By the end of 1991 — 19 years ago if you’re counting — the Soviet Union was gone and a new Russian government was in power. At the time there was much heated, anxious discussion over the need for immediate U.S.-Russian cooperation to bring under effective control all of the former USSR’s 22,000-plus nuclear weapons. Then, in the 2004 presidential election campaign, John Kerry and George W. Bush debated whether that arsenal should be brought under full control by 2008 or 2010. On Monday, President Obama will convene in Washington a so-called nuclear summit aimed at stopping nuclear proliferation and preventing al-Qaeda and its allies from acquiring and using a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon against the United States or one of its allies. And, by the way, when the conference opens none of the attendees will be able to verify that the former-USSR’s WMD arsenal is fully controlled.
Who is kidding who? Most Americans probably presume that President Obama and his team are holding the conference to protect their country. They would be right, but mainly in the theoretical sense. Obama is holding the conference so Americans “think” that he and the Republicans — this is an effort with bipartisan support — are doing something to defend them against the WMD threat. All such international conferences produce enormous amounts of blather and precious little substantive accomplishment. When it concludes, Obama will appear with the other attendees gathered around him and announce that the world is safer because of the conference and that this safety will henceforth grow through international cooperation. And the former-USSR’s nuclear arsenal still will not be fully secured.
Effective international control over the illicit trafficking in WMDs and/or their components is a long-term effort and — given the waste of nearly two decades — one that still has a long way to go. Most reports show that the number of cases of trafficking in these materials is growing, and that many of the trafficking operations that are discovered and stopped in one way or another are tied back to the states of the former-USSR. But there are also numerous incidents where nuclear-related materials are stolen or illegally purchased in countries that do not have adequate control over the nuclear reactors they use for research purposes or to produce electrical power. In short, the possible sources of WMD-related componets and materials are many and there appears to be no quick multi-national fix for this problem.
What do do? Well surely Obama and the Republicans should press ahead with their summit and then try to implement whatever measures it produces. But expecting this to prevent our Islamist foes from acquiring and using some kind of WMD inside the United States is pretty near a forlorn hope. Ultimately, and as always, America’s defense will depend on its willingness to do its own heavy lifting. Because we cannot expect effective international controls anytime soon, our bipartisan leaders’ best bet for keeping a WMD out of the United States is — no surprise here — to control our land and water borders. Airline security has improved to the point where it would be difficult to get nuclear materials into America on a civilian airliner (although the issues of chemical and biological weapons and suicide bombers on airliners are a long way from being solved). But driving a nuclear device into the United States from Mexico or floating one across the Niagara River from Fort Erie, Ontario, to Buffalo, New York, — as we floated beer across on many a summer day when I was a kid — is a lead-pipe cinch. In other words, Obama’s summit can produce potential safety in the decades ahead, but only near-term and effective border control — which means using the U.S. military — can offer any reasonable chance of defending the United States against nuclear materials that have already been illicitly acquired.
One other point of interest. Osama bin Laden formed his al-Qaeda organization in 1988. It has been seeking to acquire a nuclear and other WMD capability since 1989. In other words, al-Qaeda and its allies have a twenty-year head start over whatever this week’s summit decides to do.