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Amid crises, Obama builds nonproliferation team

Amid crises, Obama builds nonproliferation team

In many ways, nonproliferation is at the center of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision, and his nonproliferation agenda connects the dots between the thrust of his policies towards Russia, Iran, and U.S. reengagement with the international community. In an April speech in Prague, Obama surprised many at the scope of his vision when he announced "America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Advocating stark reductions in the U.S. and global nuclear arsenals, Obama expressed willingness to recommit to international arms reduction and verification treaties, and said that countries like Iran could have a peaceful nuclear energy program (while not tipping his hand whether that might allow as the result of negotiations Iranian enrichment on its own soil, something Iran insists it has a right to). "We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections," Obama said. "That is a path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all."

But the recent North Korea nuclear and missile tests, reports that Pakistan is seeking to grow its nuclear arsenal in the midst of a civil war with the Taliban, and uncertainty over whether Iran will respond to U.S. overtures have shown the gravity of the immediate nonproliferation crises interrupting his longer-term vision.

Even as the Obama administration’s nonproliferation personnel have grown in number in recent weeks, one Washington nonproliferation hand notes, key holes remain in a team confronting challenges in North Korea, Iran, and beyond.

Until late last month, White House WMD czar Gary Samore, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller, and vice presidential nonproliferation advisor Jon Wolfsthal were the only relevant political appointees in place to date. (UPDATE: Susan F. Burk, the president’s choice to be his special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, was quietly confirmed on June 1st after being held up prior to the May recess.)

Long-time State Department nonproliferation hand Robert Einhorn was named last week as the special advisor to the secretary of state for nonproliferation and arms control. Einhorn, whose advisory position does not require Senate confirmation, has been in residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies for the past eight years and headed up Clinton’s nonproliferation advisory team during the presidential campaign. Einhorn’s initial assignment is to shepherd the ongoing sensitive dialogue with Pakistan over the security of its nuclear weapons.

More hands are due to arrive. Tomorrow, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) has her confirmation hearing to become under secretary of state for arms control and international security. (Here’s Tauscher’s prepared testimony).

Stephen Mull, a career Foreign Service officer, will be nominated as assistant secretary of state for international security and negotiation, Hill sources tell The Cable (Dan Poneman was the expected pick here until he was promoted to deputy  secretary at the Energy Department).

Samore is also building his team at the NSC by bringing on two senior directors as his deputies.  George Look, a longtime civil servant and arms control expert, is already in place and will head NSC efforts on the treaty-based nonproliferation agenda, including the upcoming 2010 NPT Review Conference. Laura Holgate is expected to join Samore’s team shortly and will focus on WMD threat reduction efforts, including tying together various Defense, Energy, and State Department programs into a coordinated whole and flesh out the president’s ambitious promise to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials over the next four years. Holgate, currently a vice president at the Sam Nunn-run Nuclear Threat Initiative, worked on these issues during the Clinton administration as a protégé of Ashton Carter, who is now under secretary of defense for acquisitions, technology, and missile defense.