Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Israel Can’t Hide From Next Month’s Nuke Meeting

Posted in Israel, Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on April 15, 2010

After two busy days of back-to-back-to-back meetings with some of the world’s most crucial players in the international system, President Barack Obama can finally take a brief moment to pause and regroup.  His Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. – the biggest global gathering on American soil since World War II- was largely successful for the President’s nuclear agenda.  I’m not going to go over all of the agreements that were made on both a bilateral and multilateral basis (I would be in this room all night if that were the case), so here’s the official communique that was released at the end of the conference.  By the way, this wasn’t the only document that was released. For a full picture, check out this link at The Cable.

So congratulations to President Obama for a job-well done.  His staff tirelessly made arrangements for 47 world leaders to travel to the nation’s capital, a difficult task in and of itself.  The conference was successfully concluded without any major diplomatic incident (minus this hilarious exchange between the South African and UAE delegations.  And the two-days of talks actually produced a brief, yet worthwhile document, towards Obama’s goal of locking up all loose nuclear materials in four years.

There’s one problem though; Israel, America’s “special ally,” chose not to participate in the nuclear summit at a head-of-state capacity.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled the trip a day or two before the summit began, and instead sent a mid-level diplomat (Dan Meridor) to take his place.

Was this another deliberate snub by the Israelis, in line with last month’s decision to announce more settlements in East Jerusalem as soon as VP Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv?  Some may be inclined or tempted to think so, but this would be highly inaccurate.

The reason that Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to attend Obama’s conference is well-known; he didn’t want his country’s nuclear arsenal to be under assault from Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Turkey. And from a strategic standpoint, it makes sense. Israel is the only nuclear-weapons power in the Middle East (although they haven’t technically declared that they have nukes to begin with), and Arab nations have long used Israel’s nuclear capability as an excuse to start looking into nuclear research on their own.  Of course, America’s ambiguous policy doesn’t help either; Washington looks the other way on Israel’s nuclear program, but gets all hot-and-bothered when Iran or other Arab nation’s show an interest in nuclear technology.  But that’s a whole other story.

Israel may have managed to escape criticism earlier this week. But come next month, when the world once again comes together to look at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Israel will certainly be an attendee), expect a barrage of complaints from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the like. Questions like, “well if Israel is allowed to have nukes, then why can’t we?” will be asked. And if the United States doesn’t provide a good answer to this question, the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East may very well expand to uncontrollable levels.

The Israelis can expect Washington to do its bidding next May when the topic comes up. But at what cost to its credibility in the Persian Gulf?

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of the Economist**


Party in Washington D.C.

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on April 13, 2010

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard that President Obama is hosting the largest international gathering in Washington since the immediate aftermath of World War II (and if you are not familiar with this story, then I suggest you get out from under that rock).  The issue on the docket is none other than…you guessed it…nuclear weapons and the threat such weapons pose to global peace and security.  But we aren’t talking about the immediate impact of nukes per say, nor is the conference focusing on nuclear-aspirant states, like Iran or North Korea.  Rather, the topic is how to secure loose nuclear material and lock this stuff up before terrorists or criminal organizations get their hands on it.

All I have to say is “it’s about time.”  While the Cold War threat is over, and while the world is much more interdependent in the security spheres than it once was several decades ago, nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to world in general.  Thousands of tons of loose plutonium and uranium stocks are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, and many of the storage facilities that house these radioactive stocks are under less than sub-par security.  Hospitals that work with radioactive isotopes- mainly for cancer treatment- are not really protected the way they ought to be protected, which again poses an enhanced risk that some uranium could somehow be stolen by terrorist groups with dangerous ambitions.

I’m just shocked that a Nuclear Security Summit took this long to happen.  Scattered uranium and plutonium is not a new problem, and yet security measures have continued to be lax at best.  In fact, this lack of concern could have had a devastating ripple effect back in 2003, when Al’Qaeda officials in Saudi Arabia were close to purchasing a smuggled bomb from Russia.  Luckily, the plot was intersected and destroyed by the Saudi Government, but such an example shows how quickly plutonium and highly enriched uranium can fall into the wrong hands.

Herein lies Obama’s nuclear summit, whose goal is an ambitious one at that; lock down all nuclear material in four years, promote a global plan to better monitor the trafficking and transport of nuclear material, and entice states to give up their own stocks.  It sounds like a tough hill to climb, but Obama has gotten off to a good start.  He held a personal one-on-one meeting with the president of Kazakhstan- a country that inherited over 1,000 nuclear bombs when the Soviet Union dissolved- and has quickly struck a deal with the Ukraine, whose leaders agreed to relinquish its bomb-grade uranium for economic assistance.

But Obama- and the world- still has a long way to go.  The summit only lasts for 2 days, which is such a short period of time that I don’t know if you can even consider this summit and actual summit.  And as with all international conferences, other interests are at play.  Pakistan is not going to end its nuclear production because India could exploit the situation and capitalize on the opportunity by building more nukes of its own.  Israel won’t destroy its arsenal unless perhaps Arab states normalize relations and Iran ends its own quest for a nuclear program.  Europe is not as concerned with nuclear terrorism as the United States is, and some even question whether new security measures are cost-effective (nuclear security is expensive).  Obama is, after all, one man.  He can’t control everything.

