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.