Saturday, August 25, 2007
From the Atlanta Journal Constitution...
Sam Nunn left the U.S. Senate more than 10 years ago.
Since then, the Georgia Democrat, who made his name nationally as a defense-minded hawk, has watched what’s happened to the country, and he’s more than a bit ticked — at the “fiasco” in Iraq, a federal budget spinning out of control, the lack of an honest energy policy, and a presidential contest that, he says, seems designed to thwart serious discussion of the looming crises.
Sam Nunn is still considered one of the foremost experts on national security.
In an hourlong interview, in his small office on Marietta Street on the edge of the Georgia Tech campus, Nunn acknowledged that he — like former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich — is considering a run for the White House next year.
But unlike Gingrich, Nunn would run outside the traditional two-party structure.
“It’s a possibility, not a probability,” said Nunn, now the head of a nonprofit organization out to reduce the threat posed by nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry. “My own thinking is, it may be a time for the country to say, ‘Timeout. The two-party system has served us well, historically, but it’s not serving us now.’”
The 68-year-old former senator, still considered one of the foremost experts on national security, confirmed that he’s discussed a presidential run as part of several conversations with Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor.
More important, Nunn said he’s been in touch with Unity ‘08 http://www.unity08.com/
, a group with a goal of fielding a bipartisan or independent ticket for president. Initial talks began with Hamilton Jordan, a co-founder of Unity ‘08 and former chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter.
Doug Bailey, a Republican strategist and another co-founder, said Nunn was given “a more detailed briefing” from the group this summer.
Nunn said he’s not likely to make up his mind until next year, probably after the early rush of presidential primaries have produced de facto nominees for both parties. He said the decision will depend largely on what he hears from the current candidates. The only certainty, he said, is that he won’t be anybody’s candidate for vice president.
Former state lawmaker Larry Walker of Perry, a close friend who replaced Nunn in the state House 35 years ago, believes Nunn is even more serious than his comments suggest.
“I think he’s determined to affect the debate in the presidential race,” he said.
Walker said Nunn is under no illusion — third-party presidential candidates are historically poor finishers. “But I also think he realizes the dynamics have changed so much as a result of the Internet. We’re not in the Ross Perot era,” Walker said.
In the interview, Nunn admitted he is also tempted by the fact that a presidential run would offer him a world stage to press for a revolutionary shift in U.S. defense and foreign policy.
In January, Nunn joined with a coterie of defense and diplomatic experts that include Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism have forever altered the calculus of war.
In a new era in which the chief concern is Islamic jihadism, a world security system built around a nuclear stand-off between the United States and Russia has become “obsolete,” Nunn says.
Ultimately, he said, if there’s to be any chance of persuading smaller countries to give up nuclear weapons technology — and keep it out of the hands of increasingly sophisticated terrorists — world powers will have to put themselves on a gradual, verifiable path toward total nuclear disarmament. That includes the United States.
“What I’m describing is a different world than the one I was in during the Cold War,” Nunn said.
A native of Perry who went to Washington at age 34, Nunn abandoned national politics at the height of his popularity in 1997, two years after Democrats lost control of Congress and Nunn lost chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In Democratic circles, Nunn served as a mainstay for party centrists, but also developed an unusually strong following among Republicans who liked Nunn’s independence and his emphasis on defense and fiscal conservatism.
Though not as well-known as he once was, Nunn’s reputation in Georgia remains high. On Tuesday, the Rome News-Tribune, responding to the first reports of Nunn’s interest in the presidency, promptly endorsed him.
Like Carter and Gingrich, who became U.S. House speaker in 1994, Nunn was a center of Georgia influence in Washington. Unlike Carter and Gingrich, he has remained largely out of the limelight in his post-Washington years. He’s written no books, and — as a man who still speaks in paragraphs instead of sound bites — isn’t a regular on high-paying talk circuits.
Instead, Nunn has remained quietly plugged into the nitty-gritty issues of U.S. defense and foreign policy. In July, he was one of four other Americans corralled by Kissinger into private talks in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian heavyweights on how to improve U.S.-Russian relations.
Next week, he returns to Moscow with U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to mark the 15th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which has provided U.S. funding and expertise to help the former Soviet Union safeguard and dismantle its stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Nunn is also CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative http://www.nti.org/, a private charitable organization originally bankrolled by Ted Turner. The group’s headquarters is in Washington, but Nunn operates out of his office at Tech, where he holds an honorary professorship.
Because of his well-mined expertise, for the past 20 years he has been a perennial possibility when presidential tickets are discussed. Each time he’s quickly said no.
What’s different this time?
“I am frustrated, and clearly frustrated, with the fact that I think my children and grandchildren are not going to have the kind of future they should be having,” Nunn said.
