February 18, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Chasing the Nuclear Genie

It won't be easy to get the nuclear genie back into the bottle. No sooner had President Bush announced his very worthy initiative to combat proliferation, in a speech at American Defense University last Wednesday, than newspaper reports over the weekend detailed disturbing findings of a trail of nuclear designs from China to Pakistan to Libya. This is one hot and scary topic.

In fact, Libya has released a mother lode of information, which is now being analyzed by experts from the United States and Britain as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The designs in question were handed over to American officials after Libya's Moammar Gaddaffi decided to renounce weapons of mass destruction, presumably to avoid going the way of Saddam Hussein. Readers of The Washington Times won't be too surprised, of course; this newspaper's Bill Gertz long since broke the news of the Chinese-Pakistani nuclear cooperation.

Revelations about Iran's program for enriching uranium are equally disturbing. Also last week, international inspectors discovered that Iran had hidden blueprints for a highly sophisticated centrifuge, capable of producing a key element in nuclear weapons. This means that even as Iran was pretending to be cooperating with the IAEA, it was engaged in a double-cross. Who knows what else they have tucked away.

And overshadowing it all are the revelations about Pakistan's black-market in nuclear technology, run by the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan. Mr. Kahn is accused of running a veritable Wal-Mart of black market proliferation, as IAEA chief Moammar ElBaradei has put it. Eager customers included Libya and North Korea.

Do these deplorable failings of anti-proliferation measures invalidate the main point of Mr. Bush's speech that "every civilized nation has a stake in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction"? No. What it does is to reinforce his message that we must put teeth into the IAEA.

Mr. Bush wants to give the atomic inspection agency an enforcement arm to verify compliance from member countries. He also wants known and suspected violators of IAEA rules to be barred from positions on its board of governors, which seems a very reasonable idea. Iran, for one, has been able to flout the rules for 18 years. Most significantly, he appealed to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which includes the 40 countries that sell most nuclear technology, to stop selling equipment to any country that is not already equipped today to handle nuclear fuel.

Mr. Bush also announced the addition of three new countries, Norway, Canada and Singapore, to the group of 11 that already cooperate with the United States in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the purpose of which is to block shipments of weapons of mass destruction. Directed so far primarily at North Korea, the PSI represents an inspired bit of multilateral thinking on the part of the administration, primarily Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton.

The argument could well be made that our best defense against the proliferation of nuclear weapons is missile defense. According to this school of thought, primarily conservative, the nuclear genie has escaped for good, which means that we might as well get used to a growing number of nuclear states. Were we dealing only with state actors that argument might hold, but in an unpredictable world of international terrorism, even a "dirty bomb," a primitive radiation device unleashed by terrorists in a U.S. city is a nightmare scenario. Missile defense is indeed needed, but only goes so far.

Another argument, advanced by liberal arms control advocates, is that we must deal with our own nuclear weapons in order to occupy the high ground in the nuclear proliferation field. The U.S. stockpile is indeed shrinking, but the fact remains that we can account for our weapons and our nuclear fuel. They are not likely to end up in terrorist hands.

The approach suggested by the Bush administration falls into the realm of the realistic, somewhere between idealism and despair. Proliferation takes place mainly within a loop of rogue nations, Iran, North Korea, formerly Libya and Iraq, and is fed by scientists and material from Pakistan, China and Russia. Looked at this way, it is still a deeply troubling, but not unmanageable, phenomenon.

Our focus needs to be on effectively cutting that loop, and on disrupting the work of the merry band of rogue states. Provided the political will is there, that is not an impossible aspiration.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times