In an amazing column today, Charles Krauthammer – the great sage of neoconservatism – exposed the far-right’s shockingly naive and negligent approach toward the most urgent and dangerous threat in the post Cold War era: nuclear terrorism.
What was this great convocation about? To prevent the spread of nuclear material into the hands of terrorists. A worthy goal, no doubt. Unfortunately, the two greatest such threats were not even on the agenda. The first is Iran, which is frantically enriching uranium to make a bomb, and which our own State Department identifies as the greatest exporter of terrorism in the world. Nor on the agenda was Pakistan’s plutonium production, which is adding to the world’s stockpile of fissile material every day… So what was the major breakthrough announced by Obama at the end of the two-day conference? That Ukraine, Chile, Mexico and Canada will be getting rid of various amounts of enriched uranium. What a relief.
There are a few things to unpack.
First, Krauthammer doesn’t understand the threat of nuclear terrorism. To Krauthammer, and to the neoconservative right, the threat of nuclear terrorism is almost exclusively seen as coming from a “state sponsor.” As a result, he can’t comprehend what the summit was about, or what it achieved, because to Krauthammer all nuclear terror discussion basically begin and end with Iran, not the mundane task of securing loose nuclear materials.
But the most significant nuclear terror threat does not emanate from a state giving nuclear weapons to a terror group. Nuclear terrorism is frighteningly more straightforward than conservatives seem to get. Al Qaeda doesn’t need Iran to get a nuke, the need to find a “Nick the Greek.”
Nuclear materials are floating around on the black market, especially in the former eastern bloc. Criminal elements have bought off guards acquired materials and then sought to sell them. Once nuclear materials are acquired, you just box it up and ship it to the US – likely in kitty litter, which further prevents detectors from catching it. Once at the destination, it gets a little more complicated, but a few capable people with a decent science background and an internet connection could fairly easily acquire the materials to build a Hiroshima-like device, which then could be exploded at a city of their chosing.
Yet, in a Fox News interview this week Krauthammer asserted that the summit was “all about changing the subject.” This summit wasn’t changing the subject, this IS the subject.
Secondly, Krauthammer’s column exposes that the neoconservative right has no idea how to address the problem of nuclear terrorism. Part of the reason why nuclear terrorism remains firmly in the right’s blind spot, is because securing loose nuclear materials cannot be done unilaterally. Instead, it requires multilateralism.
It requires getting countries to do more to eliminate or lock down nuclear materials. As David Hoffman said this “is not rocket science.” This is also why Graham Allison called nuclear terror the “ultimate preventable catastrophe.” Yet despite the windfall of global support after 9-11 the Bush administration never made this topic a global priority or led a concerted global effort to solve this problem. Instead, it festered and grew more likely, according to a bipartisan commission.
But Krauthammer resorts to mocking the bilateral accomplishments, conveniently focusing on Canada and not the Ukraine – not realizing that vulnerable nuclear or radiological materials anywhere – whether in the eastern bloc, South America, or your local medical center, all represent potential targets for thieves looking to make a buck on the black market. Moreover, Krauthammer totally ignores the final communique, the work plan, and the follow-up summit in South Korea to ensure countries follow-through.
Furthermore, there was a major point in making a big splash out of the summit – world leaders needed to understand that this was a huge deal, something that was the highest priority of the US government – not, as Krauthammer suggest, that “the appropriate venue for such minor loose-nuke agreements is a meeting of experts in Geneva who, after working out the details, get their foreign ministers to sign off.” That gets us nowhere and strikes no sense of urgency into anyone.
Finally, the Summit focused extensively on Iran, even though that wasn’t its purpose. The threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation is a huge potential danger, as a result Iran was a constant topic of bilateral talks, especially with Russia, China. While proliferation threats from states – Iran, North Korea, Pakistan – are major threats and huge problems, these aren’t the only, or even the most likely sources of nuclear terrorism, since states can be deterred after all. So to argue that the summit is a failure because it shockingly did not magically solve the Iranian situation – something it was not trying to solve – demonstrates a one-note myopic understanding of the nuclear dangers. State sponsored nuclear terrorism is not the only game in town.
Instead, Krauthammer is demonstrating the very mindset that led neocons like Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz to immediately after 9-11 call for attacking Iraq, and which spurred the eventual invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it backed Al Qaeda and was developing nuclear weapons. Neoconservatives claim that 9-11 changed everything, actually all it did in terms of their thought process was to take the dichotomy of the Cold War and super impose it on the post 9-11 world, hence – evil states, not transnational groups are the challenge and communism was now replaced by “Islamofascism.” Dichotomies are simplistic and easy, but they are also blinding and therefore in this case dangerously naive.