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Obama's Nuclear Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
3:05 PM ET, 04/ 6/2009


Obama waves to the crowd in Prague (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Was it good timing or bad timing?

Hours before President Obama delivered an apparently long-planned speech embracing the goal of total nuclear disarmament, North Korea's rogue nuclear regime provocatively fired off a new rocket.

Critics say it was terrible timing, calling attention to just how unrealistic Obama's ambitions are.

But it may instead be good timing, as North Korea presents something of a case study in how Bush bombast didn't reduce a nuclear threat. In this case, it arguably created it.

In his speech in Prague yesterday, Obama made clear that he foresees disarmament as the work of decades, not years. And he called for greater focus on the danger of a nuclear weapon getting into terrorist hands. But his broader argument was that, as the U.S. reduces its arsenal, it will be easier to generate a stronger international consensus against proliferation.

Michael D. Shear and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "Speaking in Hradskany Square, a hilltop plaza outside Prague Castle, just hours after the launch, Obama announced that he would immediately seek U.S. ratification of a ban on nuclear testing, convene a summit in Washington to stop the spread of nuclear material within four years and advocate for a nuclear fuel bank to allow peaceful development of nuclear power."

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama said that his administration would 'reduce the role of nuclear weapons' in its national security strategy, and would urge other countries to do the same. He pointed to the agreement he reached last week with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia to begin negotiations on reducing warheads and stockpiles, and said the two countries would try to reach an agreement by the end of the year. He also promised to aggressively pursue American ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which in the past has faced strong opposition in Congress.

"It is a strategy based on the idea that if the United States shows it is willing to greatly shrink the size of its atomic arsenal, ban nuclear testing and cut off the worldwide production of bomb material, reluctant allies and partners around the world will be more likely to rewrite nuclear treaties and enforce sanctions against North Korea and Iran."

From Obama's speech: "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold...

"Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power –- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

"So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. (Applause.) 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.' (Applause.)"

Jonathan Martin and David S. Cloud write for Politico on the neocon reponse: "'Especially in light of the North Korean launch, I thought his speech was otherworldly,' said John Bolton, the conservative former Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush. 'What is he saying about the real, concrete threat from proliferant states like North Korea and Iran? We'll take you to the Security Council. Say, there's a threat! That has had no practical impact on either Pyongyang or Tehran before and will not in the future.'"

But Martin and Cloud quote a "senior administration official" as saying conservatives "also are missing the fundamental impact America's moving away from nuclear weapons would have....

"As for the politics of appearing weak, the official suggested tough talk toward Pyongyang and Tehran by Bush proved ineffective. 'We've tried that and we made no progress [toward non-proliferation],' said the source."

Martin and Cloud point out, quite correctly, that "the rocket launch hardly qualifies as a full-on, round-the-clock international crisis. Firing off a missile has become the regime in Pyongyang's standard way of interacting with Washington whenever it wants to extract more economic aid for its tottering economy or feels it would serve its purposes to alarm U.S. allies in Asia."

Nevertheless, there is a hysterical quality to some of the coverage so far.

Rick Klein blogs for ABC News: "Whether or not the North Koreans put anything into orbit over the weekend, President Obama's perfectly executed foreign trip was launched into a different layer of the atmosphere -- one where the president's words may not matter after all.....

"With the president's trip continuing through Turkey Monday and Tuesday... this marks perhaps the best early chance for Obama to define his own doctrine. The world is watching."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "North Korea's rocket launch is the early diplomatic challenge Vice President Biden famously warned about last fall."

And ABC's Jake Tapper blogs about how the "3 a.m. phone call" turned out to be a "4:30 a.m. knock on the door."

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