The sounds of silence



To truly appreciate the right's reflexive hostility toward the current president, you only need marvel how conservatives have rendered themselves mute rather than utter any encouraging words about Barack Obama's efforts to secure loose nukes and thereby foil the murderous ambitions of our terrorist enemies.

By any objective measure, the president's 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit yielded a bounty of good news. Obviously, the two-day confab won't suddenly usher in a global paradise, nor will it magically persuade rouge nations such as Iran and North Korea to beat their swords into ploughshares. But anyone who is not trapped in an ideological bunker will welcome the news that all 47 nations have agreed to secure all loose nuke material within the next four years.

Among other things, Russia has agreed to shutter its last plutonium factory. America and Russia have jointly agreed to dispose of 68 metric tons of plutonium. Ukraine has agreed to eliminate its nuclear material. Chile has agreed to give up its nuclear stockpile, as has Mexico. All 47 nations have agreed to come up with specific work plans to secure the loose nukes, in order "to prevent non-state actors from obtaining the information or technology required to use such material for malicious purposes." And Sam Nunn, the former conservative Democratic senator and non-proliferation expert, has reportedly praised these developments, saying, "we are now closer to cooperation than catastrophe."

In a rational world, even conservatives would be mustering some words of praise, given the fact that any progress at all on this frightening issue is surely better than the perpetuation of inertia. After all, if a dirty bomb were to detonate in an American town, it would kill the birthers and the tea-partiers along with all the latte-sipping liberals. One might assume that any progress on a primal survival issue would be welcomed in a nonpartisan spirit, perhaps as a fleeting reminder of the old adage that politics stops at the water's edge.

But no. I have scoured the conservative sites, and monitored the various Republican leaders, and virtually all I'm hearing are the sounds of silence. Yes, they'd rather cough up hairballs or gargle nails than ever acknowledge that Obama was doing something good (such as, you know, trying to make Americans safer), but what kind of message are we to divine from their silence? That they are against these international efforts to foil al Qaeda's loose nuke pursuits?

If George W. Bush had pulled together 47 nations in this fashion, Republicans and conservatives would be lauding him this morning as a leader who's tough on terrorism. The message would be flooding my in-box, conservatives would be clamoring for cable TV bookings, and Sarah Palin would be etching a sentence on Facebook. By contrast, their current silence is probably due in part to the difficult challenge of finding a way to spin Obama's summit as evidence of softness. What are they to do?

Actually, a few people have breached the silence and tried to dismiss the good news as no big deal. One of them, however, is conservative firebrand Dick Morris, the former Clinton pollster who has never quite recovered from '96 scandal when he was found to have sucked the toes of a prostitute. Not exactly the best messenger for the anti-Obama camp. He showed up this morning on the Today show, to say that the loose nukes agreements aren't important, given the fact that Obama has been "totally ineffective" in stopping Iran's nuclear program.

Elsewhere, one Republican senator - John Kyl of Arizona - dismissed the summit as "nonbinding." (Kyl was correct; as Obama himself said yesterday, there is no "international 'one world' law enforcement mechanism." But would Kyl prefer that these nations had never met and had pledged nothing? And if an international "one world" law enforcement mechanism ever did exist, Republicans would be assailing it as a threat to American sovereignty.)

I also spotted a single blog post on The National Review's website, where a conservative foreign policy guy named Jamie Fly suggested yesterday that the summit was "nothing more than a talking shop," and that the actions of the 47 nations "are not accomplishments that require the time or pressure of an international summit to achieve." (Huh? How else would those agreements have been achieved?) Fly dismissed the accomplishments as "actions at the edges," and said that "if the president were serious about nonproliferation," (Huh? Obama isn't serious about nonproliferation?), he would get tough and make "real threats" to Iran and North Korea.

The rogue states are obviously troublesome, as they were during previous administrations. Obama is hardly pretending that those problems don't exist. He mentioned yesterday that stronger economic sanctions against the Iranians (which he is seeking) might conceivably dissuade them from pursuing nukes, but, on the other hand, "Sanctions aren't a magic wand. Unfortunately, nothing in international relations is...Progress (on all these issues) will be halting. And sometimes we’ll take one step forward and two steps back, and there will be frustrations.  And so it’s not going to run on the typical cable news 24/7 news cycle."

The bottom line is that Obama will be working on Iran and North Korea, trying to calibrate the most effective carrots and sticks, regardless of whether the 47 summit nations are locking down their loose nukes. Would the Iran and North Korea challenges somehow be more manageable if these nations were not securing their nukes? Is it not better to at least have some measurable global progress on an issue of life and death?

No wonder the Republican right has been so quiet. On this issue, there just isn't much to spin. I'll give the last word to Joe Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert and an old source of mine, who wrote of the loose-nukes summit, "Domestically, it is increasingly difficult for be against efforts to block a nuclear-armed al Qaeda. Republicans will have to decide whether to join in the effort and share in the win, or play the nuclear Neanderthals, frozen in a previous age."