Political debate has been captured by the extreme wings of both parties, he said, ignoring solutions that can only be found in the middle.
“I do not see tough calls willing to be made by the body politic,” he said.
Nunn singled out the debate over energy and global warming. Those most concerned with global warming won’t consider nuclear energy as an alternative, he said. Those who advocate energy independence ignore the fact that there is “no analysis whatsoever that could lead you to believe we’re going to be independent in this country on energy,” Nunn said. “We’ll have interdependence and security in energy, but people aren’t talking about that.”
But if Nunn does decide to enter the race, Iraq, terrorism and the increasingly strained state of the U.S. military will also have their place as major motivations.
Though he has said little publicly, his frustration over Iraq — he opposed the first Gulf War in ‘91 — can barely be contained. “A fiasco, which we’ve basically mishandled in all directions. We’ll get over it, because we’re a strong country, and we’re indispensable in the sense that we’re the [world] leader. But right now,it’s going to take at least 10 years to rebuild U.S. credibility.”
Nor has the Bush administration been able to create the necessary climate to make it easy for the world’s Muslim population to isolate jihadist terrorists, Nunn said.
“We’re in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. And to get cooperation you have to have a vision, and you have to listen. And we’re not perceived as having a vision in this country, and we’re not perceived as listening.”
The question is whether the American center — or what’s left of it — shares his frustration.
Writing in a recent issue of Human Events , Georgia conservative radio talk host Martha Zoller offers an interesting spin on a possible Nunn candidacy.
Nunn was a centrist Democrat of the old school by weaving a coalition of black and rural voters, and was one of the last of his kind. Nunn tried to steer his party into the middle and was often frustrated. In his retirement remarks he described the Democratic Party as pursuing a ``brain-dead defense of the status quo.''
He praised the Republican revolution for seeking lower taxes and entitlement reform but also said the revolution was in danger of going to extremes. In his retirement announcement he said that neither party is serving the people and that they need to break their dependence on money and special interests or a third party will surely rise. He called for two-year budgeting so the Congress can spend less time on passing money bills and more time overseeing how the money is spent."
Not much has changed since 1996. So what about Sam Nunn today? He’s stayed involved in policy on defense and nuclear issues. He works with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and is involved with the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at his alma mater of Georgia Tech. He has been involved with the Center for Strategic and International Affairs and is a retired partner of King and Spaulding. He’s served on the boards of Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dell Computer and General Electric. He’s also worked with potential rival, Fred Thompson on the film “Last Best Chance” on the dangers of excess nuclear weapons materials.
In the mid nineties, Nunn partnered up with Sen. Pete Dominici on a consumption based tax for tax reform. He has made no public statements that would indicate he has changed his mind on that. Fiscal discipline and the two political parties lack of is did factor into his decision to look at an independent opportunity for 2008 according to insiders close to him. So he seems to still be a fiscal conservative if he is a part of an independent candidacy.
The biggest issue of the day is terrorism and national security. Where would Sen. Nunn stand on terrorism today? On June 14, 2007, Nunn spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations about the threats we face today. He said, “The greatest threat we face today -- catastrophic terrorism, a rise in the number of the nuclear weapons states, increasing danger of mistaken, accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch -- we can prevent only in cooperation with Moscow, Beijing and many other capitals.” He went on to say, “If al Qaeda had hit the Trade Towers with a small crude nuclear weapon instead of two airplanes, a fireball would have vaporized everything in the vicinity.”
Nunn gets it and has talked around the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the role of US leadership, cooperation with allies and “urgent new actions” that need to be taken against terrorist groups that are “conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy.”
The immigration issue has formed new alliances because border security first is not a partisan issue. Movement by the administration late last week in the direction of an overwhelming number of Americans on border security and workplace enforcement is the right move, but won’t be enough unless they mean to maintain the enforcement. That leaves the bad taste that people have for one party having all the power still in the mouths of the voters. That tends to support the election of a Republican for President or opens the door for an independent candidate. Sam Nunn knows how to walk through open doors and make the most of it. He’s done that all his life. If there is an independent candidate for President with the money to run will he take away from Republicans or Democrats? The answer to that question will determine who wins. http://www.marthazoller.com/
In my view, Sam Nunn would make an excellent President of the United States. Nunn seems like a real statesman in an era of shallow and sleazy politicians who care little or nothing about the long-term national interest.
Of course, any independent or third party candidacy is a real long-shot and the impact of a possible Nunn campaign on the 2008 election outcome remains to be seen. Nunn has obvious appeal to moderate to conservative Democrats but could also attract significant numbers of independent and centrist Republican voters.
Perhaps Nunn would at least force the major party candidates to deal with overlooked but critical issues and appeal to the mainstream rather than pandering to single issue pressure groups.