It has been almost four decades since Spiro Agnew warned us to beware of "nattering nabobs of negativism" (an oratorical gem that proved to be a genuine Safire). Yet we are just wising up to the greater peril we face now that the nabobs are aiming their nonstop natter at us via 24/7 cable news and an unfiltered world-wide web.
We know we must watch what the Talking Heads and Blogosphere-mongers say and write because it can be larded with dishonesty and hypocrisy. And just the other day we discovered we must also figure out a way to watch what they don’t say and write — because that’s yet another way they can commit blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy.
It happened after President Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev met and agreed on the importance of sharply reducing the nuclear arsenals of their two nations that account for 95 percent of the planet’s nuclear weapons. Then, in a speech in Prague, Obama declared his determination to work with world leaders to secure nuclear weapons and materials so they won’t fall into the hands of terrorists, to prevent further nuclear proliferation and move us all toward the goal of seeking "peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Faster than you can shout "Incoming!" we were assaulted by a barrage of babble. Some from the far right, others from just the plain right — and they seemed intent upon painting the ideas as some sort of fanciful notions of a liberal president who was, well, naïve.
On Fox News Sunday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared: "I just think that it’s very dangerous to have a fantasy foreign policy, and it can get you in enormous trouble." (Gingrich also said that as president he would have shot down that missile North Korea launched last Sunday; the one that failed and fell into the ocean, sans intervention.)
William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, sniffed in a Washington Post op-ed headlined "Nuclear Fantasy" that "to justify a world without nuclear weapons, what Obama would really have to envision is a world without war, or without threats of war." Just below his piece, Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a foreign policy specialist not known as a conservative ideologue, chimed in with a similar refrain, adding: "The rhetoric was Obama’s — and so was the idea."
No it was not. Obama’s idea and even much of his phrases came right out of the playbook of four icons of the world of nuclear policy — two of them having achieved their fame as conservative and hard-line policy-makers: former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (who served Presidents Nixon and Ford) and former Secretary of State George Shultz (who served President Reagan). In 2007, Kissinger, Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry (who served President Clinton) and former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn authored an historic op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, headlined "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."
The bipartisan quartet laid out a rationale heard around the world: "Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity. U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage — to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."
The prescriptions they presented in that op-ed and in a follow-on article they wrote in 2008 were the very prescriptions President Obama laid out in Europe. Indeed, Obama has frequently consulted Nunn, a leading global expert on a common sense nuclear policy.
Obama’s conservative critics knew all about Kissinger’s and Shultz’s views — but after all, mentioning their names wouldn’t be helpful in portraying Obama as being liberally naïve. Nor would this: Ronald Reagan famously endorsed the goal of moving toward a nuclear free world in his summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland.
Reagan urged getting rid of "all nuclear weapons" and called them "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization."
Obama’s goal is to see whether Ronald Reagan’s dream can indeed ever come true.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)