January 2, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Obama's Ship of Fools Foreign Policy Recalls Ike's Atoms for Peace Fiasco

America's only nuclear-powered commercial ship sits in Baltimore harbor. It hasn't sailed in decades and likely never will again. That's what happens when a president can't make up his mind. The N.S. (Nuclear Ship) Savannah was the flagship project for President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program -- a public diplomacy blitz to convince the world that America was more interested in peace than war. America wanted to turn its nuclear power to peaceful purposes, you see, 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 as well as freight. That meant carving out room for cabins, and a promenade deck, and a pool.

The White House also wanted the ship to be an international goodwill ambassador. Thus, it was designed on the small side so it could visit ports small as well as large. And because 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-powered ships

In the end, the N.S. Savannah 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 Obama's approach to reducing nuclear threats seems much like N.S. Savannah revisited. Candidate Obama pledged to provide a "proven and cost-effective" missile defense. But once in office, he compromised with missile defense critics and cut missile defense 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's also interested in negotiating will 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). The White House is also 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 like North Korea that want to be future serious threats.

White House ambivalence toward military might is 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 last 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.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner