Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Nuclear Standoff With Libya - Updated 11/29/10

This is quite a story. And it's recent. There are so many aspects to this; let me expand on a few.

Page van der Linden (@plutoniumpage) and I (@cherylrofer) have been tweeting a conversation about how it illustrates the importance of continuing good relations between the United States and Russia. The two countries worked well together on getting the enriched uranium out of Libya. Those continued good relations are part of why it's important to ratify New Start ASAP. (h/t to Page for finding it first.)

It's about respect.
Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could "fix" the nuclear crisis--if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, "The ball is in your court." [emphasis mine]
Something to keep in mind with North Korea and Iran.

In media commentary and reports, statements from (mostly) Republican senators, and conversations, I keep hearing an isolationist viewpoint: we and the Russians aren't about to throw nukes at each other, so who cares about a dumb old treaty. Just a piece of paper.

Well, no. It's part of a process that began back in the 1970s, a relationship between the two nations. And now that the nuke numbers are getting below ten thousand each, other nations are paying more attention in terms of their own behavior. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and activities like the one described with Libya, have also brought that process closer to all the countries of the world. And then we could cite the famous "Trust but verify."

Finally, it occurred to me how much of this building interaction is invisible to the public. It's very real to me, because I've been involved in it in a small way, and I know quite a few other people who have. But it hardly ever shows up in the press. Frank Munger wrote a bit about the STCU the other day and about the transfer of enriched-uranium reactor fuel in Kazakhstan a few days before that. But there aren't many other reporters covering these stories.

Most of the work is fairly technical. Some of it was marked by infighting among and within government departments. And I suspect that some of it, maybe even a lot of the more interesting stuff, is classified. I give the Obama administration a lot of credit for leaking this, even it it turns out to be part of the advertised Wikileaks release. It's the kind of thing that more people should know.

We Americans have a very secure situation, even more secure since the demise of the Soviet Union, which is receding from people's thinking after almost twenty years. But our security is not the rule across the world. There's a web of relationships that treaties like New Start are part of. George Bush did his little bit to tear that web. We've got to mend it and go forward if we want to continue that security and hand it on to our children.

Update (11/29/10): Martin Hellman, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, tells me he's tried to comment on this post without success. Here's his comment:

Thank you for pointing out the importance of symbolic measures, especially treating adversaries with some respect. That's important for reducing the adversarial nature of the relationship, and thereby getting more of what we want from the adversary. Sig Hecker has made exactly that point wrt North Korea, as noted in my recent blog post Another Face of North Korea.

As opposed to the pie-in-the-sky wish that the North would accept unilateral nuclear disarmament, I list "the three NO's" Sig thinks we can achieve: No nuclear exports, no more bombs, and no more tests. I then note: "Based on his visits to North Korea, Prof. Hecker thought that these goals were achievable if the United States will re-engage the North, temporarily put aside demands that it unilaterally disarm, and treat Pyongyang with some respect."

Martin Hellman

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