- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

For the best of us and the rest of us, life is about obstacles and how we face them. We can overcome them or be undone by them. But it does no good to pretend they don’t exist and hope they’ll just go away.

The other day, in the south of Siberia, a brief celebration marked the overcoming of all manner of obstacles - political, governmental, judgmental, temperamental - in ways that will keep all of us safer. Even those nearby and half a world away who spent years creating obstacles rather than overcoming them.

The celebration, in the Russian town of Shchuchye, just over the border from Kazakhstan and just a truck ride from war-torn Afghanistan, marked the formal opening of a plant that will destroy huge stockpiles of Soviet-era nerve gas artillery shells and warheads that have been vulnerable to terrorists and thieves since the end of the Cold War.

The plant was built with $1 billion provided by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created in 1991 to identify and secure vulnerable weapons of mass destruction. It is better known as the Nunn-Lugar program, named for its founders, former Sen. Sam Nunn, Georgia Democrat, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

Mr. Nunn and Mr. Lugar had the foresight to recognize the global security crisis posed by poorly secured Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons - and the grit to keep fighting to overcome obstacles placed in their path by shortsighted officials in both Washington and Moscow.

To gauge the potential security crisis, consider the frighteningly minimal obstacles a terrorist or thief would have to surmount to get to Shchuchye’s 5,460 metric tons of VX, Sarin or Soman weapons: A thief would only have to cut through a wire fence and avoid a handful of Russian military guards. To see the weapons, a thief would just climb atop one of 14 dilapidated buildings and look through gaping holes in the roof. Or snap off a bicycle-like lock on a door and walk in.

Then just be strong enough to lift a warhead the size of a weight-lifter’s arm. Or, as one outsider did some years ago, just lift a smaller, 85-millimeter artillery shell and stuff it into a briefcase. That’s what Mr. Lugar did on one inspection tour, as a Russian military photographer snapped away for posterity, so they could demonstrate the vulnerability of those deadly weapons.

Meanwhile, Nunn-Lugar safeguarders faced tougher obstacles.

In Moscow, Kremlin hardliners placed bureaucratic restrictions on Nunn-Lugar projects, including Russian military efforts to limit U.S. access to weapons sites. That angered many in Washington.

In Washington, congressional and Pentagon hardliners mounted a dozen or more efforts to cut and even cut off Nunn-Lugar funding, arguing the Soviets created the problem so Russia should pay for it. Mr. Lugar met several times with President George W. Bush and fellow Republicans, arguing that U.S. and global security were at stake. Later, Mr. Lugar had at his side a young freshman senator who had come to him for mentoring on global security - Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois.

When a bridge was needed so rail cars could securely transport the weapons across Siberia’s Miass River to the new, modern plant buildings constructed among the birch forest, Mr. Nunn, now co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, came up with the private funds to pay for it.

Now the trains are ferrying warheads and shells into the modern buildings. Conveyor belts are carrying shells into airtight compartments. Holes are drilled in the shells and deadly chemicals are drained into containers. The nerve gases are being converted into nonlethal tarlike substances. The warheads and shells are pulverized.

And the world is safer. “This critical work has been delayed on both sides by technology disputes, bureaucratic roadblocks and a lack of funding,” said Mr. Nunn. “I am pleased that these hurdles have been overcome.”

At the Shchuchye ceremony, Mr. Lugar said: “The United States and Russia have too much at stake and too many common interests to allow our relationship to drift toward conflict. Both of our nations have been the victim of terrorism that has deeply influenced our sense of security.”

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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