Jeffrey LewisWaPo Fact Checker Looks Foolish

I’ve only spoken with Michael Dobbs once, on the telephone, and he seemed like a nice guy.

But, wow, is he being rude and dissmisive on the Washington Post website. It is this kind of ignorant arrogance that bothers the hell out of me.

Dobbs, in a feature called “Fact Checker,” expands his mandate to disagree at 9:28 with Obama’s judgment that the NPT “fell apart” under the Bush Administration.

Anywho, Dobbs decides to say that “things weren’t great under Clinton. It was under Clinton, after all, that India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons, which put a huge hole in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.”

Now, that’s just silly. Apart from the fact that India and Pakistan aren’t members of the NPT, testing nuclear weapons didn’t put a “hole” in the treaty.

Daryl Kimball sent Dobbs a note, then Dobbs responded with this:

I am glad that the Obama camp is reading the Fact Checker at all hours of the night. I got several e-mails from Obama supporters well after midnight disputing my critique of the senator for blaming George W. Bush for allowing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to “fall apart.” Here is a typical one, which landed at 1.39 a.m., from Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Your post on Obama’s point about the erosion of the nonproliferation system under Bush misses the point and ignores the facts. India/Pak tested nukes in 1998, yes, but are not members of the NPT. Under Bush, Iran has advanced its nuclear program, [North Korea] has produced plutonium and tested a bomb, the 2006 NPT Review Conference was an utter failure due to lack of Bush admin leadership, and experts ranging from Kissinger to Nunn, to Hans Blix, to Mohammed El Baradei agree that the system is under tremendous strain now.

Well, ok, it’s true that Pakistan and India were not signatories to the 1968 non-proliferation treaty, so it is technically true that they did not violate their treaty obligations. In addition, India tested a small nuclear device in 1974. Nevertheless, the twin nuclear tests by India and then Pakistan in 1998 came as a huge shock to the Clinton administration, and did much to undermine the international non-proliferation norms established by the treaty. Once those two countries went nuclear, other countries lost the incentive to abide by the treaty. Many experts would agree that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will present the single greatest national security threat to the United States over the next few years, given the political instability in that country.

You can’t blame Bush for everything, much as some people would like to do so.

What a pathetic answer!

First, I am pretty sure that Daryl is not associated with the Obama campaign. So, Dobbs is simply making up a fact about Daryl’s affiliation to undercut his credibility. Of course, Dobbs also writes for Hustler. (Okay, I just made that up. See how unfair it is?)

Second, Dobbs asserts that “Once [India and Pakistan] went nuclear, other countries lost the incentive to abide by the treaty.” Really? Lost their incentive? Okay, which countries — name them! — stopped abiding by NPT as a consequence of tests?

Dobbs doesn’t really make any effort to address the core of Daryl’s argument, which is that the Clinton Administration secured the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and a successful review conference in 2000. By contrast, the 2005 NPT review conference was a total meltdown, as even Bush Administration officials will admit over beers.

There is no perfect way to objectively measure the health of the NPT regime, although successful review conferences and the number of nuclear states are indicators. On both of those accounts, the Bush Administration has fared worse than the Clinton Administration.

As it happens, I actually disagree that the NPT “fell apart” under the Bush Administration, though I do think Bush & co. undermined the regime in significant and dangerous ways. The problem is that Dobbs decided to expand his “fact check” mandate to matters where facts are few and causality is not clear cut. His efforts to excuse his inexcusable post only make him look more foolish.


  1. PC (History)

    The “well x administration was worse” is a rarely a good counter argument, and Dobbs does manage to make a bad argument poorly. He might have done better pointing out that certain negative expectations have not been met (yet), such as a North Korean test leading to further proliferation in E Asia (now that would have been a hole in the Treaty). Perhaps highlighting that the Treaty remains nearly universal (Cuba joined after the 98 tests—not exactly a loss of incentive), or pointing out that failed review conferences have not resulted in the Treaty’s break-down in the past would also be valid ways of showing that the NPT hasn’t necessarily fallen apart. Fixating on S. Asia didn’t help.

