United States President Barack Obama’s 47-nation nuclear security summit, a sort of Group of 20 meeting on steroids, may have been the biggest schmooze-in of global leaders hosted by an American president since the 1945 San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations.
There’s hardly any need for a monster, Washington-gridlock, public relations exercise to convince global politicians of the threat of highly enriched uranium or plutonium being grabbed by an al-Qaeda-style jihadi group, or some terror freelancers for that matter.
Yet US analysts such as Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation have been gushing on Obama’s “calculated subtlety”, “Nixonian deftness” and “strategic depth”, not to mention elevating the summit to a show of “what a US-led world order should look like”. Reality, though, is much more prosaic. Or dangerous. Or both.
The not-so-hidden agenda of “nuclear Obama” was basically to gather global support for a tougher round of sanctions on Iran. Obama wants new sanctions in place by June. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao talked for 90 minutes about it. The impeccably laconic Hu came out of it basically saying he would be prepared to discuss it – but promised absolutely nothing.
As much as Obama, in the post-summit news conference, still insisted that Iran was flouting global opinion by taking steps to building a nuclear weapon – there’s no evidence of it – he still refrains from calling on Israel to climb down its self-built ivory tower and declare to the world whether or not it has nuclear weapons (every nuclear expert knows it does). The meek Obama line in the sand on Israel is to say the US has always called on “all countries” to respect global non-proliferation agreements (undeclared nuclear power Israel does not subscribe to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT).
SALT of the Earth
What the Obama administration is currently selling to global public opinion is that it would love nothing better than to secure every nuclear loose end throughout the world before 2014. The wish was expressed by Obama himself in a speech in Prague last year as a world “free of nuclear weapons”.
Well, not exactly, as informed citizens in the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations may see for themselves. Reduction or not, the bulk of the world’s nuclear firepower will remain safeguarded in both the US and Russia – not by accident the two supreme judges, for decades, over who should be allowed to enter the nuclear club.
Last week, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a nuclear disarmament treaty in, once again, Prague, which will theoretically reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals roughly by a third.
Yet nobody in Washington knows whether the US Senate will even ratify this treaty. What will certainly happen is the senate shooting down the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which, for Republicans, “threatens US security”. Unlike George W Bush in 2001, Obama in 2010 supports US ratification of the CTBT.
One should remember what happened to the previous Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaties. SALT-1, in 1972, annulled the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. The US had started the race. The former USSR followed. Washington panicked. And then Richard Nixon had a reality attack.
SALT-2 was designed to monitor the growth of both nuclear arsenals. Washington was scared by the firepower of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – SS-1, SS-18 and SS-19. Without monitoring, the Soviet Union could deploy any number of warheads it wanted in each of these missiles, tripling their firepower.
SALT-2 was not ratified by the US – although in practice it was respected by the Pentagon. None of this was explained to the American public at the time, the late 1970s. SALT-2 was sold as a US “favor” to Moscow – and then scrapped because the Soviet Union attacked, in president Jimmy Carter’s words, that “profoundly religious country”, Afghanistan, in 1979.
Months before, the US ambassador in Afghanistan had been assassinated by those “profoundly religious” characters, even though Russian intelligence itself had tried to save him. This story was relayed to the press by none other than Carter’s foreign policy supremo, Dr Zbigniew “let’s conquer Eurasia” Brzezinski.
Years later, the Bush administration scrapped the ABM treaty and in 2003 decided to adopt Prompt Global Strike – under which thousands of strategic nuclear weapons were converted for delivery of conventional warheads in a timeline of two to four hours, enough to completely smash the critical infrastructure of any enemy. Bush’s Prompt Global Strike is now Obama’s. So substantially nothing has changed.
Impressed by my posture?
Even while negotiating a possible SALT-3 with Russia, the Obama administration also announced a new, 72-page US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). NPR at least explicitly acknowledges Russia “is no longer an adversary”, and adamantly enshrines a policy of “no new nuclear weapons”.
But NPR does not clearly establish how much further the formidable US nuclear arsenal will be reduced. And as the Russians noticed right away, it also does not say a word about the 200 tactical nuclear bombs the US keeps at five North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bases across Europe, in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey.
The NPR in theory scrapped a US first strike against any country signatory of the NPT – but with two glaring exceptions: “rogue” Iran (which subscribes to the NPT), and “rogue” North Korea (which does not). Not by accident, neither one was invited to the Washington schmooze-in, thus voiding it of any major relevance.
There have been no rumblings out of Pyongyang – but then again this is a highly idiosyncratic nuclear power; and they know – as does much of the rest of the world – that they are immune to American intimidation. The rest of the world also knows that had Iraq been certified as having gone nuclear, it would have never been attacked by Washington.
As for Iran, there’s still no evidence its nuclear enrichment program has been diverted to a make weapons. That’s why Obama will never convince China’s Hu about stringent sanctions. And at the start of the Washington summit, both Brazil and Turkey – currently non-permanent members of the UN Security Council – duly announced, once again, they are against sanctions, and especially against what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists should be “crippling sanctions”.
The Iranian leadership saw the NPR for what it is – a possible opening for a US nuclear attack on Iran. Tehran will want the UN to adopt a resolution condemning the US – but everyone knows this is something that obviously will come to nothing.
Don’t mess with my spectrum
Obama said in Prague last year he wanted “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same”.
If that’s really the case he’s on a collision course with nothing else than the Pentagons’ “full spectrum dominance” doctrine.
There’s no evidence the US is bound to decrease a military budget that is bigger than the rest of the world’s combined. Under Obama, Prompt Global Strike is on. The Pentagon is beefing up its vast, strategic non-nuclear firepower; it is full speed ahead on global missile defense; its is propelling NATO to become the global policeman; it has converted formerly nuclear Ohio-class submarines into carriers of cruise missiles with non-nuclear warheads; and is not about to abandon its dream of militarizing space.
The beauty is that the Pentagon cannot but profit from the multi-pronged “Nuclear Obama” offensive. Full spectrum dominance does not necessarily need an enormous nuclear arsenal; the current, staggering ICBM arsenal delivering conventional warheads is more than enough.
The real test should be Iran. In the – for the moment unlikely – event of an US attack on Iran, Prompt Global Strike would have its (literal) baptism of fire, unleashing an upgraded version of “shock and awe”.
The show, meanwhile, must go on. Next month comes the UN conference dedicated to the five-year review of the NPT. Obama will be on top of this review – which is already being spun in Washington as an “effective strategy” to contain Iran.
So one should expect more Obama administration pressure over reluctant China and Russia – instead of Obama showing real “Nixonian deftness” by offering carrots (and not only sticks) as well as trying to address Tehran’s absolute (and not unfounded) paranoia of an US bent on regime change.
And as for Washington talking about a “completely nuclear-free world” – that’s the stuff (non-Pentagon) dreams are made of.