The Washington Post

Obama hails progress on loose nukes, warns of chemical weapons risk in Syria

President Obama on Monday hailed international efforts to reduce the threat of loose weapons left over from the Cold War and said he is “optimistic” that Russia will renew its cooperation after backing out of the program this fall.

But Obama also used a speech at the National Defense University in Washington to warn of a new threat looming in Syria, where intelligence reports suggest that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may be preparing chemical weapons for use against rebels.

“The world is watching,” Obama said. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

The president added: “We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century.”

Obama’s main purpose Monday was to mark the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the outgrowth of a 1992 law championed by Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) focused on securing and dismantling nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials in former Soviet states.

Still uncertain is how the effort will continue without Russia’s help. The country’s decision to withdraw from Nunn-Lugar in October came at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were already deteriorating after Russian President Vladi­mir Putin decided to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development from his country.

The withdrawal stemmed in part from disagreements over the terms of cooperation spelled out in the program. Obama signaled Monday that he is willing to change those terms to bring Russia back in.

“Let’s update it,” he said. “Let’s work with Russia.”

That sentiment did not come as a surprise to U.S. supporters of Nunn-Lugar, who said the program has survived darker moments and has enduring support among key members of the Russian defense establishment.

“The program and activity up to now has survived the cycles of relations,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the nonproliferation group Ploughshares. “Of course it’s mutually beneficial. It’s in everyone’s interests to secure these weapons.”

Obama has made nonproliferation a priority as president and as a U.S. senator before that. In 2006, he joined with Lugar to co-sponsor legislation that expanded Nunn-Lugar to efforts aimed at containing conventional weapons.

On Monday, Obama called Nunn-Lugar “one of the country’s smartest and most successful national security programs.” He thanked Lugar and Nunn, who attended the 15-minute speech at Fort McNair.

“They challenged us to think anew, after decades of confrontation, how our nations might engage in cooperation,” the president said. “Early in the Cold War, Einstein warned of our wisdom not keeping pace with technology. With Nunn-Lugar, our wisdom began to catch up.”

Obama took extra time to pay tribute to Lugar, who was defeated in a primary this year and will leave the Senate in January. He reminisced about taking his first overseas trip as a senator with Lugar, during which he observed weapons of mass destruction being destroyed.

“The first thing I learned is that when Dick Lugar travels overseas, it’s not a junket,” Obama said, prompting laughter from the audience. “You know, we didn’t stop and look at a lot of beautiful sites and sort of lounge around on a lot of shopping excursions. He wore out every 25-year-old staffer that was part of this delegation. “

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.