    Of course, I agree that it is under serious duress, a situation which this administration definitely contributed to.

  2. CKR (History)

    Seems to me it’s hard to claim a treaty encompassing all of the world’s nations except three/four has “fallen apart.” The phrase has very little relevance, really.

    As for counterexamples under the Clinton administration, we could add Brazil’s and Argentina’s joining the NPT, along with all the cajolery of Ukraine to make good on its Lisbon Protocol promises.

    Of course, we’re talking about an international treaty here, not entirely subject to US whim. So the narrative extends beyond the United States. This seems to be something that Dobbs is having difficulty with. But it seems to be part of Obama’s statement as well.

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    By the way, here is the Obama comment. It is a reference in passing to “rebuilding” the nonproliferation regime.

    Gibson asks the question at 5:18; Obama makes his comment at 7:28.

  4. Pvt. Keepout

    Let’s remember an early statesman who “did much to undermine the international non-proliferation norms established by the treaty:”
    “…President Ronald Reagan…agreed not to complain about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for Pakistani cooperation in helping the Afghan rebels.”

    “The Pakistani bomb has added an ominous nuclear twist to the radical Islamic “blowback,” a threat that might have been avoided if Reagan had made different choices in the mid-1980s, if he had put a higher value on disrupting Pakistan’s nuclear program than on challenging the Soviets in Afghanistan.”

    Reagan’s Bargain/Charlie Wilson’s War by Peter W. Dickson, Consortium News, Jan 6, 2008

    Of course, it’s only fair to credit St. Ronnie’s predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, with the initial and fundamental corrosion of US non-proliferation efforts with respect to Pakistan.

  5. Paul Stokes (History)

    Of course the Indian and Pakistani tests undermined the NPT. I remember well the consternation in the US and internationally when those tests occurred. Fortunately, except for Iran and North Korea who believed that nuclear weapons would be an important deterrent to the US or Israel, no other countries have seen that need.

  6. b (History)

    One step further: Why did India decide not to join the NPT, and why did India decide to build and test nuclear weapons?

    Any criticism of NPT “care and feeding” of US administrations has to start with the “other” half of the original bargain: that those who already had weapons were committing to reduction and and eventual abolition. It would be reasonable to ask how the revisions of the NPT affected Indian decision making.

  7. Alex W. (History)

    “so it is technically true that they did not violate their treaty obligations” — I think it’s more than “technically true” if they weren’t part of the treaty to begin with. You can’t violate a treaty you don’t sign, and it was no secret that they refused to sign the treaty.

    “Many experts would agree that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will present the single greatest national security threat to the United States over the next few years, given the political instability in that country.” — Well, yeah, but that didn’t start in the Clinton administration. If I recall it is thought that Pakistan had nuclear arms and begun proliferating as early as the Reagan administration.

    Anyway, it’s a floundering response… obviously you can’t blame everything in the modern nuclear world on one administration, but I don’t see anybody actually doing that.

  8. Mark Gubrud

    If Daryl Kimball is not an Obama supporter, he should be. Obama has made ambitious nuclear arms control proposals, including a pledge not to make new nukes, to get a fissban, and to make nuclear abolition a national policy objective. What has Hillary Clinton said that is comparable?

    Anyone paying any attention to the presidential race from an arms control perspective has to know that Obama wants to undertake bold initiatives whereas Clinton would most likely continue her husband’s policies of malign neglect.

  9. miles pomper (History)

    It shoulld also be noted that in terms of the India and Pakistan tests it is pretty foolish in some ways to blame the Clinton administration for the tests themselves— after all India tested much more as a result of domestic politics—the rise of the BJP than anything else.
    Where the administration might be said to have erred is in its response to the tests—particularly the failure to sustain Glenn Amendment sanctions amid congressional resistance and the failure to win approval of the CTBT at a time it might have been able to bring India and Pakistan on board.