It wasn’t even a blip on the evening news but early this summer, in a display of fancy footwork on the diplomatic high wire, Barack Obama came close to mentioning in public a subject on which every president since Lyndon Johnson has been strictly mum: the fact, unacknowledged for more than four decades now, that the United States knows Israel has nuclear warheads. On the basis of a secret “understanding” struck by Richard Nixon and Golda Meir in 1969, the established practice has been to abide by Israel’s policy of maximum coyness and ambiguity on the subject even when—or especially when—it conflicts with Washington’s long-flaunted goal of pressing aspiring nuclear powers that long ago signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, like Iran, for example (under the Shah), or Iraq (before Saddam Hussein), to abide by it and allow international inspection of their nuclear facilities.
Israel is a nonsignatory and not the only one that Washington finds it inexpedient to press, just the only one on which it has maintained a vow of silence. India, thanks to the last Republican administration, now gets the sort of American help building reactors from which it was supposed to be forever barred as a result of its decision to go nuclear. Pakistan—arguably the worst proliferator on record, having boosted the nuclear programs of Libya, North Korea, and Iran—is one of the largest recipients of US military assistance because its cooperation is deemed indispensable so long as we’re fighting next door in Afghanistan. It’s a hard world out there and policy contradictions are not easily avoided; sometimes influence has to be bought. So goes the thinking of so-called “realists” in foreign policy circles.
New to office, Obama determined to put life and muscle into the flagging nonproliferation drive, in part to justify the effort to squeeze Iran and keep it from going the way of North Korea, and, in the much longer run, to work toward regional agreements that might eventually include the Middle East. So, when after four weeks of discussion, a UN conference of 189 nations reviewed the nonproliferation regime and reached a twenty-eight-page agreement on new steps to be taken toward halting the spread of weapons and promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the Obama administration hailed it as “forward-looking and balanced.”
There was, however, a catch, making fancy footwork by the President unavoidable. The agreement his administration had hailed in May didn’t mention Iran, which had attended the conference, its delegation headed briefly by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it did mention Israel, which had not, calling on it to sign the nonproliferation treaty and take part in a conference in 2012 on turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Lurking between the lines seemed to be a wispy hope that Iran might be persuaded to forswear nuclear …