Obama is meeting with 47 other heads of state to confront nuclear security—the largest gathering of leaders in the U.S. since 1945. Peter Beinart on the no drama, un-Bush summit.
Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, the nuclear summit bores me. At the health-care summit, the prospect of President Obama body-slamming Eric Cantor kept me on the edge of my seat. Even at the beer summit, there was the tantalizing whiff of ill will. The nuclear summit, by contrast, lacks the essence of good drama: conflict. Dozens of the world’s sanest and most benign leaders are descending on Washington to declare their resolve never to let Osama bin Laden get his hands on a nuclear weapon. Ahmadinejad won’t be there; Chavez won’t be there; Netanyahu has pulled out. Even the anarchists aren’t showing up. Almost makes you wish bin Laden were around for a rebuttal.
Once upon a time, the war on terror was the greatest show in American politics. The terrorists were the Nazis and communists all rolled up into one, and in defeating them, we were going to transform the world. As White House speechwriter Matthew Scully declared after George W. Bush’s September 14, 2001 address at the National Cathedral, “No more stilted generational summonses, no more made-up ‘callings.’ Here, finally, was the real thing—a real calling with real heroism.” Bush’s National Security Strategy declared that “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century.”
While Bush was busy being Churchill, Truman, and Reagan all wrapped into one, he often neglected the dull, necessary stuff.
Now the great ideological conflict is making sure China revalues its currency. Obama utters the words “war on terror” about as often as he utters the words “John Edwards” and his new National Security Strategy will reportedly ditch even the term “Islamic extremism.”
• Mark McKinnon: Will Bush Be the Next Truman? Conservatives, of course, believe Obama is waving the white flag. But the boring truth about the war on terror is this: Boring works. Defining the struggle against jihadist terrorism as the great ideological conflict of our age alienates the vast Muslim majority, which sees the terrorists as a pernicious, loony fringe. Invading Iraq inflamed anti-Americanism and wasted vast time and money. And while Bush was busy being Churchill, Truman, and Reagan all wrapped into one, he often neglected the dull, necessary stuff. He created the Department of Homeland Security on the back of a cocktail napkin to give the Republicans an issue in the 2002 midterms, and then didn’t do the work to help it function. His policies in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay made it harder for foreign governments to cooperate with the U.S. in nabbing and locking up terrorists. And he repeatedly underfunded the Nunn-Lugar initiative designed to secure loose nuclear materials around the world.
Now Obama is doing dull in a big way. He’s not merely boosting funding for securing nuclear materials; he’s bringing together leaders from Kazakhstan to Korea to cooperate on the issue more effectively. It makes banking regulation look sexy, but it’s actually important because it does little good for America to allocate money to secure other countries’ nuclear materials if those countries won’t let us verify how the money is being spent. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi wrote a few years back, “The first challenge [in better securing nuclear material] is to forge new relationships with countries” like Russia and Pakistan, where deep distrust toward the United States has limited our nuclear cooperation. Since taking office, Obama has improved relations with governments in both Moscow and Islamabad, and the nuclear summit is aimed at converting those better feelings into better cooperation on the ground.
In building the partnerships and expertise that will make it harder for terrorists to build a bomb, while describing al Qaeda as bunch of deranged losers rather a world-historical force, Obama is fighting the war on terror the way it should have been fought from the beginning. Hallelujah. Now can I please stop paying attention?
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.