But challenges aside- and there are a number of them- just the fact that 47 leaders have decided to participate in this conference demonstrates how serious the world deems the nuclear weapons related threats, like nuclear terrorism.  A united policy on nuclear security would be a bonus.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Obama’s New Nuke Strategy Signals Bipartisanship

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on April 7, 2010

It’s been a busy and stressful week for President Obama’s defense team.  After months of painstaking negotiations behind closed doors and after a year of crunching the numbers, the Obama administration has finally released its Nuclear Posture Review to the American public; a nice label to what a common person would call America’s official nuclear weapons policy.

For anyone interested in the full text of Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, here it is, courtesy of Joshua Keating at FP.com

For those who want to get to the nuts-and-bolts of the review, and I don’t blame you if you do (whose going to sit through 72 pages?) these are the statements that jump out:

The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”

“With…improvements in U.S. missile defenses…the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks – conventional, biological, or chemical – has declined significantly. The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.”

“The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

In laymen’s terms, the United States will no longer direct nuclear weapons against countries that are both nuke-free and following global nuclear protocol.  As for those  with nuclear weapons (like Russia and China) and those who continue to obstruct nuclear inspection (like Iran, Syria and North Korea) beware, because you aren’t covered.

Without getting too much into the details of the report, here’s the bottom line: President Obama had to strike a balance between his supporters on the left and his opponents on the right. Like every policy the President implements, he has to take domestic politics into consideration. By decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy (“fundamentally” for deterrence purposes), Obama appeases Democrats who have longed questioned the validity and importance of nukes in the 21st century.

But just in case military hawks on the other side of the aisle were content on raising a stink, the President explicitly stated that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.” For Republicans who may have been worried that the Obama administration was somehow going to diminish U.S. nukes altogether (which would have been impossible anyway), this gives them at least some comfort in the years ahead.

Overall, it’s a pretty sound document. What was everyone expecting, a complete 180-degree turn?

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt at FP.com**

The U.S.-Russia Reset Finally Paying Off?

Posted in European-Russian Relations, Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on March 26, 2010

It looks like President Barack Obama finally has something to put on his foreign-policy resume.  This past Wednesday, U.S. officials in the White House and Russian officials in Moscow have both confirmed that a new strategic nuclear reduction treaty is within days of being completed.  The details of the accord are still sketchy (God forbid information be released to the general public), but there are a few things that we do know.

First off, the treaty explicitly states that both parties (the United States and Russia) are required to decrease their nuclear arsenals to approximately 1,500 warheads.  I know this sounds like an exceedingly high number, but it’s still a pretty noteworthy improvement from the last agreement Washington and Moscow signed in 2002, which tolerated up to 2,200 operational warheads.

The 2010 treaty also has a legal provision that makes sure both sides are actually complying with the law.  This too, is a great step forward.  An agreement is only effective if teeth and enforcement are included.  Otherwise, a party could renege on the deal whenever it wants to, rendering the whole concept of negotiation a huge waste of time and effort.  This is why the 2002 Bush-era provision with Russia was questionable at best…there was no incentive for the United States and Russia to follow through on the basic tenants.

So that is about it at this point in time.  Again, officials in the State Department are making this story rather difficult for reporters, perhaps because the treaty still has to be ratified in the U.S. Senate (which is always a tough battle, because as everyone knows, Senators always have to make a name for themselves on the national scene).  But yet again, if this prospective accord does slide through the Senate, this would represent the first true achievement for the Obama administration on the foreign-policy front.  Politically, the nuclear deal would give President Obama a solid diplomatic win for his portfolio, perhaps on par with his health-care reform victory a week earlier.  And symbolically, the ratification would demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States is commitment to disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.  If there is anything that Washington could use to convince its partners to sign off on new sanctions against the Iranian Government, it is this sort of sincerity and credibility.

Stay tuned for more.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Stop Dragging Heels and Start Nuking the Nuke

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on February 26, 2010

In the very beginning of his presidency, President Barack Obama traveled to Europe in the hopes of gaining support for his nuclear weapons policy.  And with his dramatic vow to rid the world of nuclear weapons, his goal gained universal support from virtually everyone watching.  Yet despite an almost absolute consensus on nuclear nonproliferation, the United States is stuck in the mud, unable to achieve what it set forth a year ago.

The Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. Government’s official document that spells out the country’s nuclear weapons policy, has once again been delayed.  The NPR was supposed to be released on February 1, which would have demonstrated the President’s resolve and dedication to Congress.  But that deadline has long passed, and the country’s nuclear policy continues to take on the role of the 800 pound gorilla.

