Go tell the Czechs…

Though it was widely anticipated that the new President would launch a major arms control initiative, I couldn’t help but be struck by the ironic timing, setting, and wording of Barack Obama’s announcement yesterday. Leaving aside the merits (or lack thereof) of his [discredited] ideas (which I have addressed here and here),  his comments reveal both a disturbing naivety and a cavalier insensitivity to the issues of nuclear weapons, national security, and international politics.

First the timing: Only hours earlier, North Korea had test-launched another Taepodong-2 in a flagrant display of their contempt for the diplomatic efforts of the United States and its regional allies to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In the world of international politics, this gesture is the same as a giant middle finger, one that is about 115 ft. tall. In effective statecraft, this event would prompt action by the United States and its interested allies to punish, isolate, and contain North Korea. Instead, Obama uses the occasion to announce that the United States “will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” The “urgings” of the United States notwithstanding, North Korea – and the rest of the world, for that matter – appears to have a far different conception of the role of nuclear weapons.

However, the President did have a few things to say about the North Korean launch:

Just this morning, we were reminded again of why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action –- not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons…

The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response, and North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons. All nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime. And that’s why we must stand shoulder to shoulder to pressure the North Koreans to change course.

In other words, North Korea will be faced with the same failed policies and pathetic supplication that gave rise to this crisis in the first place by signaling to the Pyongyang regime that they could continue to blackmail the United States and its allies with no fear of meaningful of consequence.

In the above commentary, the President also added that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” The irony of these statements was apparently lost on the President, but for others, it was obvious to the point of self-parody, for these qualities are exactly what are missing from Obama’s own comments and the entire history of U.S. arms control efforts. Indeed, the President succeeded in saying nothing about how he intends to react to the missile test, aside from the glittering generalities about “a strong international response.”

But let’s not blame the North Koreans…after all, they had received permission to launch the rocket from the Secretary of Defense himself when he told the world quite candidly that the U.S. intended to do nothing about it.

Next, the setting: The President of the United States decides upon major changes to U.S. nuclear doctrine, force structure, and missile defense. To announce these changes, he gives a speech to 20,000 Czechs in Prague, after first pandering to them about how their art and poetry defeated the Soviet Empire. Did anyone on his staff suggest that it might be more appropriate to do this at National Defense University, or at next month’s Academy graduations, or at the Pentagon, or indeed, anywhere else on American soil? Evidently not. Americans take their national defense seriously. They don’t appreciate major changes to that defense being announced to foreign audiences.

Finally, the wording: What was most disconcerting about the President’s speech was not the policies therein, but his notion that optimism and hope alone will be enough to see them through:

Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked -– that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable…

I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.” 

The world has placed its trust in this kind of hope before, only to be drenched in blood by those still willing to pursue their interests in a more traditional fashion. Campaign slogans might help with the popular masses of the United States, but I doubt they have much weight at the Kremlin, in Tehran, Beijing, or Pyongyang. 

Most disturbing of all, the President apparently considers critics of his optimistic vision of the world to be “deadly adversaries.” Such critics would be wise to take heed.

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