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In 1943, Walter Lippmann observed that the disarmament movement had been "tragically successful in disarming the nations that believed in disarmament." That ought to have been the final word on the subject.
So what should Mr. Obama, who this week becomes the first American president to chair a session of the U.N. Security Council, choose to make the centerpiece of the Council's agenda? What else but nonproliferation and disarmament. And lest anyone suspect that this has something to do with North Korea and Iran, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice insists otherwise: The meeting, she says, "will focus on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament broadly, and not on any particular countries."
But the problem with this euphemistic approach to disarmament, as Lippmann noticed, is that it shifts the onus from the countries that can't be trusted with nuclear weapons to those that can. Is Nicolas Sarkozy, with his force de frappe, about to start World War III? Probably not, though he has the means to do so. Should Mr. Obama join hands with Iran and the Arab world in pushing for Israel's nuclear disarmament, on the view that if only the Jewish state would set the right example its enemies would no longer want to wipe it off the map? If that's what the president believes, he should say so publicly, especially since he's offering the same general prescription for America's nuclear deterrent.
Of course what the administration wants is to set the right mood music for its upcoming talks with Iran. Mr. Obama would be better served having a chat with Moammar Gadhafi, who will be seated just a few chairs away at the Security Council: The mood music for his disarmament was set by the 4th Infantry Division when it yanked Saddam Hussein from his spider hole in December 2003. Col. Gadhafi gave up his WMD a week later.
Then again, it's not as if the administration doesn't know how to play hardball when it has a real villain in its sights. Like Chinese tire makers, for instance, who last week were slapped with a 35% tariff because Mr. Obama owed political favors to his friends in Big Labor. Quite something for a president who last year sounded off on the dangers of "trade policy [being] dictated by special interests."
In an op-ed in this newspaper, Brookings Institution economist Chad Bown noted that "the count of newly imposed protectionist policies like antidumping duties and other 'safeguard' measures increased by 31% in the first half of 2009 relative to the same period one year ago."
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is earning kudos from the Russian government for his decision to pull missile defense from central Europe, even as Poland marked the 70th anniversary of its invasion by the Soviet Union. Moscow is still offering no concessions on sanctioning Iran in the event negotiations fail, but might graciously agree to an arms-control deal that cements its four-to-one advantages in tactical nuclear weapons.