It’s been one week since President Obama’s two-day “nukes are bad” extravaganza came to a close. No less than 47 heads of state attended the summit in Washington to determine how peaceful countries can cooperate to clean up their nuke-littered streets. This summit came on the heels of the president’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review, which explained how the U.S. will deemphasize nuclear deterrence, and after President Obama himself signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons by 30 percent.
Welcome to President Obama’s “War on Nukes.” This new war targets nukes indiscriminately—our nukes, Russia’s nukes, Israel’s, France’s, everyone’s.
Many Americans would say this is a good thing. After all, it was President Reagan who made famous the dream of a world without nuclear weapons. True, but Obama is no Reagan.
Reagan’s vision of reducing the world’s nuclear weapons was contingent upon American being able to intercept them in flight in the event an enemy launched one. Indeed, Reagan sought to build a space-based missile defense system equipped with lasers that could destroy missiles fired from anywhere on the globe. Nothing short of this can justify the U.S. deemphasizing nuclear deterrence—the deterrence that has protected America and its allies for decades.
If President Obama is serious about wanting to follow President Reagan in the quest to create a world without nukes, he must pursue a much more robust and layered missile defense system than the one we have. It’s nonsensical, naïve, and downright dangerous to pursue the one without the other.
Although we currently have a missile defense system that provides some defense, ours is not good at defeating missiles with decoys or multiple warheads, and it is incapable of defending against a barrage of incoming missiles. In order to fills these gaps, the president must make a significant financial investment in it — year after year.
In the meantime, getting rid of loose nukes in places like the former Soviet Union is wise policy. Some of the recent successes the U.S. has had in this area are the culmination of efforts that began years before Obama took office. President George W. Bush, for example, spent an enormous amount of time and money on non-proliferation efforts after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Indeed, he laid the groundwork for last week’s agreement between Russia and the U.S. to destroy enough weapons-grade plutonium to make 17,000 nuclear bombs.
Other countries have followed this example. Ukraine agreed last week to safely discard enough highly enriched uranium to make several nuclear bombs. In addition, Chile, Canada, and Mexico will all move their highly enriched uranium to the United States and Russia for safe disposal. All of this is good progress.
But it’s not Canadian nukes that are keeping our military leaders awake at night. The purpose of buttoning up loose nukes is to ensure that terrorists don’t obtain them. General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, just last week declared that it is Iran that worries him. And he is worried for good reason. Iran is the world’s largest exporter of terrorism. Its leaders are getting closer to developing a nuclear weapon. All the while, they are improving their medium and long-range missile programs by leaps and bounds. Indeed, Iran should be the focus of our efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.
Despite of all this, President Obama never mentioned Iran — not once — in his opening remarks at the summit, nor was it mentioned in the summit’s final communiqué.
There were other opportunities to discuss Iran, too. While the President had Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Medvedev in the same room, he should have confronted them over recent reports indicating that they’ve been helping Iran with their missile program. He should have forced them to actually commit to effective sanctions against Iran.
According to President Obama’s calculus, if the U.S. and its allies voluntarily deplete our nuclear arsenals, countries like North Korea and Iran will voluntarily halt their nuclear programs. This calculus does not compute. The U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile by 80% since the end of the Cold War. During that same time, Iran and North Korea have ramped up their nuclear and missile programs.
In short, history has shown that the “do as I do” approach does not work on tyrants.
So, what did the President’s two-day summit accomplish in the War on Nukes? It directed the world’s focus to peaceful countries’ nuclear materials, while terrorist states like Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons.
Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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Rebeccah Heinrichs is a fellow at the Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a range of security issues and specializes in missile defense and nuclear deterrence. She is also contributing editor at Providence Magazine. Follow her on Twitter, @RLHeinrichs.