National Security Network

Threat of Nuclear Weapons Demands Action, Not Politicking

Print this page
Report 22 November 2010



This weekend's startling revelation about North Korea's enrichment program highlights the threat posed by nuclear weapons-and the need to take this threat seriously.  Siegfried S. Hecker, the American scientist who toured North Korea's new enrichment facility, said he was "stunned" by the sophistication of the North's new plant.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen said over the weekend that "the development of nuclear weapons is a huge concern for all of us, those in the region, as well as those around the globe... I've been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time. This certainly gives that potential real life, very visible life that we all ought to be very, very focused on."

The weekend's NATO Summit made clear that our allies and foes alike are watching the New START ratification process for a signal on whether American leadership will be strong or muted when it comes to controlling nuclear weapons.  North Korea and Iran, Russia and Central Europe won't wait for months to see what kind of signal a new Congress sends.  As Admiral Mullen concluded, "This is a national security issue of great significance. And the sooner we get it done, the better."  But the response from some conservatives seems to be that nothing is more important than the optics of denying President Obama a victory.  Retired Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, the former deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces, said Friday that it was "quite puzzling to me why all of this support [for New START]... is ignored. I don't know what that says about the trust that people have and the confidence they have in our military."  Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons that are aimed at U.S. cities.  Our military leadership recognizes the importance of reinstating critical verification provisions and getting U.S. inspectors back in Russia to inspect Russian nuclear facilities. 

North Korea reminds us that the threat of nuclear proliferation is real and immediate.  David Sanger reports over the weekend: "North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist earlier this month a vast new facility it secretly and rapidly built to enrich uranium, confronting the Obama administration with the prospect that the country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb...  The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been ‘stunned' by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw ‘hundreds and hundreds' of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called ‘an ultra-modern control room.' The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said."

Sanger continues, "Dr. Hecker... was not allowed to verify North Korean claims that it was already beginning to produce low-enriched uranium. He also said he had doubts that North Korea would fulfill its promise to build a light-water reactor to utilize the fuel...  There are two routes to a nuclear weapon: obtaining plutonium from the spent fuel produced by a nuclear reactor, and enriching uranium to weapons grade.  Since the 1950s, North Korea pursued the first path..." However it is apparent that, "the North was already well down the second path, uranium enrichment, much the way Iran has pursued its nuclear program. Like Iran, North Korea insists the fuel is intended for a yet-to-be-built experimental reactor to make electricity.  American officials, though, say they think the intent of the enrichment program is to make weapons fuel." [NY Times, 11/20/10]

Military, civilian leaders and allies agree:  an effective global response to this threat begins with action, not politics. "The world's nuclear wannabes, starting with Iran, should send a thank you note to Senator Jon Kyl," writes the New York Times. "After months of negotiations with the White House, he has decided to try to block the lame-duck Senate from ratifying the New Start arms control treaty. The treaty is so central to this country's national security, and the objections from Mr. Kyl - and apparently the whole Republican leadership - are so absurd that the only explanation is their limitless desire to deny President Obama any legislative success."  Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the GOP's top nuclear weapons expert, called on the Senate to hold a vote in the lame duck session. "Only then," Lugar said, will senators "as patriots of this country, have to make up their minds as opposed to whatever may be their problems in the Republican caucus or their relationships there." Americans will see whether Senators can overcome their political aversion to President Obama in order to protect American security when the vote comes up. [New York Times, 11/17/10. Sen. Lugar, via the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 11/17/10]

U.S. allies are also demanding that New START be ratified.  As Politico reported on Friday, "Foreign ministers from Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Hungary, Denmark and Bulgaria endorsed the treaty, known as New START, saying it is essential to the continent's long-term security.  ‘They have urged both privately and publicly to get this done,' Obama said at a news conference at the end of the summit.  Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had endorsed the treaty Friday, saying a failure to ratify it this year ‘will embolden those in Moscow who would rather have the West as an enemy than as a partner - and who thus would like to see the tenuous progress made in recent months to be undone.'" [Politico, 11/20/10]

