A Nukes Guru Backs Obama

As the president hosts a nuclear security summit, his critics say he’s pursuing a policy of appeasement. But Sam Nunn, Cold Warrior and former senator, tells Lloyd Grove he’s a fan of Obama’s strategy.

04.12.10 11:49 PM ET

When it comes to safeguarding America’s military might, nobody out-patriots former Senator Sam Nunn.

As a center-right Democrat from Georgia—a state-of-the-art Cold Warrior who won four terms and retired in 1995 as chairman of the Armed Services Committee—Nunn’s national-security credentials would appear to be unassailable.

So it’s revealing that the 71-year-old Nunn, who remains a leading voice on global security issues and a certified wise man on all matters nuclear, is a fan of President Obama’s weapons reduction strategy.

“I think Reagan and Obama have similar visions,” said Nunn. “There’s a very interesting historical parallel between Reagan’s vision and what Obama has laid out.”

As 47 world leaders convened in Washington on Monday for the president’s nuclear-security summit, Nunn was quick to defend Obama against critics who have claimed, especially at last week’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, that he’s pursuing a policy of appeasement. They’ve also argued that the new START treaty with Russia—which requires each country to reduce its quick-launch missiles by a third, to 1,500 warheads apiece—threatens America’s safety.

Joseph Cirincione: Will Obama End the Nuclear Era?“What is the mission that you can’t accomplish with 1,500 warheads?” Nunn asked with a derisive laugh in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “There was a recent report in Scientific American that 100 warheads used by India and Pakistan against each other would kill 20 million people immediately, and would cause so much blockage of the sun with the debris in the atmosphere that over a period of several years, there would be as many as a billion people starving to death.”

Nunn went on: “Right now, if this treaty goes through and if every weapon is cut on both sides, we’ll have 3,000 basically on prompt launch. That doesn’t count the ones we’ve got in inventory. We’re starting with something like 20,000 weapons. What in the world would the critics want to do with that many weapons?”

Indeed—in what Liz Cheney and her cohorts will doubtless hear as blasphemy—Nunn said Obama has a lot in common with Ronald Reagan, who near the end of his presidency preached nuclear-arms reduction with the eventual goal of eliminating them from the planet.

“I think Reagan and Obama have similar visions,” said Nunn, who has joined with three other wise men—former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry—to advocate a future without nuclear weapons. “There’s a very interesting historical parallel between Reagan’s vision and what Obama has laid out. The difference here is that we’ve laid out a number of steps that Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, and myself have outlined and that the president has pretty much adopted. Back in the Reagan days, it was a vision without the steps. But they have to go together; otherwise, that vision will not become reality.”

Nunn is chief executive and, with Ted Turner, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on securing the global inventory of highly enriched uranium so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Last Tuesday, he and his fellow elder statesmen—the Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, if you will—trekked to the White House to discuss nuclear strategy with Obama and show him their new Michael Douglas-narrated documentary, Nuclear Tipping Point, which can be ordered at no charge from Nunn’s group.

It’s a scary movie, befitting a scary notion: What if crazed, suicidal zealots got their hands on a “loose nuke,” perhaps stolen from a nuclear power plant, or otherwise acquired fissile materials from a rogue state and learned how to make a weapon? How would a nation retaliate against terrorists with, as Nunn puts it, “no return address”—or protect itself from modern day kamikazes who, by definition, are undeterrable?

“There is a serious number of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium that are not being adequately protected, and some 40 countries have some type, in some quantity, of weapons-grade material,” Nunn said. “There’s still material missing that no one can account for in virtually all these countries, including ours. And the knowledge to make these weapons is widely disseminated around the globe now, at least to make rudimentary weapons. So all those things, in my view, spell the perfect storm…One city exploding, or even part of a city exploding with a crude weapon, would change the world as we know it.”

It’s a tad unsettling to hear Nunn spin out his Dr. Strangelove scenarios in the calm, prosaic tones of a crop report from his rural hometown of Perry, Georgia. “Well,” he said, by way of explaining his equability, “I’ve been working on this for a long time.”

Gone are those bygone days of duck and cover and Mutually Assured Destruction, when the Soviet Union and the United States were doing the mostly stabilizing dance of deterrence. “The chances of war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact have diminished,” Nunn said. “The chances of terrorists using a nuclear weapon have gone up. The chances of a group with no return address striking the United States or Russia have gone up.”

Nunn added: “The MAD doctrine needs reexamination, because the U.S. and Russia have more dangers from other sources than from each other. But we have not realized that…The force postures do not fully reflect a fundamental change in the threat. We still have thousands of weapons on quick launch on both sides, which makes any kind of accident or miscalculation much harder to correct before there’s a disaster.”

Even more troubling are the possibilities for mischief presented by the Internet—“if there was a group of sophisticated hackers from another country, or sophisticated non-state actors, that posed some type of simulated attack to confuse the system,” Nunn said. “That’s a danger that probably the U.S. and Russia would be better able to handle, but neither of us is perfect. And Pakistan, India, and other countries would have serious challenges dealing with a cyberattack.”

Of course, the constant jousting between India and Pakistan—which has refused American entreaties to stop the expansion of its weapons-making capabilities—a subject that was considered too divisive to put on the agenda this week in Washington, is a source of worldwide worry. So is the nuclear adventurism of North Korea and Iran. The nuclearization of Shiite Iran, Nunn said, would inevitably result not only in a response from Israel but also in the nuclearization of Sunni countries—more opportunities for miscalculation and catastrophe.

Nunn has not come to a final judgment on the details of the just-signed START treaty, but he said, “I certainly applaud the direction…My inclination would be positive.”

And what if the Senate failed to provide the necessary 67 votes to ratify the treaty? “I believe that treaty ratification is enormously important, and I think not ratifying would set back a lot of our efforts around the globe,” Nunn said. “If the Senate finds a problem with the treaty, I hope it’s something that can be cured with a reservation—and I hope it wouldn’t be fatal to the treaty itself….I think if the Senate goes really negative on this, it would be a severe blow to protecting America, and it would be a severe blow to cooperation—not only with Russia, but with many other countries.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.