Argument

The Final Failure

This is no time for either President Obama or the GOP to forget the threat of nuclear weapons.

In the decade since Osama bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks, U.S. security policy has centered on al Qaeda and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- fueled by a deep and bipartisan concern that a terrorist group might acquire the means to strike again, this time perhaps with nuclear weapons.

Although al Qaeda, Iraq, and Afghanistan still present major challenges, their decade of dominance over U.S. security policy is at an end -- broken by an increasingly successful effort to destroy al Qaeda's ability to target the United States, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, and the Obama administration's commitment to turn security in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government by 2014. A new set of challenges is emerging to occupy the attention of U.S. policymakers: reducing instability in Pakistan; rebuilding the American and global economies; advancing the U.S.-China relationship; making progress on global energy and climate policy; enhancing cybersecurity; and most recently, managing the risks and opportunities presented by the Arab Spring.

As this new set of challenges unfolds over the next decade, American leaders must increase their focus on what remains a vital U.S. national interest: nuclear threat reduction. As the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign inevitably creates an increasingly acrid partisan atmosphere, it is incumbent on all leaders to maintain a nonpartisan approach to reducing nuclear dangers.

There have been bipartisan successes in combating nuclear threats under the past four U.S. presidents -- two Democrats and two Republicans. Thousands of nuclear weapons, along with their missiles and launchers, were removed and dismantled from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely; a comprehensive global ban on nuclear testing was concluded (though ratification by key states, including the United States, is still necessary for the treaty to enter into force); A.Q. Khan's illicit trafficking in nuclear weapons designs, technologies, and materials was shut down; the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict trade in weapons of mass destruction was launched; and the United States and Russia enacted the New START agreement, which reduced nuclear stockpiles further.

Yet even with these important steps -- along with the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, the weakening of al Qaeda, and the drive to "reset" relations with Russia -- the amount of nuclear tinder that remains in the world today could still ignite a calamity of historic proportions, one that would change our world forever. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, recently stated that a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb -- somewhat smaller than the one dropped on Hiroshima -- detonated in Midtown Manhattan could kill a half-million people and result in $1 trillion in direct economic damage.

The nuclear bottom line remains ominous. The spread of nuclear weapons and know-how continues in unstable regions where the potential for conflict is high -- including Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East -- and in countries like North Korea and Iran that threaten the United States and its friends and allies. Even with the Cold War now 20 years behind us, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of strategic nuclear weapons on high alert and tactical nuclear weapons throughout Europe, unnecessarily heightening the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken nuclear use, and of terrorist groups acquiring a weapon or dangerous nuclear material.

During the last two U.S. presidential elections, both the Republican and Democratic nominees recognized the nuclear danger and agreed on the broad outlines of a response. In 2004, when asked during the first presidential debate to identify the most serious threat to U.S. security, both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry were unequivocal: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possible use of these weapons by terrorists. In 2008, both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama embraced the policy framework outlined in two Wall Street Journal essays by national-security wise men George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn. These articles called for a global effort to pursue practical steps that would reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world.

Can this consensus hold during the 2012 presidential campaign? As non-incumbents in 2008, both McCain and Obama were able to lay claim to this new, nonpartisan, nuclear policy initiative by senior American statesmen. Now that Obama has adopted this approach, his eventual opponent will likely face pressure to differentiate himself or herself from the president by finding fault in his policies. One can already predict the political arguments that might be used against Obama -- too accommodating to the Russians on New START and missile defense, too unrealistic to pursue steps toward a world free of nuclear arms.

A partisan political debate over nuclear threat reduction would not be without costs. If such a debate unfolds over the next 18 months, nuclear nonproliferation initiatives could be put on hold and the nonpartisan foundation built over the past four administrations could be dangerously eroded.

What will it take to avoid such an outcome? First, Obama must continue to lead -- as only the president can. He will have the opportunity to do so when he meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this fall and when he hosts the NATO summit in Chicago next May. At those events, he can advance U.S. and NATO cooperation with Russia on missile defense, which represents a potential game-changer in Euro-Atlantic security. He can also press for a reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, whose continued deployment provides more opportunities for terrorists than it does security for either Washington or Moscow.

Second, leaders in both parties should encourage their presidential candidates to underscore the continuing need for a nonpartisan approach to reducing nuclear threats. While it's unreasonable to expect complete agreement on every point, the public deserves a debate whose goal is not to score political points, but to focus solely on reducing nuclear threats to the American people.

Too much to ask? Not if we expect to act with the urgency necessary to avoid what President John F. Kennedy once referred to as "the final failure."

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Train Wreck in Turtle Bay

Palestinian leaders are headed for a dangerous confrontation at the U.N. that will only leave everyone worse off. Can anyone stop this runaway train?

Late September is fast approaching, and the stage seems set for yet another crisis in the Middle East. Palestinian leaders are determined to push for greater international recognition of their state at the upcoming annual session of the U.N. General Assembly. A large number of countries are reportedly poised to vote in Palestine's favor, much to the chagrin of the Israeli government, which has mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign against recognition.

