Woodward Book Demonstrates Obama’s Nuclear Terror Focus

One interesting tidbit highlighted in the Washington Post story on the new Bob Woodward book is a President, in stark contrast to his predecessor, that is strongly concerned by the threat of nuclear terrorism. The Washington Post notes:

A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here “a potential game changer.” He said: “When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one where you can’t afford any mistakes.”

While President Bush also claimed to share this concern and in the 2004 national security debate with John Kerry cited it as the most serious potential threat, the Bush administration did little to actually address it. This is not only evident in the lack of preparedness of the US at the time of Bush’s departure, but the lack of any big high-level international initiatives to address the threat. Instead, as Ambassador Robert Gallucci noted, the Bush administration was “sleepwalking on these issues.”

In stark contrast, the Obama administration hasn’t just paid lip service to the threat, it is actually taking steps to eliminate it. The Nuclear Security Summit that was held in Washington this past April elevated nuclear security to the top of the international agenda and put forth concrete work plans that advance the President’s goal of securing all loose nuclear materials within four years.


Yet despite being the largest gathering of heads of state in the US since the founding of the UN, the summit drew more attention from the Washington-based press corps for the traffic jams it caused than for the substantive purpose behind the gathering. Similarly, conservatives greeted the conference with a big yawn, saying sure it was important but it didn’t deal with the real “threat” of Iran. The reaction to the summit not only demonstrated how media coverage is essentially driven by horse-race politics, or alternatively by what conservatives think matter, but it also exposed how totally disconnected the right is with global political realities.

The nuclear terrorist threat is ultimately a trans-national threat that is rooted in the weakness of states, not the strengths. States in the former Soviet bloc that have nuclear materials, suffer from the decay of state institutions, and have a developed criminal black market are the frontlines in this fight. Once materials hit the black market, it is quite straight forward for terrorist groups to acquire them. In other words, a nuclear terrorist, just like a 9–11 terrorist, doesn’t need the support of any state actor.

Yet the right-wing national security establishment frankly does not comprehend the existence of non-state actors. Instead, everything is a state-based threat. By dismissing the Nuclear Security Summit as irrelevant because it didn’t directly address the “real” nuclear threat of Iran, as Charles Krauthammer did, the right only exposed their cluelessness. The fact is that the only way to combat nuclear terrorism is to get other countries to do mundane tasks to secure and consolidate their nuclear and radiological materials so they don’t fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists. One of the reasons the Bush administration paid lip service but did little to address the nuclear terror threat is because it ultimately requires multilateralism to address the threat. The United States can’t single handedly secure every countries’ nuclear materials. It can’t bomb criminal networks.

And, as a result, the right simply isn’t interested in this reality-based national security issue, even though it poses the most likely nuclear threat. You don’t see right wing national security conferences on how we can secure loose nuclear materials. No, instead you get bizarre conferences on some imagined EMP threat. You get arguments that nuclear security is all about building more nuclear weapons and missile defense. You get a hyper focus on states like Iraq, now Iran, that to the right are somehow intimately linked to Al Qaeda. You get a world view that is part cold war, part sci-fi futurist fantasy that is simply divorced from the reality of a modern globalizing world in which national borders increasingly mean less and in which global challenges and threats require collective global efforts.