Obama, Terror, Nukes and the Week That Was

The most remarkable story of the week -- the most important story to most Americans -- was not the breaking story that featured the President of the United States and the leaders of the world. The FBI and NYPD may have broken up the biggest domestic terrorism plot since 9/11. And this administration, deliberately, chose to stay in the background, chose to let senior law enforcement officials take the lead, and did nothing to generate the sort of panic and fear that the office of the president, when marshaled to discuss these types of things, can bring to bear, even by accident.
In general, President Obama had a pretty good week, and for that he can thank the contingencies of timing. The United States was chosen to chair the meeting of the United Nations Security Council, and a while ago the White House decided to focus on nuclear proliferation. They could have chosen climate change, or poverty, or development -- but administration planners believed that of all those existential threats, the most good could come from a meeting and resolution dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

It just so happens that Obama himself, the first president of the nuclear age who grew up with a nuanced view of American power, "appreciates the gravity of the threat in ways that previous presidents have not," a senior administration official told me yesterday. There may be something to that, Obama exceptionalism aside, but history is conspiring against nuclear proliferation in a way it never has before. The advent of stateless terror, the easy and rapid transfer of technology across borders, the diffusion of nuclear know-how and the isolation of rogue regimes have convinced leaders of the world's most powerful nations that the status quo is unsustainable. Even Russia and China, with vested financial and security interests in Iran and North Korea, are recognizing the basic logic: in a world where nuclear weapons move freely, the chances of a destabilizing nuclear explosion are growing. Intelligence shared about Iran's secret new uranium enrichment facility was too plain to ignore.

The resolution adopted Thursday doesn't sanction anyone, but it tangibly advances the cause of global nonproliferation. Mostly, it deals with so-called "negative assurances." When states leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), states that had supplied them with technology for civilian or "peaceful" nuclear energy programs now have the right to demand their equipment back. Believe it or not, that simple step had been resisted by many powers for years.  Another actual step: the resolution called on transgressors by name, including Israel, which has maintained a non-ambiguous ambiguity under U.S. cover for 40 years. The resolution urges them to sign the treaty.

The groundwork laid here applies to North Korea and Iran today, but it might apply to a state like Burma or Syria tomorrow. And the foundation exists now for a broader re-examination of the treaty itself next April, when the signatories to the NPT meet to review and possibly revise it.

Among the president's other accomplishments: Russia now recognizes the inevitability of some sanctions against Iran, even as it continues to insist that sanctions won't do much to change Iran's behavior. Skepticisim is still warranted, but never in recent memory has Russian come this far.

The rest of the week was fairly ho-hum. The president once again angered Israel and triggered a ferocious backlash from conservatives by refering to Israeli "occupation" of Palestinian territory, although, to be sure, his rhetoric was little different than the tone adopted by the Bush administration in its final two years. He brokered a meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that produced two handshakes but little in the way of progress.

A conclave on climate change produced next to nothing except for the litany of complaints that the developed nations of the world are still too parochial to take the steps necessary to deal with it, even though China proposed (without specifics) a unilateral cut in its emissions. Here, Obama claims to be hamstrung by the domestic politics of carbon, but his administration's decision to focus on health care might have come at the expense of persuading the country to adopt a different posture on energy.

In Washington, he scored a bit of a win by not being there. 

He let the Democrats and Republicans haggle over important health care reform details, and he didn't have to wade in and become politicized. It's safe to say that if health care was 80% done at the beginning of the week, it is no less than 83% done at the end of the week.

Perhaps the biggest coup of the week: Obama managed to avoid avowed non-allies of the United States. No smiling handshakes with Hugo Chavez, no brush-passes with the president of Iran, and -- mercifully -- he managed to slip out of the United Nations before Muammar Khadaffi.
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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