America’s only nuclear-powered commercial ship sits in Baltimore harbor. It has not sailed in decades and likely never will again. That is what happens when a president cannot make up his mind.
The NS Savannah was the flagship project for President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, a public diplomacy blitz to convince the world that America was more interested in peace than war. The U.S. wanted to use its nuclear power for peaceful purposes, including a new generation of atom-powered merchant ships.
But the president never could decide the exact purpose for building the Savannah. To prove that “peaceful” atoms were perfectly safe, it would carry passengers and freight. That meant carving out room for cabins, and a promenade deck and pool.
Also, the White House wanted the ship to be an international goodwill ambassador. Thus, it was designed in such a way that it could visit ports small and large. And since it had to be a “civilian” project, the designers were barred from consulting the Navy — which had all the nation’s expertise and technology for constructing nuclear-power ships.
In the end, the Savannah was put to sea years late and way over budget. It proved to be an inefficient cargo ship and an uncomfortable cruise ship. The big picture was no better: Atoms for Peace did little to stem the nuclear-arms race.
Today, President Barack Obama’s approach to reducing nuclear threats seems much like Savannah revisited. Candidate Obama pledged to provide a “proven and cost-effective” missile defense. But once in office, he compromised with critics and cut missile defense by 15 percent.
After swearing to modernize our decaying nuclear arsenal, he subsequently promised that America would never build new nuclear weapons. He pulled out all the stops to push a nuclear arms-control agreement with Moscow though the Senate, but has spent virtually no political or diplomatic capital to slow Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear programs, nor has he shown any real interest in China’s increasingly ambitious military and nuclear programs.
And it looks like we can expect more of the same. Obama has indicated his next nuclear “initiative” will be to revive the moribund nuclear test ban treaty. He is also interested in negotiating with Russia for a joint reduction in tactical nuclear weapons (something that should have been done as part of the New START Treaty, when we still had leverage with Moscow). Also, the White House is reportedly interested in working out a missile defense agreement with the Russians.
Like Atoms for Peace, all these initiatives sound nice, but will do little to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Even if all these diplomatic initiatives are successfully concluded, the president will have accomplished little more than “lowering the bar” for determined bad actors such as North Korea that want to be future
White House ambivalence toward military might manifest in its bait-and-switch approach to defense budgeting. On the one hand, the president talks of investing $80 billion in nuclear “infrastructure” over the next decade.
On the other, his Office of Management and Budget reportedly has ordered the Pentagon to cut more than $80 billion from its budget. Such budgeting is like cutting boots to pay for bullets: In the end, it shamefully shortchanges the men and women asked to protect us.
For the past two years, Congress has done little more than rubber-stamp Obama’s ambivalent national security agenda. It remains to be seen whether the next Congress proves as indifferent as the last.
Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.