Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn was in Atlanta on Monday and Tuesday to receive the first Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage – intended to be an annual award by Georgia Tech.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library does something comparable each year with the Profile in Courage Award. The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation is underwriting the Atlanta effort – which includes a $100,000 prize.
Why Ivan Allen, the former mayor of Atlanta? Because Allen was the only elected Southern white politician to testify before Congress in favor of civil rights legislation in the early 1960s, at the request of President Kennedy.
Why Nunn? “It was more for his work since he left the Senate – where courage had been most necessary,” said William Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition. Nunn is the CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which applies itself to reducing the threat of “loose nukes.”
In the last few years, the 24-year senator has also worked with former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former secretary of defense William Perry, to make the argument that – in a post-Cold War world – we must take a slow walk away from nuclear weapons.
At a lunch this afternoon, Nunn gave a few shout-outs to Georgia politicians who have been taking chances this year:
–- Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, for his work to get city pensions under control;
– U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, for voting for a new arms control agreement with Russia;
– Gov. Nathan Deal for urging caution on illegal immigration legislation;
– U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss for diving into the politically dangerous deficit issue;
– And House Speaker David Ralston for confessing that “he even likes the Democratic mayor of Atlanta.”
But these were the best lines from his speech:
”…[T]oday our airwaves and pubic debates are filled with attempts to not just denounce opponents’ logic but to impugn their motives. Demagogues and rabble rousers are not new to American history – but the economics and the technology have changed. A large number of these folks are making millions of dollars dividing America into segments and yelling ‘Sic ‘em.’
“They have mastered the art of cursing the darkness – rather than lighting a candle. Taking into account the First Amendment, my best advice is – when you feel your I.Q. going down – hit the off button and write the advertisers.”
Nunn’s curse, however, is that until the end of his days, Georgia will be asking him what to make of the world and its intricate affairs. In a sit-down with the former senator – who has been mentioned for nearly every job there is in Washington – the first question was obvious.
Insider: If the job is offered, would you be willing to be Georgia Tech’s next basketball coach?
Nunn: “I must say I’ve been disappointed in the last couple of days. I’ve been with [Tech president] Bud Peterson two or three times. He’s had lots of opportunities to say that I was on the short list. And he’s never done it.”
But seriously. Tomorrow, we’ll address Nunn’s observations on Japan and nuclear security, and the mid-term grades he has for President Barack Obama. This afternoon, let’s hit the Middle East.
Insider: We have Muammar el-Qaddafi resurgent in Libya and Saudi Arabia sending 1,000 troops into Bahrain. What do you see happening over there?
Nunn: “The big one to watch is Egypt. As tragic as what’s happening in Libya now is – we certainly have every reason to be concerned about it – the real effect of what’s going on in the Middle East will be determined more by Egypt than anywhere else.
“And I would say the close second to that – in economic terms, probably first place – is probably Saudi Arabia. Politically, Egypt makes the most difference. Economically, Saudi Arabia makes the most difference.
“So far, Saudi Arabians don’t have huge protests at home, but their intervention in Bahrain, which just happened, has got to be shaking up the marketplaces, because it indicates the situation in Bahrain is being viewed more as a Sunni-Shiite type of confrontation. And that spells trouble in a lot of areas, including – the Saudis have a very large presence of Shiites in their oil area. They’re a distinct minority, but they’re in very crucial areas.
“I’m sure the market today and what’s happening is reflecting not just what’s happening in Japan, but also the instability that’s becoming increasingly apparent in the Middle East….
“I think the trend in the Middle East is not going to be a one-time situation. I think it’s going to continue to fester.”
And what about Libya?
Nunn: “Now, Libya is a difficult case because Libya has such weak institutions. They don’t have the history that Egypt does, Their military, instead of identifiying with and protecting the people [has sided with the regime.] That’s why I have a lot of hope for Egypt. Because the military retained its credibility. In Libya, they’re not going to retain their credibility. They’re being used in a brutal way against people. And that means instability in Libya is going to continue, one way or the other, for quite a while.
“Whether we should do the no-fly zone — if I were in charge I would certainly be asking the military why we shouldn’t. And I’d be listening carefully to reasons why they say we shouldn’t. And there are reasons. But I would be leaning forward on that one – particularly since the Arab League has requested it.”
Insider: Is it too late?
Nunn: “I don’t know if it’s too late or not. But you really have a hard time stopping helicopters. They can fly low, they can land quickly. It’s hard for F-16s to chase helicopters.
“My question is, do we really have a framework for when we go in with military? I think we’ve kind of lost that framework. I would divide our interests into three categories. One is ‘vital’ – that’s certainly the only case in which I would have on-the-ground intervention.
“The second category I use for lack of a better term is ‘important.’ And the third category is ‘desirable.’ The latter two categories – I think we have to use other tools….
“We are strung out. We’ve got military personnel that are going four and five times into Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve got a great increase in the suicide rate in our military. And we owe the world trillions of bucks.
“If this was a business transaction, and we were thinking of intervening militarily, we’d have to go to our bankers and say, ‘Would you finance it?’ And the banker is, in most cases now, China.
“The best thing we can do for democracy in the world, in my view now, is get our own fiscal house in order. If we don’t do that, America’s leadership in the world, even with successful interventions, is going to be in greater and greater doubt.”
Insider: Part of what you just said sounds like what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at West Point only a few days ago.
Nunn: “I think we ought to listen to Gates.
“That brings to mind a Richard Russell quote from many years ago. He was briefed on the plans for the C-5 aircraft, before it was going to be built in Georgia. They were trying to sell him on the concept.
“They came down hard, and said, ‘Senator Russell, if we build that aircraft, we can project American military force everywhere in the world when we want to.’ And Senator Russell said, ‘That’s exactly the problem.’
“…But I think it’s absolutely clear, if we do the no-fly zone, assuming it’s not too late, it’s essential that we say this is not a vital interest of the United States. So if it doesn’t work – the next step is that people all over the world will be demanding that we go in with ground forces. We can’t do that.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider