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Nuclear Terror: Obama’s Quiet War on Prejudice

by Paula Humphrey

The Obama administration has worked furiously in the past year to leverage new strategies against two primary threats: the illicit production of nuclear weapons, and their potential use by terrorists or “rogue” states. Arriving this week at the Eighth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the U.S. boasts a historical year of significant changes in the terrorism and nuclear realm. However, also important and less discussed, are the minor policy shifts that may indicate a broader change in U.S. diplomacy overall. One of the more remarkable of these is the decision to reframe the definition of the war on terrorism.

Last year, President Obama announced the formation of the Global Engagement Directorate, a move that at the time represented a small blip on the radar as more serious domestic issues dominated the news. This Directorate, led by Pradeep Ramamurthy, is gaining attention once again as it appears to be the body responsible for scratching “Islamic radicalism” from the text of the forthcoming U.S. National Security Strategy.

When Obama announced the formation of the Directorate, he indicated its purpose would be “to drive comprehensive engagement policies that leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance, and domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives, including those related to homeland security.”

It appears now, much to the ire of some observers, that this Directorate is quietly and effectively working to establish new policy by rewriting the description of the threat the U.S. most fears: terrorism. Couched in terms of homeland security, it also appears Obama is waging a quiet war on prejudice against Muslim nations.

The previous Bush doctrine outlined the battle thus: “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century and finds the great powers all on the same side – opposing the terrorists.” While the official language in the new Strategy document has not yet been made public – announcements from White House officials indicate it will be released within the next month – it is reported that the phrase “Islamic radicalism” will be removed. Taken as a whole, the phrase “militant Islamic radicalism” appropriately qualifies the statement such that most observers would conclude that this “ideological conflict” does not, in fact, apply to all people believing in Islam. Let us hope that the new Strategy will also strike the term “ideological conflict.” Who ever wins one of those?

Unfortunately, politicians cannot always be counted on to explain to the public that not all Muslims are terrorists. This is where the excellent and timely work of the Global Engagement Directorate comes in.

The Associated Press reported that the new Directorate “has not only helped change the vocabulary of fighting terror but also has shaped the way the country invests in Muslim businesses, studies global warming, supports scientific research and combats polio.” These projects closely follow the initial goals outlined by Obama when he announced the inception of the Directorate—in particular, the pursuit of development and assistance programs in the Middle East. It is an interesting approach, and one that will hopefully garner more trust between Muslim nations and the U.S. It might also aid in international cooperation in those countries where terrorists might be dwelling, cooperation which will be a vital component in the war on terrorism.

There are outliers. It is difficult to build international brotherhood when the radical element is given a voice. This is true of both the ultra-radical elements in the Middle East, and the largely prejudicial contingent in the U.S. Perfectly reflecting this trend in the U.S. is the recent hoopla over the Nuclear Security Summit logo. Fox News channel recently pointed to the striking resemblance between the Summit logo and the design of the crescent moon appearing on many Muslim countries’ flags. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart later revealed the designers’ intent—the Rutherford-Bohr Model of the atom. With this level of nitpicking and fear-based reporting on a major U.S. news outlet, it is not surprising that many are beginning to see a bit of weakness in U.S. relations with Muslim countries. This prejudicial trend is not new. When combined with the criticism the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have engendered, the current U.S. administration has been pushed to rethink its approach to the Muslim world.

It is no coincidence that the recent Nuclear Security Summit focused primarily on the threat from Al-Qaeda and nuclear terrorism, and relegated the Iran sanctions issue to the sidelines. The Iranian nuclear program represents a primary threat, and the U.S. administration surely recognizes it as such. However, by keeping the Summit’s focus on global nuclear terrorism as a human and international dilemma, Obama likely is working to redefine the U.S. position by expanding its focus to the larger picture. By extending the invitation to 46 nations, including prominent Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, Obama appears to be shifting the focus from an “ideological conflict” between the few to a global human concern among many. Also, by winning the support of a larger—and more diverse—group of nations, the likelihood that Iran will feel pressured to dispense with its nuclear program is much higher.

The Summit also represents the culmination of U.S. efforts related to nuclear issues in the last few months – the Department of Defense underscored the threat of nuclear terrorism in its Nuclear Posture Review, and both the U.S. and Russia signed the New START Treaty calling for a reduction in nuclear arms. These measures are an indication to the world community that the U.S. considers seriously all nuclear issues, including disarmament. Although from certain sides this may appear to be appeasing nations, it may additionally have worked to boost the image of the U.S. in advance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 2010 Review Conference this week.

At minimum, the actions of the U.S. in the past year lend greater legitimacy to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as she lambastes Iran for disobeying the fundamental tenets of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Paula Humphrey graduated from UCLA in 2004 with a B.A. in Russian Studies, and in 2009 from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a M.A. in International Policy and a Certificate in Nonproliferation. Her written work includes Issue Briefs for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Iran: June 2009 Elections and Nuclear Policy Implications,” and a co-authored piece entitled “Uranium Tailings in Central Asia: The Case of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
She currently works as a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and aspires to make her way back to Eastern Europe in the near future.

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