As President Obama summons all his imagination and energy to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a reminder of something even worse may seem unhelpful. But the brute fact is that if Osama bin Laden succeeds in exploding one nuclear bomb devastating the heart of one of our great cities, historians will note that “meltdown” in financial or economic affairs was just a metaphor.
Could the global nuclear order today be as fragile as the American-led global financial order was a year ago — when Wall Street “masters of the universe” assured us that all was well?
In fact, the architecture that has for four decades held back powerful pressures for the proliferation of nuclear weapons is shaky. As the recent report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism concluded, our margin of safety against WMD terrorism is “shrinking, not growing,” and a terrorist WMD attack is more likely than not somewhere in the world in the next five years.
President Obama rightly identifies nuclear terrorism as “a threat above all others.” The good news is that this is the ultimate preventable catastrophe. In the campaign President Obama articulated an ambitious agenda of actions that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11 to nearly zero. None of these will happen easily or automatically.
Even in the midst of current exigencies, President Obama must preserve a slice of mindshare to drive this agenda.