would, I suspect, have informed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin that guns don’t kill people — people kill people.

Barack Obama has believed, since his undergraduate days in the Nuclear Freeze movement, that nukes kill people. He may honestly think you cannot address global security without getting rid of enriched nuclear material; it’s hard to say. But he’s gonna get the nukes.

And so, like a mayor trumpeting a handgun turn-in program, he is getting the nukes out of the hands of the law-abiding. His takers to date include Ukraine, which will reportedly turn its enriched uranium over to Russia; Chile, which had already concluded an agreement to send its high-enriched uranium — used for nuclear reactors — to the U.S.; and Mexico, which will accept help from the U.S. and Canada to convert its reactors from high-enriched uranium to lower-enriched fuel.

Many commentators have pointed out that it makes little sense to hold a nuclear summit in 2010 and give scant attention to Iran, North Korea, and unstable Pakistan. But that perspective assumes a moral and prioritized approach to the problem: one that recognizes the motives of the human actors most likely to have weaponized nuclear components at their disposal in the near future.

Obama’s prophylactic approach, by contrast, is abstract, bureaucratic, and incremental. It weighs the problem by the kiloton of enriched uranium, as the anti-gun left weighs the crime problem by the number of .38 Specials not yet confiscated from the public. From this perspective, any transfer of physical material from one form of custody to another can be seen as a big, important step in the right direction.

But such symbolic physical transfers are important only if our most immediate global security threat really is terrorists, in the generic, getting hold of enriched uranium that could be anywhere. We have good reason to conclude otherwise. Islamic terrorists are much more likely to get nuclear material from Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea than from any other source. In the race to assemble a nuclear device that can be used against Israel, North America, or Europe, Iran holds the lead over any terrorist group. North Korea, meanwhile, can already range South Korea and Japan with a nuclear weapon.

Our greatest nuclear threat is not addressed at all by the uranium transfers commemorated with such fanfare at this week’s summit. The Obama administration would do well to heed the skeptical wisdom of Texas film audiences and remember that nukes don’t kill people; people kill people.

Read Less




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