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Losing the Loose Nukes

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

The Bush administration boasts many impressive qualities, but none captures the attention quite so powerfully as its masterful ability – possibly the most adept in American history – to say one thing while practicing another. By staying relentlessly on message and obscuring their true intentions with a fusillade of rhetoric, Bush & Co. have been able to push through all manner of legislation harmful to those whose allegiance they depend on most. In winding up his "fence-mending" swing through Europe last week, the president pulled off this stunt again, this time by publicly securing a deal with Russia to secure the "loose nukes" left over from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while at the same time slashing its commitment to actually getting the job done.

In a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, in which Bush was expected to take a hard line against Russia's turn toward authoritarianism, the president instead "pronounced himself pleased without securing any specific commitments or directly contradicting any of Putin's points," according to the Washington Post. Despite this, the U.S. media, as per usual, focused on the meeting's atmospherics. Hence we read and heard of a president who "gently chided" Putin in a "tense" and "frank" meeting, but without sufficient context for a reader to make any semblance of sense of the encounter's larger implications, which are considerable.

The agreement between the two nations calls for cooperative steps to reduce the threat of the proliferation of nuclear materials being housed at poorly guarded Russian facilities, and will accelerate previously agreed deadlines for securing Russian nuclear facilities. The new plan calls for these facilities to be secured by 2008 – four years earlier than called for in previous agreements.

Typical of the coverage of the agreement is the Washington Post's quick dismissal of the pact: "Securing Russian nuclear material remains at the top of the U.S. agenda with Moscow, [an American] official said, and the Bratislava agreement is intended to 'get better control over things to avoid the possibility that things fall into the wrong hands.'" If only this were so. Our most important tool for ensuring that Russian nuclear material doesn't fall into the hands of a terrorist organization or unfriendly state has, since 1991, been the Nunn-Lugar program. Yet since the Bush administration has taken office, it has quietly chipped away its funding.

As an October 2001 Time magazine piece pointed out, "the 2002 federal budget calls for cuts of about $140 million [to Nunn-Lugar]. That's quite a hit for an initiative whose seven-year operating costs were only $3 billion — less than the annual cost of missile defense research and development efforts." Despite the administration's rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction – which unprotected nuclear weapons surely are – in the president's 2005 budget proposal, funding for the program again fell slightly from 2004 levels. As the Carnegie Endowment for Peace reported in March 2004, "Bush's proposed budget for FY 2005 cuts funding for Nunn-Lugar by 10 percent and cuts the Department of Energy's Russian nuclear security funding by 8 percent." In the president's 2006 budget, he has called for $416 million for the Nunn-Lugar program, which is $7 million above the 2005 enacted level, and about even with what the program has been receiving since its inception.

Moreover, a Washington Post report points out that "late negotiations watered down a central element." It turns out that the 2008 deadline is actually a chimera, as the "deadline had gone fuzzy." The new language calls for the two nations to "develop a plan to work through and beyond 2008 on joint projects." According to former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-author of the initial legislation, several important steps are still "missing-in-action," including "Transparency and accountability for tactical nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and Russian arsenals;… Transparency and cooperation, beginning with the U.S. and Russia, in preventing biological terrorism and the spread of infectious diseases," and "An acceleration of chemical weapons destruction, which is far behind the agreed-on schedule."

Given all of the above, one might expect some enterprising American reporter to expose this obvious contradiction in U.S. policy. Alas, we're still waiting.

Another major characteristic of the president's trip was the rhetorical support that he has been offering of late to nascent democracies around the world. Yet nowhere in the media's coverage can one discern a critical examination of the president's actual policies in this regard. Media conservatives are eager to offer the administration credit for the slowly thawing Palestinian/Israeli relationship and the hopeful events in Syria, but cannot find a moment to explain the Bush administration's pandering to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The former continues to spread anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Arab world and the latter appears to be the source of our most horrific global nightmare: terrorists with nukes.

Perhaps the clearest example of the administration's Janus-face on democracy can be found in the former Soviet colony of Uzbekistan. In April 2002, the U.N. condemned that nation's commitment to "systematic" and "pervasive and persistent" torture of its citizens. Opposition leader Muzafar Avazov was boiled alive for refusing to abandon his religious convictions during the same year. Yet when Secretary of State Rice recently listed a series of worrisome "outposts of tyranny," Uzbekistan somehow didn't make the cut. Why is that? The answer, as any real estate agent could explain, is "location, location, location." Lying in Central Asia, Uzbekistan has the good fortune to host a U.S. military base offering easy access to both Afghanistan and Iraq. As The Guardian pointed out, "In February 2004 the US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, visited the country's dictator, Islam Karimov, and said: "The relationship [between our countries] is strong and growing stronger. We look forward to strengthening our political and economic relations."

In other words, the president may talk the democratic talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, to quote the old song, "It’s still the same old story…"

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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