Two cheers for Obama’s nuclear summit

Two cheers for Obama’s nuclear summit

A friend of mine likes to observe that in the area of national security, politicians have a real difficulty in distinguishing between "what’s new, and what’s new to you." President Obama’s nuclear security summit seems to be a textbook example of this.

The administration has patted itself on the back for identifying nuclear terrorism as a major threat and Obama went so far as to claim that the risk of a nuclear terror attack "has gone up." As a straining-to-be sympathetic reporter put it: "Coming from Dick Cheney, words like that had a way of sounding like a scare tactic. Coming from Obama, they are genuinely scary." What the reporter didn’t say, is that for nearly eight years critics have complained that the Bush-Cheney administration took the threat of nuclear terrorism too seriously (see the One Percent Doctrine). There is even a cottage industry devoted to pooh-poohing (see here and here) the entire matter as hype. Perhaps that industry will now direct its fire at Obama or perhaps it will find itself suddenly able to split the hair between a "scare tactic" and "genuinely scary."  

The administration has also described its initiatives as the first serious effort to get U.S. nuclear policy out of a Cold War mentality on the U.S.-Soviet/Russia nuclear balance and on to the more-pressing concerns of nuclear proliferation and "loose nukes." As my former colleague Will Tobey shows, this is not quite fair to the last three administrations, all three of which deserve credit for taking serious and consequential steps to confront the "loose nukes" problem. Indeed, if anything, it is the administration’s own U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty "New START" that has the feel of an 80’s Hot Tub Time Machine, not the combined records of Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43.

The inability to distinguish between what’s new and what’s new to you is revealing but, in the final analysis, we should not let it completely detract from the overall effect of the summit which, I believe, is basically a positive one for the United States and for the Obama administration. The United States got renewed attention on a security priority that has been a central pillar of U.S. grand strategy for two decades now. If the promises made and aspirations expressed at the summit result in tangible action, this will be all to the good.

The Obama administration, for its part, gets credit for pulling off a very complex staff operation — from a national security staff point of view, this summit has to be  the most ambitious venture the administration has attempted — and for show-casing the president in a very favorable setting.

There may have been only marginal progress on the most urgent and important nuclear security issue — dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions — but there was progress overall. That is something that folks in the bleachers can cheer.