Friday, May 8, 2009

Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Asking of our friends what we would demand of our enemies

U.S. diplomat, Rose Gottemoeller mentioned recently that the U.S. was committed to the idea of "universal adherence" to the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. We are signatories to the treaty, as are 186 other countries. Nuclear non-proliferation, and even disarmament, has been consistently held U.S. policy for the past couple of generations. Every administration for the past forty years (even the last one) has signed some form of arms limitation treaty.

So why should the Assistant Secretary of State's comments be in the least bit controversial? Why would a treaty that aims to "prohibit the development or transfer of nuclear weapons or related technologies by and to non-weapon holding states" be questioned or challenged? Isn't "universal adherence" to that kind of treaty a pretty good idea? Isn't there a whole lot of trepidation just now over the possible "development of weapons by a non-weapon holding state" —what with Iran and its lack of adherence?

Problem is there are only four nations yet to sign the NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan and Cuba —three stalwart allies of the U.S. and and one stalwart enemy. And guess which three of the four are actually "packing."

As a matter of fact, Gottemoeller's comments came as she was addressing a meeting of signatories to the treaty who wanted to know why the U.S. had made accommodations with India (under the Bush administration) that in effect rewarded it for its non-compliance and non-cooperation over the years. "The United States has long supported universal adherence to the [NPT]. We have urged all states that have not yet joined that treaty to do so," she said. She explained that since its agreement with the U.S., India had made "real progress towards joining the non-proliferation regime."

Most would see this as a fairly rational, and validly strategic, approach to take towards nuclear diplomacy. The international community is confronted with just the behaviors the treaty is in place to confront. Strengthen the treaty and reward adherence —bring together the whole community of nations and more firmly establish the international conventions for acting against the spread of nuclear arms. Indeed, it is this treaty that is often cited as the premise for sanctions against what we like to refer to as the "rogue states" —those whose nuclear designs we would curb.

But in certain circles, rational strategic diplomacy —well, it's just not done.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli nuclear expert Avner Cohen announced, in reaction to the U.S. diplomats remarks, that there is a "deep-seated Israeli anxiety" that Washington would link eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat —presumably as part of negotiations with Tehran —with Israel giving up its own capabilities —a notion completely unthinkable, though Israel officially has no nuclear arsenal.

There's the rub, isn't it? That potential we would punish Iran for —a nuclear weapons capability sequestered from international scrutiny under a guise of sovereign privilege— has been practice for Israel for a very long time. Since the Nixon administration, U.S. policy has been tacit approval of Israel's civilian nuclear technology openly acknowledged —and it's nuclear weapons capacity deliberately vague.

Predictably, there are more on this side of the Atlantic than in Israel itself who have tried to amp Rose Gottemoeller's comment into some horrid betrayal of Israel our trusted and trusting ally. Saner heads in Israel have acknowledged that the call for universal adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty isn't a unilateral confrontation with their state. Rather it is an exhortation to all in the region. It is about signing the treaty and about abiding by it, too. It is a statement of U.S. support for the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But most importantly, it is a statement made together with the understanding that "such goals can only be achieved," as Gottemoeller herself said, "in the context of progress toward a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and evidence that Iran is fully implementing and upholding the existing international agreements to which it is a party."

President Obama spoke in Prague recently about the goal of a world —not just a region— free of the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terror. He spoke of it as an American objective, but as a much larger one as well. We will have to lead by example in that effort if we truly wish to see it advance. Ours is the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But along with that leadership expected of us, we might also find ourselves having to ask of our friends what we would demand of our opponents.

I think that's how it works.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Not in our stars, but in ourselves

President Obama's handling of the issue of American torture has managed to offend and/or frustrate those to his Left and those to his Right. I'm thinking that might be some indication of an appropriate balance. He's gone to the CIA headquarters building itself to point out that he won't use the past practices as a premise for prosecuting operatives at the foot soldier level —the very people the now famous torture memos were directed at, as these were the people most often questioning and challenging the legal integrity of their orders in the first place. He has left the door open to investigating the more senior level decisions that set American torture practices in motion, even while offering that he would rather look forward than look back.

Still we are being asked to confront the facts. The memos have been released and soon the Pentagon will be releasing images (at the behest of the courts through an ACLU suit, not the administration's actions).

What good can come of this? —some might very reasonably ask.

I can't help but be reminded of another era in our history, the days of "The Red Scare" —McCarthyism, HUAC, The Cold War in its deepest shivering. As is the tendency with histories in general, that era has come to be something of a clearer and clearer morality lesson over time. Most all of us have come to identify with that guy who asked— "at long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"

But at the time, things weren't nearly so black and white as the television —at that time, like this one, there were gray shadings of meaning. We were a nation gripped by fear —and there was very real reason for that fear. We did indeed confront an ideological and military enemy that openly spoke of one day burying us, or at least our way of life. As a country we would come to recognize the fear as another enemy itself (perhaps our most dangerous one). We would come to put aside some of the hysteria. But it took some reminding from courageous citizens for us to do so.

I borrow the title of this piece from another famous borrowing, from CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow's use of the line from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' Murrow had chosen to confront McCarthy—when the 'Red Scare' hysteria was at its worst— from the broadcast newsroom, with an exposé on the senator's troubling and destructive methods. Few others in the media or government were willing to do so just then. Murrow concluded one pivotal broadcast with the Cassius line to Brutus about "our faults" being “not in our stars but in ourselves.”

More than McCarthy himself, what Murrow was really confronting was the political climate —namely that fear— McCarthy was so able to exploit.

That climate change didn't come with one dramatic confrontation. Yes, McCarthy was finally censured and some of his more egregious abuses were redressed, but we didn't turn away from the fear itself over night. And we didn’t turn in lockstep unison.

McCarthy fell from favor, but the more important change in thinking didn’t come with that. It was only over time we truly came to examine and learn from the mistakes —our mistakes.

That's why I am thinking Obama might be just about right in disappointing both sides on this current issue of American torture, in opening us up to some uncomfortable examination, but showing some deference in leading the charge of righteous indignation (and another kind of witch hunt). We might actually rebuild more with a calm and deliberate approach to the truth about Bush administration practices, and more importantly to the truth about ourselves.

Some worry we may have lost our innocence about torture in the last few years. I'm not sure that's right; and I am not sure that it matters. Innocence is something you lose and can never regain. Integrity is another matter. Even when integrity is lost or damaged you can never leave aside responsibility for it. President Obama has been taken to task by some for having referred to the Bush practices as "mistakes" rather than crimes. But I think I understand the thinking—and yes the leadership— involved in his careful language. "Crimes" are in the nature of accusation and we can separate ourselves from them with the use of the term. Mistakes we examine together.

And hopefully we learn.