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Was Obama Nuke Summit Necessary or Just “Nuclear Alarmism”? And What About Israel’s Arsenal?

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President Obama concluded an international summit on nuclear security in Washington, DC Tuesday after securing pledges from dozens of nations to eliminate or safeguard all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. We speak with political science professor, John Mueller, author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, and John Steinbach, who has studied Israel’s nuclear weapons program. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: President Obama concluded an international summit on nuclear security in Washington, DC Tuesday after securing pledges from dozens of nations to eliminate or safeguard all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. The final statement from the forty-seven-nation summit agreed on a voluntary action plan to combat nuclear terrorism and promised greater efforts to block non-state actors from obtaining the building blocks for nuclear weapons. But the final communiqué glossed over whether to continue making weapons-grade uranium and plutonium and came up with no legally binding commitments or any mechanism to enforce the measures. In his closing remarks Tuesday, President Obama called for a, quote, “bold and pragmatic” effort and highlighted the, quote, “urgency” and seriousness of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today we are declaring that nuclear terrorism is one of the most challenging threats to international security. We also agree that the most effective way to prevent terrorists and criminals from acquiring nuclear materials is through strong nuclear security, protecting nuclear materials and preventing nuclear smuggling.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The two-day meeting is the largest international gathering hosted by an American administration since 1945. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to attend at the last minute, and Iran, Syria and North Korea were not invited to the summit.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the nuclear security summit, we’re joined by John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University. He’s the author of Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and the book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. He joins us from Columbus, Ohio.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Professor, lay out your criticism of what took place, this largest gathering of world leaders held by the United States since FDR.

JOHN MUELLER: Well, much of it, I think, is fine. Locking up fissile material, the uranium and plutonium, is certainly a worthy objective. But what I object to is sort of this sense that there’s this huge urgency. Terrorists are extraordinarily unlikely to be able to get a nuclear weapon, and certainly not in any time soon. As far as I can see, it’s about the same likelihood as the United States being hit by an asteroid, something like that, maybe one in three-and-a-half billion, to put it together. It’s very difficult.

So — and I’m also concerned about the general hype over nuclear weapons, and I’m afraid that’s going to be focused increasingly on Iran, in which, in order to worry about a worst-case fantasy in which Iran would somehow dominate the Middle East with the occasional nuclear weapon, we would launch military strikes which would kill tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, the same policy, of course, which was applied to Iraq in the ’90s and now in this century.

AMY GOODMAN: But Professor Mueller, why is it so hard for groups to get so-called “loose” nukes?

JOHN MUELLER: Well, mainly because they don’t exist. No one has really been able to find anything that’s a loose nuke. If you did actually buy or sell — buy or steal a nuclear weapon, what you’d find is that it’s got a lot of locks on it, and there’s very few people who know how to unlock it. In the case of Pakistan, for example, they keep their weapons in pieces, so you’d have to steal or buy one half, find — go to another secure location and buy or steal the other half, somehow know how to put tab A into slot B, and set it off. The number of people — as I say, the number of people who know how to set them off is very small. The people who designed them are not — do not know how to set them off. And the people who maintain them do not know how to set them off. So just getting the bombs — and they also have locks on them which will, if tampered with, will cause a conventional explosion, which will cause the weapon itself to self-destruct, effectively, in a conventional explosion. So the danger is extraordinarily small, it seems to me.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And John Mueller, you also say that terrorists exhibit only a limited desire to obtain these nuclear weapons, which goes contrary to what most intelligence reports are telling us. Why do you say that?

JOHN MUELLER: Well, I looked at those intelligence reports, and, of course, Obama said the same thing. The indication of interest is extraordinarily small. There is some interest. They sort of think about it. They have thought about it from time to time. But, for example, in Afghanistan, when there were some hotheads among al-Qaeda who wanted to develop weapons of mass destruction, mostly like chemical weapons, which actually aren’t weapons of mass destruction, bin Laden basically approved it but didn’t put any money into it. When they were — when they left Afghanistan after the invasion in 2001, we got a computer which indicated that their entire budget for weapons of mass destruction, mainly primitive work on chemical weapons, was about $2,000. And since that time, they certainly haven’t been in better position. There’s no indication they have anything resembling a competent technology team that could put anything together, maybe not even chemical weapons, much less nuclear ones.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I want to turn to what President Obama had to say at yesterday’s news conference when he was asked about Israel’s nuclear program. He was questioned by Scott Wilson of the Washington Post.

    SCOTT WILSON: You have spoken often about the need to bring US policy in line with its treaty obligations internationally to eliminate the perception of hypocrisy that some of the world sees —-


    SCOTT WILSON: —- toward the United States and its allies. In that spirit and in that venue, will you call on Israel to declare its nuclear program and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty? And if not, why wouldn’t other countries see that as an incentive not to sign onto the treaty that you say is important to strengthen?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, Scott, initially you were talking about US behavior, and then suddenly we’re talking about Israel. Let me talk about the United States. I do think that as part of the NPT, our obligation as the largest nuclear power in the world is to take steps to reducing our nuclear stockpile, and that’s what the START treaty was about, sending a message that we are going to meet our obligations.

