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The Monitor's View

Nuclear summit can't ignore origins of conflicts

The nuclear security summit is a baby step toward total nonproliferation. But that worthy goal can't divert Obama's attention from the prime US role of resolving conflicts that create a desire for nukes.

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Cases in point:

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1. North Korea was recently caught aiding Syria in building a nuclear reactor. While Israeli war jets took out the Syrian plant, the US has yet to punish North Korea or do much more in thwarting its nuke-export business.

2. Obama could also do more to resolve a historic territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, which has led both countries to recently move toward increasing their production of weapons-grade nuclear material.

3. And Obama officials appear to hint that the US may need to accept Iran as a nation capable of wielding nuclear weapons in the Middle East. That is in sharp contrast to the successful effort of previous presidents to persuade Libya to give up its nuclear program.

Arms control begins with conflict control. And ever since World War I, the US has been the leader in preventing, controlling, or ending conflict.

Its latest challenge, since 9/11, has been to prevent another attack by Al Qaeda or its affiliates, and especially to disrupt those groups in trying to obtain nuclear material and know-how. While this has been successful so far using military and intelligence efforts, the larger task is persuading millions of Muslims to give up any active or tacit support for militant Islam. That effort requires a longer, broader responsibility to promote economic development, human rights, and peaceful democracy in the Middle East and beyond.

How much is Obama willing to commit to these larger tasks? The goal of safeguarding nuclear material in countries from Chile to Russia should not be confused with the need for a greater exercise of America’s “soft power,” or the artful but forceful persuasion to lessen the motives for conflict and to obtain nuclear weapons.

The first US president to propose a nuke-free world was Harry Truman, in 1946. After that, the US had to build up its nuclear arsenal to match and contain the Soviet Union’s. Following the end of the cold war in 1991, the US moved in tandem with Russia to decrease those weapons. But the contest really wasn’t over weapons but which country had the best system of governance. Communism lost – by its own inherent flaws.

That lesson of keeping the focus on deeper issues of ideas, motives, and fundamental truths must not be lost in Obama’s drive to rein in nukes.