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A Nobel mission accomplished

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Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2010 9:33 am | Updated: 3:43 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Martin Schram: Perhaps the best way to understand importance of this week's nuclear summit attended by 47 world leaders is recall the answers to two questions that were asked, a decade apart, of a man who wasn't even in Washington this week: Mikhail Gorbachev.

Perhaps the best way to understand importance of this week's nuclear summit attended by 47 world leaders is recall the answers to two questions that were asked, a decade apart, of a man who wasn't even in Washington this week: Mikhail Gorbachev.

Senator Sam Nunn asked the first question in 1991, as the then-powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee stood in the doorway of the home of a suddenly un-powerful Soviet president. A military coup had just been aborted after placing Gorbachev under house arrest -- and back in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin was taking over civilian control of the non-communist remnants of the unraveling Soviet Union.

"I had mustered the courage," Nunn once told me, "to ask him the question as I was leaving: 'Mr. President, did you have command and control of the Soviet nuclear weapons while you were in captivity? Or did you lose that control?' He turned away from me. He wouldn't answer the question. And that was a big answer to me."

Stunned by the realization that nuclear stockpiles spread over 10 time zones were suddenly vulnerable, Nunn returned to Washington and put into motion an idea that became a movement and a life-long cause. The Georgia Democrat teamed with another Senate visionary, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, and their bipartisan team set about convincing an uncertain Washington to do a previously unthinkable thing: Secure their adversary's nuclear arsenals before a loose nuke could be bought or stolen by someone who wants them for just one purpose -- to use them!

First they convinced a wary President George H. W. Bush, then they neutralized hard-line critics and finally Nunn and Lugar secured passage of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act, known best as just Nunn-Lugar. Back then, Cold War minds thought in terms of wars waged by superpowers and their proxies. The most daunting task was convincing doubters that stateless terrorists could threaten even us.

Fast-forward one decade. By early 2001, Nunn had retired from the Senate and founded, with billionaire Ted Turner, the Nuclear Threat Initiative to spread the urgent message. I shared their concerns, an idea with Nunn that led to my work on a Ted Turner Documentaries project -- a book and PBS documentary, "Avoiding Armageddon," aimed at convincing skeptics terrorists could strike even the homeland of the United States -- and were seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Tragically, the convincing became far easier on the morning of September 11, 2001. A year later, I was in Moscow interviewing Gorbachev for this project. He had become a global advocate of the need to secure nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and ultimately rid the world of them. Gorbachev began by calling upon world leaders to lead by securing weapons of mass destruction.

But, I asked Gorbachev, why aren't they already doing that? By now they surely know the urgency. How can we get world leaders to act as one? I suggested maybe he had it backwards and perhaps this was a time when the people get it -- so the people must lead their leaders by demanding they do what is right?

Gorbachev's eyes widened and he feigned outrage (Whoa! Had I just blown the interview?) Then he smoothly switched to the side of people power: "People are concerned ... people are ready and they need action. They demand action."

Fast forward nine more years: This week, 47 world leaders took steps to secure nuclear weapons and materials to keep them out of terrorist hands. Sure, controversies remain about specifics and whether the world will do enough, fast enough. Just by showing up, the leaders sent a message that they are finally on the case -- almost two decades after Nunn and Lugar made our security their cause.

Last year, a committee in Scandinavia arched eyebrows around the world by awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, mainly for deeds to come. Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar deserved then and deserve it now, more than ever. That was the subtext of this week's nuclear summit.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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