WH: Why no, the North Korean nuke test won't change the State of the Union speech

Most people expected Barack Obama to make a big pitch for nuclear drawdowns as well as drawdowns in troop strength in Afghanistan in tonight’s State of the Union speech, part of his ongoing effort to reduce and eliminate nuclear stockpiles and oppose modernization of strategic arsenals.  Yesterday, the New York Times predicted that Obama would push the new START treaty and its reduction by a third of the current US arsenal:

President Obama will use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to reinvigorate one of his signature national security objectives — drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world — after securing agreement in recent months with the United States military that the American nuclear force can be cut in size by roughly a third.

Mr. Obama, administration officials say, is unlikely to discuss specific numbers in the address, but White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. Currently there are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018.

But Mr. Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”

As Jen Rubin points out, the North Korean regime decided to have its say first:

We were told to expect the president was going to present his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, or at least with a great deal fewer, at the State of the Union address tonight. The idea is monstrously obtuse at a time when Iran is on the verge of gaining nuclear weapons capability, North Korea repeats its pattern of cheating on international agreements, and there are real, immediate international crises in which the president takes no interest (such as the mass murder in Syria).

Then along comes the North Korean to blow up (pun intended) any pretext of seriousness. The Post reports that on the eve of the State of the Union, “North Korea on Tuesday detonated a ‘smaller and light’ nuclear device, its state-run news agency said, marking the latest advance in a weapons program that President Obama called ‘a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security.’” …

Unfortunately, the international community is all out of “swift and credible action,” and President Obama has sought to cut missile defense programs that are “necessary to defend ourselves and our allies.” And in touting the disastrous six-party talks that have resulted in serial cheating, the president reveals himself to be entirely feckless. (It is also a reminder that his secretary of defense nominee, who backed the Global Zero initiative, is equally clueless.) Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute wryly observes, “I think Kim Jong Eun will discover that it takes more than a nuclear test to get Barack Obama’s attention in the new age of retreat and decline.”

One might imagine that the advanced nuclear test today would at least force the White House to reconsider its course for tonight’s SOTU address.  Not so, reports Michael Hirsh for National Journal, who calls the North Korean action “a major embarrassment”:

The White House sought to brazen out North Korea’s nuclear test on Tuesday, insisting that “this wasn’t a surprise,” in the words of spokesman Tommy Vietor, and that it would not alter the tough nonproliferation message President Obama had already planned to deliver in his State of the Union address. “[North Koreans] have been saying for some time they intended to do this,” Vietor told National Journal on Tuesday. “The president was always planning to say that if they want to join the international community, they need to change their behavior.”

Nonetheless, North Korea’s third nuclear test since 2006 must be seen as a major embarrassment for Obama, coming on the eve of his biggest speech of the year (after his second Inaugural Address, of course). From the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation a key goal, and his advisers have said he had wanted to revive this as a major “legacy” item in his second term. But North Korea’s act of open defiance only illustrates how little progress there has been on several fronts.

The administration’s early policy of “strategic patience”–refusing to negotiate until Pyongyang unilaterally agreed to suspend its program—appeared to provoke only more defiance from North Korea. Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rebuffed a U.S. offer to negotiate directly over its covert nuclear program, despite multilateral agreement to impose the harshest sanctions yet on Tehran. And last fall, Russia abruptly announced it was dropping out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which since 1991 has helped Moscow destroy or safely store  nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons left over after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It’s not a pretty picture to present to the world at the start of Obama’s second term. Vietor, asked about the apparent failure to halt either Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, replied: “How is that different than four years ago?”

Not any different at all.  However, most of us recall Obama blaming George Bush’s supposed obstinacy for the deadlock in both cases, claiming that his “smart power” would rebalance the world and produce better results.  Instead, we find that the world is about the same, because the issue was never Bush in the first place, nor our own nuclear weapons.  The problem is located in Pyongyang and Tehran and their tyrannical regimes, their drive for nuclear weapons, and the complete disconnect between the size of our stockpiles and the size of their ambitions.

Perhaps a better start for the SOTU would be to adapt to that reality.