A Palestinian state is long overdue. But though the Palestinian people are perfectly entitled to seek bilateral and multilateral recognition, their action at the United Nations could lead to a dangerous diplomatic confrontation. Palestinians might ask the Security Council for full U.N. membership, which would be vetoed by the United States, or take other actions in the General Assembly that would place it and its allies at odds with the United States, Israel, and major Western powers.

I just returned from the region, where I was struck by the complacent attitude about September among Palestinians, who, despite heightened public expectations, believe they are simply pursuing a diplomatic process that will strengthen their hand at the negotiating table. In contrast, the Israelis seem to regard it as a major national crisis. Both parties, however, are taking security measures in anticipation of possible unrest.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insists that he prefers negotiations and is not seeking a confrontation, while Israel continues to mobilize opposition to any U.N. initiative. Each side is focusing on Europe, which for its own strategic reasons wants to avoid a split vote but seems so far unable to reach a consensus. The United States has made clear its intention to veto any Palestinian application for full U.N. membership in the Security Council, and it opposes any other U.N. initiative.

A diplomatic confrontation is not in the interest of any party. For Israel, it could prompt an outburst of public anger and possible violence in the occupied territories that would be a security challenge at home and deepen its growing isolation abroad. For Palestinians, it could mean a return to more restrictive forms of control by Israeli occupation authorities, more checkpoints and roadblocks, as well as other forms of retaliation, including punitive economic measures. For the United States, it risks bringing back traditional anti-American sentiment front and center to Arab political discourse at a time when the country has been increasingly perceived as a positive force standing with the people against dictators.

The need for a compromise is more urgent than ever. The United States, through the Middle East Quartet, is engaged in intense efforts to find a formula to resume negotiations. It is not beyond hope or diplomatic skill to find broadly acceptable language for a resolution that acknowledges the Palestinian right to statehood. A diplomatic confrontation with potentially far-reaching implications on the ground remains a distinct possibility, however. No matter what happens at the U.N., it is important for all parties to start planning for the day after.

The first priority must be to prevent a flare-up of violence, which could extract a catastrophic human cost and set back the prospects for a two-state solution. Only extremists would benefit, and the United States will be blamed and inevitably be drawn into such confrontations.

The best counterweight to chaos is security cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces. Over the last two years, this cooperation has reached unprecedented and by all accounts -- whether Palestinian, Israeli, or American -- exemplary levels. Security cooperation is as much in the Palestinian interest as it is in Israel's, because providing law and order is the sine qua non of governance. This cooperation must be preserved, requiring continued support for the Palestinian security services and a commitment to its integrity and its officers' morale. It will also require deploying American diplomatic and security assets on the ground to ensure that security cooperation is insulated from the diplomatic and political grandstanding that would inevitably follow a showdown at the U.N.

Once the dust from any potential diplomatic crisis settles, achieving a two-state solution will continue to be an American, Israeli, and Palestinian national security imperative. A peace agreement will require serious Israeli and Palestinian partners, which is why the collapse of the Palestinian Authority is not in American or Israeli interests. Nor will a deterioration of living conditions among Palestinians serve the cause of peace and moderation. Just look at Gaza.

Over the last two years, the Palestinian institution-building program has contributed to maintaining stability and prosperity. Crucially, it has created a vehicle through which progress between Palestinians and Israelis can continue even when diplomacy falters. This avenue should not be closed at this sensitive time when emotions are high, even if negotiations seem out of reach in the short term. That requires having the wisdom to see past diplomatic and political disagreements and instead build on what has been achieved by the Palestinians with international, and indeed Israeli, cooperation.

Palestinians have been steadily decreasing the amount they need from donors in recent years and are set to institute a program of austerity to help protect themselves from the vicissitudes of foreign-aid delivery and the changing attitudes of donor countries. The international community should match this responsible policy with a correspondingly defined and dependable delivery of aid.

The U.S. Congress can demand, and should secure, continued strict and transparent accountability for Palestinian finances. But cutting funding to the Palestinian Authority, or to international and U.N. agencies that operate in Palestinian areas -- as some in Congress are now threatening to do -- would contribute to an atmosphere of tension on the ground and play directly into the hands of extremist groups and their regional sponsors. Continuing support for the Palestinian institution-building program would maintain a much-needed anchor that can offset the potential negative impact of events in September, until meaningful negotiations again become possible.

Any cutoff of funds that threatens the important gains of the Palestinian institution-building program, which has done so much to improve the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories -- or the security services, whose cooperation with Israeli forces has ensured law and order and greatly curtailed terrorism -- would not only punish Palestinians. It would also raise tensions, play into the hands of extremists, and create a far more serious "day-after" problem for Israel and the United States as well. Simply put, it would be a mistake that would make a difficult situation for all parties not only more difficult, but potentially unmanageable.

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images