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Multiple Agendas at the Nuclear Security Summit

The President continues to make progress at the nuclear security summit. Today he announced a trilateral agreement between the North American countries to convert Mexico’s nuclear reactor research away from highly-enriched, or weaponized, uranium. And the communique expected later today stressing commitments to nuclear security will get followed up with enforcement mechanisms to keep track of fissile material. But the real diplomatic victory at the summit, and to the more cynical perhaps the entire reason for the summit, can be seen in this announcement:

Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed in a face-to-face meeting with President Obama on Monday to pursue new economic sanctions against Iran, but stopped short of committing his government’s support for the additional strictures aimed at persuading Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In a 90-minute White House meeting, Hu told Obama that China and the United States “share the same overall goal on the Iranian nuclear issue,” said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu […]

U.S. officials portrayed the Hu-Obama meeting — held just hours before the beginning of a two-day summit on nuclear security — in positive terms.

“They’re prepared to work with us,” said Jeffrey Bader, a White House National Security Council official.

Getting the Chinese on the record for a sanctions regime was important to the White House. And the focus on nuclear security, while I believe it is genuine, certainly dovetails with punishing Iran, even though there remains no incontrovertible proof that they are prepping a weapons program.

It also gives the President an opportunity to use the N.T. phrase, which serves several national security desires.

President Obama said Tuesday that in a “cruel irony of history,” the threat of nuclear terrorism has increased even as the chances of a nuclear confrontation between nations has decreased.

In remarks that opened the second day of a nuclear summit among leaders from 47 nations, Obama called for a new global “mindset” in which governments move beyond talk and embrace action to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of al Qaeda and other terror groups.

“Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it,” he said. “Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world, causing extraordinary loss of life, and striking a major blow to global peace and stability.”

Speaking at the Washington Convention Center, Obama added: “In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security — to our collective security.”

Obama’s full remarks are here. While there’s no doubt that nuclear proliferation, including extremist access to nuclear materials, really is the greatest threat to global security – as John Kerry said all the way back in 2004 – there’s a fine line between expressing this and overhyping it for other ends. I fully support efforts to reduce the threat from loose nukes, as well as the goal expressed by the White House to rid the world of nuclear weapons – but I think we need to exercise care and caution when we talk about these matters. Especially after the “mushroom cloud” rhetoric that got us into our most recent unnecessary war.

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David Dayen

David Dayen