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Obama’s Baby Steps Forward

Photo Credit Washington Post

Photo Credit Washington Post

President Obama spoke in Berlin this week, and I have been waiting to listen to the speech, doing so this morning. Friends have been talking about Obama’s call for a new series of steps toward nuclear abolition. One friend, who is not an Internet user, called and left a voice mail message saying he hoped that Obama’s speech would generate new energy around nuclear abolition within Veterans for Peace. I don’t know about that. The speech was less than inspiring, even if filled with lofty ideas, many of which have been heard from this president before. Referring to the global AIDS initiative, Obama spoke about peace with justice,

“Peace with justice means meeting our moral obligations. [...] Making sure that we do everything we can to realize the promise– an achievable promise– of the first AIDS-free generation. That is something that is possible if we feel a sufficient sense of urgency.”

That last part, “a sufficient sense of urgency,” is always the problem in our consumer society, isn’t it? At the same time, we can’t ignore the president’s call for new energy around what threatens life as we know it— nuclear proliferation, a warming and increasingly polluted planet, and social injustice. Obama touched on all three in the speech.

The heavy lift of the New START Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation was a signature achievement of Obama’s first term. I was proud to have been part of the effort toward ratification. There was a sense in the conference calls with key State Department leaders, even shortly after Russia’s parliament ratified the treaty, that it was the last big thing regarding nuclear abolition for this president. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I heard it from people in a position to know.

Nuclear abolition matters, so it is important to consider the president’s announcement in Berlin, his plan to move forward in slowing nuclear proliferation. The U.S. will negotiate further reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons, by up to one third, with the Russian Federation; the U.S. will negotiate with Russia a reduction in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe; we must reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking; the U.S. will host a summit in 2016 to secure nuclear materials in the world; the administration will build support for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and the president called on all nations to begin negotiations on a treaty that ends the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. These are all continuations of previous administration policies: baby steps forward.

The day after the speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, posted an article in Foreign Policy titled, “Death by Cuts to a Thousand.” He wrote, “while (the president’s) remarks are overdue and welcome, the pace and scope of his proposals for further nuclear reductions are incremental at best and changes in the U.S. nuclear war plan are less than meets the eye.” I met Kimball in Washington in Fall 2009, and he is a key person among the non-governmental organizations that work on nuclear weapons issues. One suspects he was putting the best face on what was a disappointing policy announcement.

Despite this, as Kimball wrote in the article, “doing nothing in the face of grave nuclear weapons threats is not an option.” My work with others toward nuclear abolition will go on. It is a core part of working toward sustainability in a turbulent world.

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