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Did Obama's nuclear conference make us more safe?

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By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C.–Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration undertook domestic security and foreign policy decisions to cope with the threat to American interests we understood to have emerged: colored threat levels, airport security changes, the provisions of The Patriot Act at home, and better intelligence coordination and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad.  People asked rhetorically and/or ironically, “Are we safe yet?”
 
President Obama’s nuclear materials summit begs the same question. He says we are.
 
In an odd story, The Washington Post reported that for four hours the President led a nuclear threat reduction seminar. [Because, according to The Post, "He's never better than when he's the teacher, a European diplomat said." And because he has the most extensive knowledge of the nuclear issue and foreign policy, we presume.] During that time, only heads of state and two senior aides were permitted in the room, ensuring that everyone heard only what he/she wanted to hear and that follow-up will be almost impossible, even if anyone is so inclined.
 
Canada, Ukraine and Mexico were hailed for their decision to better secure or give up their highly enriched uranium. There was a whisper that Chinese Premier Hu Jin-tao used the word “sanctions,” but it couldn’t be confirmed because the press was largely shut out of the proceedings and there were no press conferences-only prepared handouts. The Chinese vice foreign minister did say China was “open to ideas” on dealing with Iran, which may mean ideas other than sanctions. The Soviets- oops, the Russians-looked perfectly happy with their new, special place in the international firmament, while Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, NATO aspirant and Russia’s bête noir, didn’t get any face time with Mr. Obama.
 
What wasn’t on the table was more dangerous than what was.
 
The proliferators, the rogues, the nuclear weapons seekers and builders, the countries making overt threats and covert deals-Syria, Iran and North Korea-weren’t in the room. Pakistan, straddling the world’s great divide between Islamic fundamentalist violence and democratic institution-building, insisted on the right to do whatever it wanted with its nuclear material. The relationship between terrorists (including those who seek nuclear material) and the state sponsors of terrorism-many of whom were in the room-was never mentioned.
 
Nuclear material is not the only means for terrorists to cause large-scale destruction and mayhem. Chemical and biological weapons are easier to get and to use. Non-nuclear armed cruise missiles can devastate cities. Our ports and freight rail terminals are largely unprotected.
 
And speaking of cruise missiles and unprotected ports, a Russian company has announced the “Club-K container missile system.” The Club-K, according to the company’s own video, is four cruise missiles packed inside what appears to be a standard 40-foot civilian shipping container. It mounts on a ship, a freight train or a tractor-trailer. Until the top opens and the canisters rise, it could be anything. The company’s video can be seen on YouTube here.
 
The cruise-missile-in-a-box may in fact not be all it says it is-it wouldn’t be the first time. But it is a serious reminder that for all the posturing of 47 countries signing mushy, non-binding statements, there are real threats and real threatening countries out there. Securing Canadian fissile material is fine, but China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea-and their friends-are where the attention of the United States and its democratic friends and allies ought to be focused.

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Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member

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