Don't Even Think About It!

Terrell E. Arnold
The furor over alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is like a bad penny that refuses to be taken out of circulation, even though everybody knows it is a bad penny. Finally, the report that chief US weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, made to the White House and the Congress this week should have put the quietus on the question. Duelfer said that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction, that he had not had any weapons program of significance since the early 1990s, and that Saddam's remaining capability to produce such materials was weaker at the time of the invasion than it had been at any point in the preceding decade.
That sounded like the final knell, but then Duelfer ruined it. He made a polite nod to George Bush, by saying, as AP reported it, that Saddam "had not lost his ambition to pursue weapons of mass destruction, but sanctions kept him from proceeding, and, given the opportunity, he would have worked at getting them once sanctions were lifted. Therefore, said Duelfer, Saddam remained a threat. Thus, as President Bush recited it in the October 8 debate with Senator Kerry, Saddam was a threat to the United States because he wanted to make such weapons and he might have given weapons to terrorists. In the Bush view, that justified the invasion.
That all reads like an exercise in the French pluperfect subjunctive. If Saddam were not to have been restrained by sanctions, he could have been able to develop weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, because of his desire to do so, he was a threat, except that Bush intervened to preempt that possibility by taking him down. In effect, the purpose of taking Saddam down was to prevent him from turning his dream into an undemonstrated reality
Unfortunately, that spate of linguistic fiddlefaddle over intentions gives Bush and the neo-cons just the window they need to pursue preemptive strikes against any of a possible forty alleged seekers after nuclear arms. Never mind the details. It's the thought that counts.
At the moment, eight nations are known to have nuclear weapons. However, those nations just happen to represent roughly half of the world population, because they include China and India"more than a third of the world population between them. Other nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Pakistan, and Israel) bring the nuclear weapon nations up to half the people on earth. That leaves us with more than 180 non-nuclear powers in the family of nations that make up the remaining half of the human condition.
In a world where nuclear weapons, even a few, give the owners enormous bargaining power over their adversaries as well as the rest of the system, the thought of acquiring such weapons is bound to cross the minds of a number of national leaders. Lack of money or technology or both may prevent them from giving life to the impulse, but the thought is unavoidable. The surprising feature of today's proliferation environment is that only two countries, Iran and North Korea, seem to be immediate candidates for catching this peculiar brass ring.
One can wonder how accurate this appraisal might be, given the luster of the object. But it is clear that so long as half the world's people enjoy the deterrent protection of nuclear weapons, the other half will try to acquire them.
The unfortunate fact of this situation is that a legitimate path was created for potential seekers of the brass ring when President Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace program. The technologies are dual use in that the technical systems and processes needed to produce weapons grade materials are the same ones needed to produce reactor fuel or reprocess it. Nuclear power plants therefore are gateway devices, depending on the motives of the owner and how the owner acquires fuel or disposes of waste. Depending on which report one believes, North Korea may now be a modest nuclear power by having reprocessed nuclear fuel and weapon-ized the recovered plutonium.
The Atoms for Peace program has had many uses. According to some historical accounts, the big one was to reduce or avoid criticism, or deflect attention away from US programs to test new weapons and expand US stockpiles. One stated purpose was to share the advantages of nuclear technologies, especially power production, with poor countries. Another was possibly to speed the economic development of weak economies. A third was to take the minds of non-nuclear weapons countries off that subject by giving them something relevant to do. A fourth, probably not on the stated list, was to share with friends the opportunity to graduate to nuclear status without actually giving them weapons.
In the era of Atoms for Peace a five-member nuclear club was created, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified by the US and 186 other countries, entered into force in 1970, about seven years after Atoms for Peace was launched. The treaty was designed to keep the club small. No legal path to becoming a club member was provided. However, as demonstrated by India, Pakistan and Israel, one could become a nuclear power by stealth, and they could keep their weapons by not signing on to the treaty. They acquired the skills more or less in plain sight through Atoms for Peace--a concept fully ratified by the NPT--and much under the table skullduggery. As those three have demonstrated, the NPT has no means to declaw nuclear powers, either original club members or unblessed newcomers who refuse to ratify the treaty, as do India, Pakistan, and Israel.
The overriding effect of Atoms for Peace was its failure to outlaw nuclear weapons. One of the facts that drive the impulse to acquire nuclear weapons is the fact that other countries have them, and the prospect is that club members intend to keep them. Efforts driven largely by the United States and Russia to tame the cold war produced treaty efforts to reduce the number of weapons in those countries and to prevent proliferation, meaning addition of new nuclear powers. The prospect that such weapons might be outlawed appears to have dampened materially the interests of non-nuclear powers in acquiring such weapons. Why make the enormous financial"and political--investment in learning how to make them, if they are going to be banned by all parties?
Since the cold war, however, and clearly in the past four years under the Bush Administration, the idea that nuclear weapons technologies would be suppressed, i.e., that the NPT would actually be implemented, has largely evaporated under the pressure of more or less open US efforts to improve existing weapons, acquire new ones, use nuclear weapons in battle, sell nuclear bombs, i.e., bunker busters, to Israel, and abandon treaty obligations to reduce nuclear stockpiles. US unwillingness in the run-up to Iraq to allow UN weapons inspectors to do their work only added to doubts about US intent. With the leading nuclear power setting such a bad example, who should take seriously any stated effort to curb development of nuclear weapons? It is doubtful that many do, so the principal hurdles are now money and access to technology. Non-proliferation does not stand much of a chance in this environment.
Even more disturbing, the invasion of Iraq and the broader War on Terrorism have increased the will to acquire nuclear weapons and probably other WMDs. In a bilateral standoff between countries, nukes are the ultimate deterrent. How to make a weapon is no longer a secret, since the basic technology is available on the Internet. Assessments by individual country leaders of their foreseeable security environment are the principal determinant of whether a government will feel naked without them.
The announced pre-emptive policy of the United States, demonstrated by the invasion of Iraq, attacks in Yemen, and elsewhere, is likely to foster global urges to obtain better weapons, including WMDs. US policy now suggests that no nation with a history of terrorism, or any resident terrorist group, or perhaps even a modest Atoms for Peace program should consider itself exempt from pre-emptive attack. Russia has announced a similar counter-terrorism intent, and others will follow. One seems to have the choice of arming as best one can, or capitulating in advance. Many more will try to arm themselves after Iraq than may have felt that need before.
But Duelfer, having blown the Bush rationale for invading Iraq sky high, gave the Bush team an idea that will worry other governments even more: Any national leader who might think it is a good idea to develop nuclear capability has been put on notice. Not only is it dangerous to your health to be caught trying to acquire such technology, don't even think about it!
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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