US Affairs: Going nuclear

With health care and the economy on his side, Obama has some political capital to spend.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
April 9, 2010 23:49
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama speaks at the University

obama pointing 311. (photo credit: AP)

WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama returned to the Czech Republic this week, one year after his first European foray. Though there were echoes of last year’s visit, it was a different Obama who landed in Prague.

Now, after a year in office, some of the luster has come off a president who once basked in international regard. The Czechs, for one, were distressed when he scrapped the missile defense system the Bush administration had labored to install, particularly local leaders who risked political capital on the basis of American appeals over the importance of the program. And less-than-stellar poll numbers have made it clear that his star power has diminished closer to home.

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But the leader of the free world returned with something more important, perhaps, than his celebrity aura. This time he came with important agenda victories to boost him after suffering from a perception that he couldn’t get things done.

Unlike his empty-handed visits where he was told no by everyone from Europeans who didn’t like his economic program to the International Olympic Committee officials who chose Rio de Janeiro over Chicago – as well as one visit where he did get something, a Nobel Prize, of which even the recipient wondered whether it was deserved – he came this time with important achievements under his belt.

He has passed a health care overhaul that has bedeviled presidents for a generation and emerged as a man who can steer his party to success. He has stabilized the American economy if not resurrected it, restoring some of the confidence that assures America’s place in the world marketplace. And, most relevantly for his schedule this month, he has succeeded in penning a deal with the Russians on the new START treaty to reduce each country’s nuclear stockpile.

While health care hasn’t won him any points among the American people, according to recent polls, internationally it has given him a boost. They say all politics is local, and in this case it’s being proven true by the extent to which Obama’s political achievements at home – though they come on both domestic and foreign policy initiatives – strengthen him abroad.

Former Democratic congressman Robert Wexler made this point in recent comments to Politico concerning the implications of the legislation’s passage for the Middle East.

“Every time I met with an Arab diplomat or anyone from the Middle East, including Israelis, they would invariably ask me, ‘How’s health care going?’” related Wexler, a strong supporter of Obama who left politics to become the head of a Middle East think tank. “And the first couple [of] times, I didn’t really realize what they were actually asking. They were asking, ‘How strong is the president of the United States?’” With health care passed, he assessed, “The president is now a much stronger president, and that will play out in a variety of ways in the Middle East.”

And among the rest of the international players that Obama’s convening at the Nuclear Security Summit on safeguarding nuclear material in Washington next week, which comes on the heels of the release of a new US nuclear posture placing preventing the spread of nuclear weapons atop the US agenda as well as the START signing, and ahead of a review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the UN in May.

THE QUESTION now is how much that will help him actually accomplish at the two-day summit. Though for starters, he has more than 40 world leaders signed on to take part, which The New York Times pointed out is the largest assembly organized by an American president since the UN was founded.

“What’s significant about it is that you’re getting heads of state” rather than lower-level emissaries, noted Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

She said that it “definitely” helps Obama that he is holding the nuclear security conference after having worked out a new START treaty and nuclear posture.

“It demonstrates his seriousness,” she explained, saying the message now from the US is “we’re serious about nuclear security, we want to work with all of you on this.”

George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said this approach could also pay dividends at the May NPT conference. The START agreement, new nuclear posture and security summit are “meant to give momentum and show the seriousness of the United States as the review conference happens in May in New York with all the states in the nonproliferation treaty,” he said.

“The United States is trying to say, ‘Look, let’s keep the bargain where all of the rest of the world agrees not to get nuclear weapons and to work with us to keep nuclear weapons from terrorists and other states, because we are keeping our side of the bargain. We are doing everything we can to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and reduce the number of nuclear weapons. We’re demonstrating that in April, you respond in kind in May.’”

Of course it helps that Obama’s taken on such a universally endorsed goal as preventing nuclear material from landing in the hands of terrorists at next week’s summit.

“It’s a good thing to focus on something that’s relatively noncontroversial,” Squassoni said. “It’s very politically smart.”

Still, there are potential stumbling blocks. Some countries feel that the emphasis should be on radioactive material rather than nuclear capabilities that are much harder for terrorists to acquire and use. Others are less interested in investing time and resources in an issue that they see as not urgent. And the effort only works if everyone’s on board.


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