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Bush Echoed Obama's Words, Not Actions, on Nuclear Terrorism

April 17, 2010

"The biggest threat facing this country," President Bush declared on September 30 2004, is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network." But in the wake of the successful Nuclear Security Summit this week, Bush's conservative water carriers are blasting President Obama for the substantial progress made towards stopping the dangerous black market in nuclear material. Apparently, Obama's sins are double. He's not just a Democrat talking about nuclear terrorism; he's actually doing something about it.
Which, of course, means he must be opposed by his right-wing critics whose myopic national security worldview is limited only to nuclear states. Despite China's growing support for new sanctions against Tehran, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl claimed Obama made "no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran's nuclear weapons program." As usual, Charles Krauthammer dripped with sarcasm:

"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."

And writing in Foreign Policy, Peter Feaver suggested President Obama's language about nuclear terror being "catastrophe for the world" was no different from George W. Bush's warnings about the "smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud" to justify his war in Iraq. Feaver mocked Obama's defenders for their ability to "split the hair between a 'scare tactic' and 'genuinely scary.'"
Of course, President Bush throughout his tenure spoke not just of the nuclear threat from rogue states. As he put it in his infamous 2002 State of the Union address:

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.
We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.

By the time of his reelection in 2004, Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry produced a bipartisan consensus on America's highest priority of preventing nuclear terrorism. During their first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer was stunned that the two men agreed that nuclear proliferation is "the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States":

LEHRER: Just for this one-minute discussion here, just for whatever seconds it takes: So it's correct to say, that if somebody is listening to this, that both of you agree, if you're reelected, Mr. President, and if you are elected, the single most serious threat you believe, both of you believe, is nuclear proliferation?
BUSH: In the hands of a terrorist enemy.
KERRY: Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation.

Importantly, Kerry noted, "the difference between us, the president has had four years to try to do something about it."
From the outset, the Bush administration was skeptical about the $7 billion bipartisan Nunn-Lugar program to safeguard nuclear material and expertise from the former Soviet Union. Former Reagan arms control official Kenneth Adelman described Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's reticence:

''He was very skeptical of the Nunn-Lugar program. That wasn't the kind of thing he thought the Department of Defense should be doing. He had it in his head that it was a wimpy thing to have the Pentagon involved in.''

While Bush gave a major address on proliferation on February 11th, 2004, the Boston Globe just days before highlighted his lukewarm commitment to - and slow progress towards - tackling the issue:

Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet Union left weapons of mass destruction scattered throughout Russia and its breakaway republics, most of the fallen empire's vast arsenal remains intact and dangerously underprotected, according to new military data compiled over the past year...
Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who co-sponsored the first program to bring the materials under control with then-Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, said President Bush was initially skeptical about keeping the program but has since "indicated his enthusiasm and commitment." Still, Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would welcome a more urgent push from the White House.
"I would appreciate it if the president...mentioned the Nunn-Lugar program continuously," he said. "It does not have the same topicality of new initiatives that the president has come up with. It's a program that goes on, like a brook, and the dilemma really is to stimulate the rank-and-file in the Congress, many of whom were not there at the end of the Cold War and many of whom have not been involved in going to Russia."

Worse still, fours years after the release of the Hart-Rudman Report on 21st century U.S. national security challenges and three and a half years after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush didn't put his money where his mouth was:

In Bush's 2005 budget proposal, funding dipped slightly from 2004 levels, according to an analysis by the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council.
"This is a status quo budget," said the council's executive director, Kenneth Luongo. "It is not aggressive in attacking the real and mounting global nuclear threat. The Bush administration needs to focus on eliminating the impediments that are debilitating this agenda, preventing rapid progress, and impeding fresh and needed initiatives."

Late in his presidency, George W. Bush did begin to take some belated steps towards elevating non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism on the U.S. national security agenda. And in this, he was aided by Senator Barack Obama, who by 2005 emerged as Richard Lugar's Democratic partner in the cause of securing the world's stockpiles of nuclear materials.
Now as President, Obama has ratcheted up the effort against nuclear terrorism. As was made clear again after Nuclear Security Summit, Obama's concern is not misplaced. Matthew Bunn of Harvard University again warned that "There is a great complacency among policymakers around the world that terrorist groups couldn't make a nuclear bomb." And as CBS reported, world leaders backed Obama's "new multilateralism" to combat nuclear terror threats large and small:

Ahead of the conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that she, too, sees dirty bombs in terrorist hands as an even larger threat than regular nuclear weapons.
Merkel said Monday that such weapons "must not under any circumstances" fall into the hands of terror groups such as al Qaeda.
"We believe that the IAEA must be strengthened, we are ready to pledge additional finances to make this happen," Merkel said of the nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency.

At the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit this week, President Obama explained the stakes one year after his speech on the topic in Prague:

Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations. Just the smallest amount of plutonium -- about the size of an apple -- could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it. Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world -- causing extraordinary loss of life, and striking a major blow to global peace and stability.
In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security -- to our collective security.

Of course, George W. Bush said much the same thing about the threat of nuclear terrorism. But now that there's a Democrat in the White House, Bush's echo chamber apparently wants to deflect attention from the fact that over eight years, their man did very little about it.

One comment on “Bush Echoed Obama's Words, Not Actions, on Nuclear Terrorism”


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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