Nunn of the Above

05.06.2008 | POLITICS

Especially at a time when the recent release of photographs of Hiroshima's aftermath by an unknown Japanese photographer reminds us anew that nuclear weapons are not intended for use on another state's military, but its people.

"'Everywhere you turn, you hear it,' said Savannah businessman Ed Feiler."

What, that Clinton will pull it out? That we'll attack Iran? No, think local. Turns out that Georgians are speculating whether Sam Nunn, their Democratic senator for 25 years, will be invited to join a Barack Obama ticket.

It's true that Obama was recently endorsed by Nunn. But why pick a guy who will be 70 by the election? Yes, he's two years younger than John McCain, but he's been out of office 11 years.

Larry Peterson of the Savannah Morning News explains: "Nunn's experience and expertise, especially on national defense issues and foreign policy, would offset what some view as Obama's weaknesses. . . . And because Nunn is 'mainstream and bi-partisan,' he'd help Obama be perceived as someone who would work with Republicans."

While many Democratic congresspersons make a habit of capitulating to Republicans, they still need to appear marginally liberal in order to get elected. Nunn, however, made no bones about being as conservative as he was liberal. He opposed raising taxes and homosexuals in the military; he favored tort reform, limiting death penalty appeals, and school prayer.

On the other hand, abortion, gun control, affirmative action, and even immigration weren't problems for him. He even voted against the Gulf War. Today, hybrid Democrats like Nunn or long-time New York senator Jacob Javits are a thing of the past.

Actually, Nunn's inclusion on an Obama ticket is unlikely because younger voters don't remember him nor are older voters aware of the valuable work he's done since leaving office. Thus, a position in Obama's cabinet might be more realistic.

This is a presidential election where, despite less-than-progressive bona fides, a candidate, Obama, has become palatable to many progressives. Since he's softened us up for choices that are more "realistic" as opposed to ideal (who, like Samantha Power, can blow up in your face anyway), Nunn as secretary of defense might be an inspired choice.

What makes Sam Nunn different from other middle-of-the-road politicians?

His signature accomplishment is the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created with Senator Richard Lugar. It provides assistance to Russia and the former Soviet republics in locking down and destroying "loose nukes" -- poorly guarded nuclear, biological and chemical weapons poised to disappear into the black market. To date, Nunn-Lugar, as it's called, has been responsible for the deactivation of more than 5,900 nuclear warheads.

Obama and Nunn, in fact, have Lugar in common. Obama and the Republican senator from Indiana modeled their Lugar-Obama initiative on Nunn-Lugar. Introduced in 2005 and enacted in 2007, Lugar-Obama provides for $48 million to destroy certain conventional weapons –- such as every airline pilot's worst nightmare: shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles -- as well as to detect and intercept WMD.

Aside from Nunn-Lugar, Nunn has become America's elder statesman on nuclear issues in general. In fact he's co-chairman with Ted Turner of the latter's Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), dedicated to reducing the spread of WMD. He also co-authored two influential Wall Street Journal op-eds, in January 2007 and January 2008, with Henry Kissinger, Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, and Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, which urged the US to lead the way to complete nuclear disarmament.

In fact, Nunn's bonnet is buzzing with disarmament ideas, which he calls his "pet rocks." He outlined them in an interview in the March Arms Control Today conducted by Daryl Kimball and Miles Pomper.

Nunn begins by speaking about how indispensable or, as he calls them, "relevant," nuclear weapons have become in the minds of world leaders. While trying to remain the soul of discretion about blaming the US, he mourns our missed opportunity to disarm after the Soviet Union broke up.

"I think that expanding NATO and putting the military first after the collapse of the Soviet Union rather than making an economic expansion with the European Community was a fundamental mistake. [The Russians] feel that their conventional forces are not strong enough, requiring them to have not only a nuclear deterrent [but] first use."

Then how do we make nuclear weapons less "relevant"?

While it "is in no way in opposition to reducing numbers [of nuclear weapons]," perhaps most critical to Nunn is extending warning times. "It's insane for us, 16 years after the Cold War, to think of the Russian president having four or five minutes to make a decision about whether what may be a false warning requires a response before he loses his retaliatory force," he says. In fact, it's "fundamentally against American security interests."

In the interest of making the trigger a little less hairy, Nunn calls for "physical barriers [to] be introduced. . . so nobody can launch within a week." Then "the discussion about how many [nuclear weapons] you need takes on a different flavor."

Aside from restraints, Nunn also worked to strengthen NATO's conventional forces in Europe while he was in the Senate. His theory was that the US would be less prone to compensate for its perceived weaknesses by launching nuclear warheads. While one might file that under the lesser of two evils, these are the kind of baby steps to which disarmament advocates have been forced to resort since the Reykjavik leap of faith failed to lift off.

In fact, he believes that "we simply are not going to get the cooperation we need around the globe [without] a restoration of the vision that was laid down in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. [The] world perceives that the countries with nuclear weapons made a pledge to step-by-step reduce them. . . and eventually get rid of them." (Emphasis added.)

Foremost among those nuclear malingerers is the US, of course. Furthermore, he doesn't think "we can sit here and divide the world into good and bad," he says, as in "if they are good guys [like India and Brazil], they [can enrich]."

Other issues on which Nunn is out front of the pack include cyber-terrorism: "I don't think we have explored anywhere near adequately the danger of [nuclear launch] command and control being penetrated by people in the cyber world." What? Hackers launching nuclear weapons?

Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information provides some background: "Terrorist hackers might be able to gain back-door electronic access to the U.S. naval communications network. . . and illicitly transmit a launch order to U.S. Trident ballistic missile submarines."

Still, Nunn is cautiously optimistic. In a recent meeting with Russians, "I started off by asking what would be on a dream list of how the U.S. and Russian governments should face nuclear terrorism dangers. . . . At the end, I said, 'Guess what? . . . The two governments have agreed on every one of them.'"

What's missing, of course, is a lack of presidential focus on the parts of Bush and Putin. Nunn hopes this will change with the new US and Russian administrations.

Finally, Nunn says, "I describe moving toward zero as climbing a mountain. . . . We might not get there in my lifetime, [but we'll] hopefully reach a plateau so that our children and grandchildren can at least get out their binoculars and see the top of the mountain."

Never mind secretary of state, we nominate Sam Nunn for a new cabinet position: secretary of nuclear –- not nonproliferation, but, in the words of sociologist Amitai Etzioni -- de-proliferation. Who's better equipped to not only halt, but reverse, the spread of nuclear weapons?

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