President Barack Obama speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Dec. 14, 2015, after a meeting with the National Security Council about the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. DoD photo by Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
An assertion that could confidently be made about the Obama presidency is this: he would not order his strategic bombers to circle a hostile power as President Richard Nixon did nor would he wage a war impetuously like President George Bush Jr. did. Obama is simply too obsessed with his legacy to rush into wars. He may have messed up countries by his vacillation, sanctions and covert operations. But he has hesitated putting American boots on hostile ground because spilt American blood has blotted many presidential records. Obama is just too smart to add his name to that list.
In fact, Obama considers himself the smartest man in the world. And, conversely, his opinion of other leaders varies from assessing them as passable to ordinary. There are exceptions of course. He reveres the Pope, respects the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and is indulgent towards two of the younger lot of leaders – British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whom he also gives occasional advice.
With many other leaders, he is patient at best. Obama has another nine months to treat the world as he wishes. Then the world will sit in judgment on his achievements as the President of USA, or the lack of them. When that assessment is made, the outside world will not focus on his domestic record. That is for Americans to do. Foreign observers will tick-off the pluses and minuses on his slate based on the state of the world in January 2017.
That assessment might consider critically Obama’s major decisions and their impact on the world. And it will factor in aspects like his long pauses for reflection before every critical decision. It is true that leaders do, and should, introspect when considering issues that impact millions. But there is a thin line that divides the pause for reflection from indecision. Some allege that Obama’s pauses have stymied action. They add that his hesitations have ended up ceding crucial space to others; China has done so in the South China Sea, Pakistan in Afghanistan and Russia in Crimea and Syria. Still, there are areas where he deserves credit. On the plus side he should qualify for credit for some bold initiatives, thawing of relations with Cuba and Iran.
But public memory is short and Obama’s initiatives on Iran and Cuba, important though they are, may only be minor markers in a journey that had aimed to be far more ambitious. Obama had set lofty goals when he began his first term. As a matter of fact peoples’ expectations from him were pitched unrealistically high; some anointed him a messiah even before he had moved in to the White House. And he didn’t discourage this deification either; he liked being compared to American icons George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. In line with that heady feeling he declared that he would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he announced a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.
The world knows what has become of his promise regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. As far as the nuclear issue is concerned the world has never been more unsafe nor has the nuclear material been more vulnerable to bodies like the ISIS. Yet, the world was besotted with Obama in 2009. And an admiring world gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, in anticipation.
But to be fair to him, Obama did try. The Nuclear Security Summit was his initiative. After the first in Washington in 2010, two other summits were held – Seoul (2012) followed by Hague (2014). The fourth and the final summit are being held in Washington on March 31- April 1, 2016. India has been an enthusiastic participant at these summits; Dr Manmohan Singh attended two of them and gave 1 million dollars to its fund. Some progress has been made towards setting up institutions to promote awareness about the issue and a few more facilities have come under safeguards. But these are mini steps really, and it is not the kind of progress that the presidential pledge had promised in 2009. If anything, the situation today is more worrisome; the world is more nuclear unsafe now. Some of it may be due to less than fool-proof institutional mechanism, but the really dangerous dimension of the issue is threats from non-state actors. ISIS may be just one grab away from nuclear material.
Some reports suggest that ISIS has already used the chemical Sulphur mustard against Kurdish forces and a rival rebel group. If ISIS were to acquire unconventional weapons would it hesitate to use them?
The question then is how hard would it be for the ISIS to obtain nuclear material? It would be difficult but by no means impossible. ISIS is wealthier than any other terrorist group. It has more people, more territory, and a larger global network than al-Qaida ever had, and money talks in the black market for illicit goods. Tons of nuclear explosive material is scattered around the world in less-than-secure installations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintains a database that shows more than 2,000 reports of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials between 1993 and 2014.
Many are unaware that there was an incident many years ago at another plant where an insider brought explosives into a nuclear power plant that had not yet gone online, put the explosives on top of the steel pressure head, and detonated them. Fortunately, the plant had not been loaded with radioactive fuel at that stage. But it was a grim warning.
Take also the example of Belgium, the subject of recent terror attacks by ISIS. In August 2014 it found that someone had improperly opened a spigot to drain a turbine lubricant at its Doel Nuclear Reactor. The reactor seized and stalled, costing millions of dollars in damages and missed revenues.
In our neighbourhood, Pakistan combines having the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile with some of the world’s most capable terrorists – a nerve-jangling combination. To add to that it has developed a large number of tactical nuclear weapons. How secure are all these and how safe would India be from them is a question that time and destiny will dictate. Till then it might be prudent to keep our fingers crossed.
Scattered also in the world are large stockpiles of plutonium. Today there is more civilian plutonium separated from spent fuel in a form that could be used for nuclear weapons than in all the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile put together. In fact more than 100 metric tons have been produced since 1998, enough to build 20,000 nuclear weapons It is an amazing statistic. So far very little is being done either to reduce those stockpiles or limit the spread of places where plutonium is being used and handled. So that is the background against which the leaders would be gathering in Washington. Obama had set a high bar in 2009 when he said nuclear armed terrorism was “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He had promised then that he would lead an effort to lock down all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.
But close to the end of his second term, over seven years later, nuclear terrorism is a much greater threat and mountains of nuclear material continue to grow.
*Amb. Rajiv Dogra is the author of the book “Where Borders Bleed”. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org