Those concerned about Iran recognize the importance of New START.  "Both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) cited the importance of passage of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty in order to maintain American-Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear program. ‘We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the New START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself,' the ADL said in a letter sent to every senator Friday. ‘The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation,' ADL continued. ‘The severe damage that could be inflicted on that relationship by failing to ratify the treaty would inevitably hamper effective American international leadership to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program.'" [Laura Rozen, 11/19/10]

New START is an urgent national security imperative-and delaying its ratification is cynical and dangerous.  Richard Burt, the chief U.S. negotiator under George H.W. Bush for the original START treaty, explained why the GOP calls to put off ratification are so problematic.  "Well, I think it's potentially a very serious setback. And I think the danger is that, if the treaty is pushed into the new Congress, that it will take potentially several months and maybe longer to be ratified. It could be indefinitely postponed.  And I think there -- it becomes then a hostage to events. So, I think that -- that the lame-duck session is the best opportunity to get this treaty ratified, with the least amount of political damage to the U.S.-Russia relationship and the credibility of the United States worldwide." 

The stakes couldn't be higher.  This weekend the president explained what is on the line, "declaring that ‘our security and our position in the world are at stake.' Stalling the treaty any longer, Obama said, jeopardizes strategic partnerships with Russia, a key player in the region. ‘Without ratification, we put at risk the coalition that we have built to put pressure on Iran, and the transit route through Russia that we use to equip our troops in Afghanistan,' Obama warned.  Calling for an end to partisan ‘bickering' Obama urged senators to set aside partisanship and act for the good of the nation.  ‘The choice is clear: a failure to ratify New START would be a dangerous gamble with America's national security, setting back our understanding of Russia's nuclear weapons, as well as our leadership in the world,' the president said. ‘That is not what the American people sent us to Washington to do.'"

Leslie H. Gelb writes, "Cast aside any doubts. There seems to be nothing Republicans won't do to deny President Obama a political success at home-even if it means jeopardizing U.S. national security." Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank explains that dynamic, taking GOP foot-dragging to its logical conclusion: "Republicans seem to have entered a post-post-9/11 era, in which national security is no longer a higher priority than their interest in undermining President Obama." [Richard Burt via PBS, 11/17/10. President Obama via Politico, 11/20/10 . Leslie Gelb, 11/18/10. Dana Milbank, 11/21/10]

What We're Reading

Europe and the International Monetary Fund began hammering out final details of an Irish rescue package worth tens of billions, after the government in Dublin admitted the country needed financial help.

28 members of al-Qaida's North African branch have defected from the group and have surrendered to the Mauritanian army, according to a Mauritanian security official.

Voter registration for southern Sudan's independence referendum is low, with just 9,000 out of half a million south Sudanese in the north of the country registered so far, adding to a growing row over the credibility of the poll.

President Hugo Chavez has stepped up his threats against Venezuela's only remaining opposition-aligned television channel, calling its owner a fugitive criminal and accusing him of conspiring against his government.

A recent terror operation involving parcel bombs on UPS and FedEx flights cost just $4,200, according to a report in a magazine that analysts say is published by al Qaeda's branch in Yemen. Inspire magazine dedicates its latest issue to the plot, which it calls "Operation Hemorrhage."

Pope Benedict XVI says in a new book that condoms can be justified for male prostitutes seeking to stop the spread of HIV, a stunning comment for a church criticized for its opposition to condoms and for a pontiff who has blamed them for making the AIDS crisis worse.

In a leaked audiotape, two men can be heard negotiating terms for rigging more than a dozen races in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections.

Israel's hard-line parliament is expected to approve a bill that could sink future peace deals with the Palestinians and Syria. The proposed legislation would make it much harder for the government to cede disputed east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights - captured territories that would be central to any future accord.

A Lebanese police officer and U.N. investigators unearthed extensive circumstantial evidence implicating the Syrian-backed Hezbollah movement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, according to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Signaling the growing seriousness of the Obama administration's commitment this year to ending the military's ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces, the Defense Department has said that it will release a long-awaited report on the matter earlier than planned because senators are eager to vote on whether to repeal the policy.

Commentary of the Day

Sreeram Chaulia argues that Iran can be a useful player for securing U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

Eboo Patel writes that on Islam, we should choose pluralism over prejudice.

David Ignatius writes that Afghans want their country back-and Americans should listen.