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Preview: Obama’s nuclear summit

The 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington doesn’t start until next week, but the unofficial festivities begin tonight in Washington. Only hours after touching down from President Obama’s trip to Prague to sign the new START treaty, the State Department will be hosting a dinner event in Foggy Bottom for the "sherpas" from the various delegations ...

The 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington doesn’t start until next week, but the unofficial festivities begin tonight in Washington.

Only hours after touching down from President Obama’s trip to Prague to sign the new START treaty, the State Department will be hosting a dinner event in Foggy Bottom for the "sherpas" from the various delegations and some other officials who took the opportunity to show up a couple of days early.

Attending tonight’s dinner from the U.S. side are Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher, National Security Council senior director Gary Samore, and "threat reductions" coordinator Amb. Bonnie Jenkins.

Who are the "sherpas," you ask?

"‘Sherpa’ is a term borrowed from the from the world of mountaineering, where the sherpas are the people that lead the way to the summit and make sure that it’s safe for the important people who are in the climbing team," said Samore, who is the official sherpa for the U.S. delegation, "The sherpas are responsible for making sure everybody reaches the summit safely and leading the way. And if they don’t, then they fall off the mountaintop first."

There have been three meetings of the sherpas so far as well as several meetings of the "sous-sherpas,’ the deputies to the sherpas, who really delve into the nitty-gritty details of the summit.

Samore and the NSC’s Ben Rhodes briefed reporters Friday on the official parts of the summit. They were clear to define the 47-nation meeting as having a limited and specific focus.

"The nuclear security summit is focused on a very specific issue of securing nuclear materials and cooperating to prevent nuclear smuggling, in order to reduce as much as possible the threat that terrorist groups or criminal gangs get their hands on nuclear materials that can be used for nuclear weapons," Samore said.

 "That really focuses on separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Those are the two materials that can be used for nuclear explosives," Samore said. "And if we’re able to lock those down and deny them to non-state actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism."

President Obama will start the formal festivities Sunday by holding a series of meetings at Blair House, the historic home across Lafayette Park from the White House. The first meeting goes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, followed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan. Obama will also see Nigeria’s acting President Goodluck Jonathan, who just happens to be in town.

On Monday, Obama will move the show over the Washington Convention Center, where the summit will take place, and hold more one-on-ones. The first Monday meeting will be with King Abdullah II of Jordan, followed by Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, and President Hu Jintao of China, in that order. Obama’s meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will be on Tuesday.

After he finished his meetings on Monday, Obama will host a welcoming ceremony at 5 p.m. and great each delegation leader personally. Of the 47 countries attending, 38 are being represented at the head of state or head of government level, the other nine at the vice president, deputy prime minister, or foreign or defense minister level.

On Monday night Obama will host a working dinner focused on "the threat and the magnitude of the threat," according to Samore. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, IAEA head Yukiya Amano, and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy will be also there. "So we’ll have 50 at the table," Samore said.

The plenary sessions begin Tuesday morning. The first session will focus on what specific actions countries can take to secure loose nuclear material and combat smuggling within their borders.

"The primary responsibility for securing nuclear materials, whether in the civil or the military sector, rests with individual countries," Samore said, adding he expects some countries to make announcements, such as converting nuclear reactors away from using highly enriched uranium to lower levels of enrichment.

Tuesday’s lunch session will focus on the IAEA, whose job it is to set guidelines for the countries and provide technical assistance. Senators such as Richard Lugar, R-IN, are expected to join.

The afternoon plenary will focus on international and cooperative steps countries can take regarding nuclear security. Then Obama will hold a press conference to release the "communiqué" that will be issued. Then a closing reception.

If you’re not a delegation leader and are feeling left out, don’t worry. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Energy Secretary Stephen Chu will be hosting meals for those interlocutors who are in town but not invited to the big table.

Although the conference is not until next week, the language of the communiqué seems close to final.

"There’ll be a high-level communiqué from the leaders, which will recognize that nuclear terrorism is a serious threat, which will endorse President Obama’s effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials over a four-year period, and will pledge, in a general way, steps that countries can take on both a national and an international level in order to strengthen nuclear security and prevent terrorists or criminal groups from getting access to materials for nuclear weapons," Samore said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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