The Nuclear Illusionist

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on April 9, 2009

(by the Editors of – “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

So declared President Obama Sunday in Prague regarding North Korea’s missile launch, which America’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice added was a direct violation of U.N. resolutions. At which point, the Security Council spent hours debating its nonresponse, thus proving to nuclear proliferators everywhere that rules aren’t binding, violations won’t be punished, and words of warning mean nothing.

Rarely has a Presidential speech been so immediately and transparently divorced from reality as Mr. Obama’s in Prague. The President delivered a stirring call to banish nuclear weapons at the very moment that North Korea and Iran are bidding to trigger the greatest proliferation breakout in the nuclear age. Mr. Obama also proposed an elaborate new arms-control regime to reduce nuclear weapons, even as both Pyongyang and Tehran are proving that the world’s great powers lack the will to enforce current arms-control treaties.

There’s no doubting the emotive appeal of Mr. Obama’s grand no-nukes vision. Ronald Reagan shared a similar hope, and in recent years these pages have run a pair of news-making essays by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn positing such a diplomatic goal. They probably gave Mr. Obama the idea. But the Gipper understood the practical limits of arms control in delivering such a world, and Messrs. Shultz and Kissinger are hard-headed enough to know that global rogues must be contained if we are going to have any hope of a nuclear-free future.

Mr. Obama recognized this rogue proliferation threat in his Prague address, but to counter it he offered only more treaties of the kind that are already ignored. OK, not merely more treaties. Two days earlier in Strasbourg he also vouchsafed the power of his own moral example.

“And I had an excellent meeting with President Medvedev of Russia to get started that process of reducing our nuclear stockpiles, which will then give us a greater moral authority to say to Iran, don’t develop a nuclear weapon; to say to North Korea, don’t proliferate nuclear weapons,” Mr. Obama said, implying that previous American Presidents had lacked such “authority.”

The President went even further in Prague, noting that “as a nuclear power — as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon — the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” That barely concealed apology for Hiroshima is an insult to the memory of Harry Truman, who saved a million lives by ending World War II without a bloody invasion of Japan. As for the persuasive power of “moral authority,” we should have learned long ago that the concept has no meaning in Pyongyang or Tehran, much less in the rocky hideouts of al Qaeda.

The truth is that Mr. Obama’s nuclear vision has reality exactly backward. To the extent that the U.S. has maintained a large and credible nuclear arsenal, it has prevented war, defeated the Soviet Union, shored up our alliances and created an umbrella that persuaded other nations that they don’t need a bomb to defend themselves.

The most dangerous proliferation in the last 50 years has come outside the U.S. umbrella on the South Asian subcontinent, where India and Pakistan want to deter each other. No treaty stopped A.Q. Khan. Meanwhile, the world’s most conspicuous antiproliferation victories in recent decades were the Israeli strike against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plant at Osirak, and the U.S. toppling of Saddam and the way it impressed Libya’s Moammar Ghadafi.

All of which means that any serious effort at nonproliferation has to begin with North Korea and Iran. They are the urgent threat to nuclear peace, the focus of years of great-power diplomacy and sanctions. U.N. resolutions have formally barred both countries from developing an atomic bomb and the missiles to deliver them. If Iran acquires a bomb or North Korea retains one despite this attempt to stop them, then the world will conclude that there is no such thing as an enforceable antinuclear order. It will be every nation for itself.

In the Middle East, a Shiite bomb will send the region’s Arab nations scurrying to Pakistan to get a Sunni weapon. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and perhaps even Iraq will be in the market for a deterrent. The Turks — long a power in the region but wondering if NATO membership is enough protection — will also seek to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile, Japan will increasingly wonder if Americans would really risk an attack on themselves in order to protect Tokyo. The nightmare imagined by strategists at the dawn of the atomic age in the 1950s, with every major nation getting the bomb, will be that much closer.

Mr. Obama is a brilliant talker, and his words thrilled a Europe that wants to believe he can conjure peace and a nuclear-free world. But note well how little the Europeans answered the President’s call for more troops in Afghanistan, much less any help in stopping a nuclear Iran. Mr. Obama is offering pleasant illusions, while mullahs and other rogues plot explosive reality.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  Published April 7, 2009.  Reprinted here April 9, 2009.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at


Nuclear proliferation is a term used to describe the spread of nuclear weapons to nations which are not recognized as "nuclear weapon States" by the United Nations' Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT. Proliferation has been opposed by many nations with and without nuclear weapons, the governments of which fear that more countries with nuclear weapons may increase the possibility of nuclear warfare (up to and including the so-called "countervalue" targeting of civilians with nuclear weapons), de-stabilize international or regional relations, or infringe upon the national sovereignty of states. (from