This delay could be good news.  Rather than settling for a quick review, the administration may be taking a little more time to weight its options.  But guess what…the longer the President draws out the process, the longer it will take to finally disarm the world’s nuclear weapons (Afghanistan Strategy Review anyone?).  And the longer it will take to disarm the world, the more difficult it will to convince Iran to forgo nuclear weapons development.

The fact that there are approximately 23,000 nukes in the world today is a reason why so many states in the developing world are interested in nuclear technology.  Just take Iran as an example.

While nationalism is certainly behind Tehran’s quest for a nuclear capability, the old-fashioned principle of deterrence is probably part of the formula. With the world’s remaining superpower scattered across the entire region- and with American troops residing on both sides of its border- don’t be surprised if the Iranian Government sees its nuclear program as a potential saving-grace from a military attack.

A similar logic can be used to explain Syria’s interest in plutonium enrichment, which only increased after Israel breached Syrian territory and bombed a suspected nuclear installation in 2007. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is also reportedly interested in building nuclear sites, which would give him a competitive advantage over other countries in South America. And of course, we cannot forget about Israel’s nuclear-weapons stockpile, which only gives Iran more incentive to develop its own program in response.

The point is that the U.S. and Russian arsenals could be responsible for nuclear proliferation in the 21st century. It’s really hard to achieve “a world without nuclear weapons” when the United States retains over 2,000 warheads on hair-trigger alert (not to mention Russia’s overwhelming force, which more than doubles the U.S. stockpile). We expect countries to take concrete steps in eliminating nuclear weapons, yet the U.S. and Russia continue to stall in their own attempts.

So when President Obama gears up for THE nuclear summit in April, he should explain how easier nonproliferation would be if the world’s nuclear powers practiced what they preached. A nuclear-free U.S and a nuclear-free Russia could potentially persuade other states- like Iran, Syria, and Venezuela- from trying to construct programs of their own.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of David E. Hoffman.  His article, “Obama’s Nuclear Moment,” just appeared on FP.com

Nuclear Inferno

Posted in Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on November 3, 2009

The main source of nuclear material for terrorist organizations is right in our line of sight: rogue states

Undoubtedly, the most horrific act of terrorism would involve a nuclear strike on an American city. Washington officials have been formulating defense policy on this belief since President Clinton’s administration in the 1990’s.  For years, U.S. planners have been doing everything in their power to come up with a viable long-term nuclear-defense strategy.  Crisis management and conflict resolution are two of the most effective tools in this area, both of which can be used to minimize the physical and psychological casualties associated with a nuclear attack.

Unfortunately, conflict resolution and crisis management may not be enough.  With the terrorist threat only increasing in significance, the widespread fear of a nuclear terrorist incident will only strengthen as more Americans worry about their personal safety.

Likewise, with all of the talk about “rogue states-” that unique club of countries that are both dangerous to international security and destabilizing to their respected regions- it is easy to get carried away about the state-nuclear terror connection. After all, one of the primary arguments for the U.S., Israeli and European Governments concerning Iran’s enrichment cycle is directly related to this analogy; with a nuclear-weapons capability, nations like Iran or Syria may find it useful to pass on their own nuclear technology to like-minded proxies (such as Hezbollah). In fact, for all of the bickering in the United States Congress about foreign-policy issues, the state-proxy nuclear relationship seems to be the only topic that cuts across partisan divides.

Therefore, concentrating solely on rogue states as the major source of nuclear technology for terrorist groups is an obvious exercise. But it is more than that…it is the only purveyor that the international community can pinpoint with complete confidence and accuracy.

Sure, terrorists can buy enriched uranium on the black-market, paying top-dollar to acquire some of the purist weapons-grade material science has to offer. But where would this weapons-grade material come from? Did it come from some kind of mysterious creature? How about from the soil? Of course not! It came from a legitimate nation that, for some reason or another, either decided to sell this information or get rid of it altogether.

This is why Iran and Pakistan worry me so much. One is on its way into the nuclear-club (if the United States does not do something concrete about the problem) and the other already boasts a 100-warhead arsenal.  If Pakistan was not the global home to all sorts of terrorists- and if the country’s civilian government was not already in a sorry-state of fragility and discontent- this may not be a problem. But, as we all know from recent Taliban attacks across the country, that statement is nothing but a delusional fantasy.

Likewise, I am not so convinced that states will exercise self-restraint with its nuclear resources at every possible turn. Generally, when a national economy starts going down the toilet, a state will try pretty much try anything to prevent an incoming tidal wave that will wipe out its political survival. Take North Korea, one of the poorest and most isolated countries on the face of the earth; the same country that has been selling nuclear secrets to other states for the past ten years.

Sure, Pakistan may not be as suicidal as North Korea. At least not when billions upon billions of American taxpayer dollars keep flowing in.  But, minus the growing U.S. financial safety-net, we have to wonder how responsible Pakistan would be with its own nuclear secrets.  Remember, in addition to an inefficient and depressed economy, Pakistan still has an axe to grind with India over Kashmiri territory.

-Daniel R. DePetris