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Obama's Misplaced Push for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, center, at a nuclear missile base in Teikovo, Russia, last year.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, center, at a nuclear missile base in Teikovo, Russia, last year. (By Vladimir Rodionov -- Associated Press)
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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, September 27, 2009

President Obama's dream of a world without nuclear weapons seems more like a nightmare to Russia and other nations that possess doomsday arms. Obama is pushing on a door that is closed, barred from inside and locked with a key that has been thrown away as far as the Kremlin is concerned.

This harsh reality does not mean that the president should abandon his effort, which is a useful tool in his broader, more urgent campaign to change America's image abroad. It does mean that Obama should temper his rhetoric and avoid adding atomic abolition to the growing list of subjects that he oversells and then seems to struggle to control. See: health care, bankers' bonuses and the Middle East.

Stirring nuclear anxiety carries its own risks. Public opinion has proved an unreliable guide for nuclear policy, as George Kennan predicted six decades ago. Atomic weapons "will impede understanding of the things that are important" to the nation's security, he wrote in 1949. Their very existence "tends to carry the public mind ultimately toward a dim 'no man's land' of total confusion."

Kennan's words are cited in Nicholas Thompson's brilliant new book, "The Hawk and the Dove," a joint biography of Kennan and his friend and policy rival Paul Nitze. The book is also a penetrating, amazingly accessible study of the origins and conduct of the Cold War.

Listening to Obama's call at the United Nations for zero nuclear weapons took my thoughts back to Kennan's writing and, more improbably, to Yakutsk, a hardscrabble Siberian mining town that lies 14 time zones east of the U.N. assembly hall where Obama spoke for the first time last week.

Most visitors go to Yakutsk, where winter temperatures hover around 70 below zero, to learn about permafrost or diamonds. But a group of foreign academics and journalists went there this month to engage in two days of discussions with Russian policy experts who revealed that their country is becoming more dependent -- not less -- on nuclear weapons for its security.

As the country slashes its bloated and expensive conventional forces, we were told, the only way to maintain influence in world affairs (and presumably to guard against a Chinese invasion of mineral-rich but thinly populated Siberia) is to have a smaller but more effective, permanent nuclear arsenal.

Obama's calls for the United States and Russia to lead the way toward global denuclearization are "idiotic," said one tart-tongued Russian defense analyst. "They strengthen those in Russia who said you can't believe him -- that he is laying traps for us." However paranoid such words sound to foreign ears, this attitude strikes at the heart of Obama's attempt to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations, beginning with the resumption of strategic arms negotiations. The Russians happily pocketed the prestige of being back on equal footing with the United States in nuclear affairs. But they seem to place a low priority on the actual results that will come out of the talks.

"Internal struggles over how we will restructure our forces will be much more important than any negotiations," said an authoritative Russian military man, who stated that Russian strategic arms divisions are being consolidated from 54 to 12 while the role of tactical nuclear arms is being significantly upgraded. "Our goal is reasonable, not minimal, deterrence."

They would use other words -- or in Israel's case, no words at all -- but China, India, Pakistan, and even Britain and France share the underlying sentiment. The nuclear "haves" will applaud Obama's effort to make the Non-Proliferation Treaty more effective in curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But they betray no interest in giving up their own arsenals of "equalizers," as the treaty and Obama's dream require.

Obama's appeals, if more carefully calibrated, can be useful beyond public relations. They challenge the U.S. military to think through the nation's future nuclear needs and make more credible the cases against Iran and North Korea. If the denuclearization proposals are realistically framed, the United States may be able to influence the still-sketchy new Russian nuclear doctrine.

The Obama White House has made the president's personal popularity and the need to change America's image the driving forces of its foreign policy. It needs to show some substantive results for that effort. Otherwise more Americans will join foreign analysts in asking the question that politicians and PR practitioners most fear: "Where's the beef?"

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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