WASHINGTON — Even as President Barack Obama met Sunday with a succession of global leaders to discuss better control of nuclear materials, his administration highlighted a seemingly dissimilar message: The U.S. nuclear arsenal remains as strong as ever.
While Obama entertained foreign leaders at Blair House — shaking hands, bowing politely and posing for pictures — Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave interviews meant to reassert the nation's military strength. They indicated that the United States would spend $5 billion this year to modernize its existing nuclear weapons, which they said could be used if the country's security is in danger or in response to the threat of a biological attack.
"We'll be, you know, stronger than anybody in the world, as we always have been, with more nuclear weapons than are needed many times over," Clinton said on ABC's This Week.
It was a somewhat surprising launch into the two-day nuclear summit that begins today in Washington. More than 40 world leaders or their representatives are to meet to discuss the threat posed by the world's unsecured stocks of nuclear materials. The event will test Obama's diplomacy and his ability to strike a delicate balance. Progress in securing nuclear materials will enable him to gain international momentum toward the reduction in nuclear weapons he seeks, but at the same time he must reassure defense hawks that U.S. security will not be compromised.
On Sunday, that two-pronged strategy meant Obama spent four hours in intensive meetings at Blair House, talking with heads of state from India, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Pakistan. Today, he is to meet individually with heads of government from Armenia, China, Jordan, Malaysia and Ukraine before holding a working dinner with the leaders of the 46 delegations.
"The central focus of this nuclear summit is the fact that the single biggest threat to U.S. security — both short term, medium term and long term — would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said Sunday afternoon. "If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically and from a security perspective would be devastating. And we know that organizations like al-Qaida are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon — a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using."
Obama tried to reinforce his resolve during each of his meetings on Sunday, which lasted for about an hour. He touched on such topics as food security with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and economic policy with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, but the conversations circled back to nuclear terrorism. Obama shared his fears and sought ideas from his visiting counterparts, aides said.
In each meeting, Obama sat in the front row of the room, with advisers behind him. He was accompanied by Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and national security adviser James Jones.
Earlier in the day, Clinton had served in a different role, appearing with Gates on three major morning news shows to talk about U.S. nuclear strategy. Rather than being conciliatory or consensus-building in preparation for the summit, the two defended Obama against Republican attacks that the U.S. nuclear approach is too soft — a criticism that has increased since the president signed a treaty with Russia last week to reduce their deployed long-range warheads.
Gates said the United States is now "stronger, not weaker," in large part because of an increased focus on missile defense that includes more than $1 billion to be spent on the development of ground-based interceptors in Alaska. Also, he credited Obama for helping build worldwide pressure against Iran and North Korea, long perceived as nuclear threats. Iran, Gates said, is "not nuclear capable," but he added: "They are continuing to make progress on these programs."
"What has to happen is the Iranian government has to decide that its own security is better served by not having nuclear weapons than by having them," Gates said on NBC's Meet the Press. "It's a combination of more missile defense in the gulf to show them that any attack we can defend against and react against."
Clinton echoed this on This Week. Then, during an interview that aired only hours before she joined Obama to meet visiting dignitaries, she issued what sounded like a warning.
"Let no one be mistaken," she said. "The United States will defend ourselves and defend our partners and allies."