    And as far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program. What I am going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT. So there’s no contradiction there.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was President Obama speaking yesterday at the news conference. Well, last year, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas pressed Obama on nuclear weapons in the Middle East in a clear reference to Israel. The President tried to ignore that part of her question.

    HELEN THOMAS: Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and — are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think that Pakistan — there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke, as he is traveling throughout the region, is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations and that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens.

    With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger. And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, in addition to John Mueller, we’re also joined from Washington, DC by author and activist John Steinbach, who just wrote a paper on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, published by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John Steinbach. Can you talk about what President Obama has said in those two clips we just played and your paper on Israel’s nuclear weapons program?

JOHN STEINBACH: Yes. Good morning.

Well, we need to go all the way back to the early 1970s, when it became obvious that Israel had a nuclear weapons program and, in fact, by then had perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons. It became a difficult political situation, and Nixon met with Prime Minister Golda Meir, and they made a deal. And the deal was that the United States would stop pressing Israel about its nuclear weapons program, and in return, that Israel would never acknowledge publicly that it had nuclear weapons. So this policy has continued to this very day. And when Obama talks about Israel’s — not wanting to speculate about Israel’s nuclear arsenal, everybody knows that this is — that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal. Hans Blix last year said everybody knows Israel has about 200 nuclear weapons. It’s not a secret.

AMY GOODMAN: John Steinbach, what about the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, not showing up at this largest gathering of world leaders since FDR that’s hosted by the United States?

JOHN STEINBACH: Well, the excuse was that if he went there, that he would be questioned by Israel — by Egypt and Turkey about the nuclear weapons program. But Israel has been challenged in every conceivable international venue by Turkey, Egypt and many, many other nations in the world. This is nothing new. The world knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. Ehud Barak last year let loose that it has the nuclear weapons.

We have incontrovertible evidence, because Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear technician, back in 1986 released several hundreds of photographs to the Sunday London Times. It was examined by Frank Barnaby and Ted Taylor, high-ranking Manhattan Project scientists. They concluded twenty-five years ago that Israel had a hundred sophisticated nuclear weapons. And Frank Barnaby said they had the hydrogen bomb. So I think that it speaks for itself.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And John Steinbach, you write that Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region provides the impetus for other nations in the region to — the impetus for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Explain that.

JOHN STEINBACH: Well, let me give you an example. About eighteen months ago, the Arab League had a meeting, and they made a public statement saying that if Israel ever publicly acknowledges that it has nuclear weapons, that the Arab League would be forced to develop its own nuclear weapons. And Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, immediately took exception to that and took the Arab League to the woodshed. And he said, “Look, you know, everybody knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. We want Israel to acknowledge their nuclear arsenal. We want Israel to bring that to the table. And we want to proceed to negotiate a nuclear-weapons-free treaty in the Middle East. And unless Israel acknowledges its program and comes to the table, that’s not going to happen.” And statements such as the Arab League made are not helpful.

And I think we need to contrast this situation, this absurd situation. All the nations in the Middle East have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, which is technically not part of the Middle East, has also signed it. Iran, over the last ten years, has undergone the most intensive scrutiny by the IAEA of any nation in the entire world. And in the meantime, on the basis that it might be trying to acquire nuclear weapons, in the meantime, you have Israel that not only has hundreds of nuclear weapons, but it has a very powerful, very sophisticated delivery system that includes submarines, missiles and bombers.

AMY GOODMAN: John Mueller, do you think that the gathering in Washington, this largest gathering the US has ever hosted of world leaders since FDR, was completely unproductive? You say that countries, not to mention groups, will not use nuclear weapons. The US used nuclear weapons, right? They bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

JOHN MUELLER: Yeah, I don’t think it’s completely unproductive, but what it does is sort of speed up a process that’s been going on for at least twenty years — in fact, many, many years, in fact, sixty years. That is, to make sure that nuclear weapons are secure and the materials that you need to make a nuclear weapon are also secure. It’s not a very complicated process. It will take a while. It’ll take a remarkably small amount of money, overall. And I think that’s basically good.

I think the probability that a terrorist could get or make a nuclear weapon is extremely small. But inexpensive measures to make that probability even lower are fine with me. What I’m concerned about is expensive measures to do so — for example, starting wars against Iraq or Iran, or doing things like inspecting every cargo ship, every container that comes into the United States, which is an extremely expensive process in itself, plus the disruption to the economy. So minor efforts to reduce the probably are fine, and some of that’s going to come out of this summit.

Can I add one thing, by the way, about the Obama statement this morning that’s really quite remarkable? He said basically that we can’t do anything about the situation between Israel and Palestine until they get their act together. And that’s one of the most realistic things I ever heard by a president say. Basically, it’s hopeless, and maybe we should just sort of let it — stop bashing their head against that particular wall for a while and let the two parties try to work things out. If not, there are other things to worry about.

AMY GOODMAN: John Mueller, I want to thank you for being with us, political science professor at Ohio State University. His book, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. And John Steinbach, longtime activist and nuclear expert, published a paper on Israel’s nuclear weapons program for the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

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