Unleashes The Nuclear Beast
By Joseph Cirincione
17 October, 2006
The Los Angeles Times
In their third Presidential debate,
in October 1960, John F. Kennedy went after Vice President Richard Nixon,
blasting him as weak on national security for not stopping the spread
of nuclear weapons. France had just tested its first nuclear device,
joining the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain as the world's
first nuclear powers. Kennedy warned "that 10, 15 or 20 nations
will have a nuclear capacity — including Red China — by
the end of the presidential office in 1964."
As president, Kennedy sought
to fight that dark vision, telling the United Nations: "The weapons
of war must be abolished, before they abolish us." He restarted
talks on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, began pursuit of a
global nonproliferation pact and signed a treaty with the Soviet Union
to ban atmospheric nuclear tests. Although Kennedy did not live to finish
the job, in 1968, Lyndon Johnson signed what became the diplomatic crown
jewel of his presidency: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT.
President Nixon secured its ratification.
The NPT is now considered
one of the most successful security pacts in history. Every nation in
the world is a member except Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Most of the 183 member states that do not have nuclear weapons believe
what the treaty says: We should eliminate nuclear weapons.
The treaty became the hub
around which liberals and conservatives built an interlocking network
of agreements that deterred, though didn't altogether stop, the spread
of nuclear weapons. As a result, by 2000, only three other countries
— Israel, India and Pakistan — had joined the original five
nuclear nations. With the success of these agreements, and the end of
the Soviet-American nuclear standoff at the close of the Cold War, it
seemed that the nuclear threat that had haunted the world for so many
years might finally be receding.
But now, suddenly, the threat
is back. In the last six years, we seem awash in nuclear threats: First
it was Saddam Hussein, then North Korea and Iran. How did it happen?
Is nuclear restraint dead?
At the heart of the problem
is the strategy George W. Bush chose, which rejects international treaties
as the solution to proliferation. He and his advisors saw these agreements
as limiting U.S. flexibility and viewed the United Nations and other
global gatherings as arenas where the world's Lilliputians could tie
down the American Gulliver.
Bush scuttled the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, walked away from the nuclear test ban treaty secured
by President Clinton, opposed efforts to enforce the treaty banning
biological weapons, mocked the U.N. inspectors before the Iraq war and
sent low-level officials to critical negotiations, including last year's
NPT conference. The world now believes that the chief architect of the
global nonproliferation system has abandoned its creation.
Instead, the administration
preferred to rely on U.S. military might and technology, such as anti-missile
systems, to protect the United States. Rather than negotiate treaties
to eliminate weapons, it forged a strategy to eliminate the regimes
that might use them against us. The Bush team felt they knew who the
bad guys were, and they aimed to get them — one by one.
But the strategy has backfired.
Both Iran and North Korea accelerated their programs, making more progress
in the last five years than they had made in the previous 10. Now North
Korea's test threatens to trigger an Asian nuclear-reaction chain that
could prompt South Korea, Taiwan and even Japan to reconsider their
And it is not just the threats
from small nations such as North Korea that could fuel a new atomic
arms race. It is the continued existence of huge nuclear arsenals in
the United States, Russia and other states. The importance of nuclear
weapons as a cornerstone of U.S. defense had been declining since the
Cold War ended. Though the U.S. never ruled out their use, Clinton and
George H.W. Bush made it clear that they believed they were unusable,
except perhaps in retaliation.
But the current president's
policies have elevated the role of these weapons. The 2002 Nuclear Posture
Review detailed plans to build new, more usable "low-yield"
nuclear weapons and created missions for them. Bush decided to retain
about 6,000 weapons and to research a new generation of nuclear missiles,
bombers and submarines.
What's the relevance of this
to proliferation? Simple. U.S. intelligence officials concluded as early
as 1958 that other nations' nuclear appetites could not be curbed without
limiting the superpowers' stockpiles. That judgment was confirmed by
As the superpowers cut their
weapons from a Cold War high of 65,000 in 1986 to about 27,000 today,
other countries took note. In the 1960s, 23 countries had nuclear programs,
including Australia, Canada, Egypt, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland
and West Germany. Most ended any weapons programs. Brazil and Argentina
stopped research in the 1980s, and South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan
and Ukraine gave up their bombs in the 1990s.
We now know that U.N. inspectors
ended Iraq's nuclear program in 1991. In 2003, Libya abandoned its secret
program. Until last week, no nation had tested a nuclear weapon for
eight years — the longest period in the Atomic Age. The outrage
that greeted the North Korean test shows how strong anti-nuclear sentiment
Many political and military
leaders recognize the limited military utility of weapons whose use
would kill thousands of innocent civilians. Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio),
a solid Midwest conservative, led the effort last year to kill the administration's
proposed "nuclear bunker buster," a new weapon designed to
go after conventional targets. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
advocates greatly reducing the U.S. and Russian arsenals and then working
to eliminate them completely, just as countries have done with chemical
and biological weapons. Even former Bush advisor Richard Perle has said
the U.S. could cut to well below 1,000 warheads. "The truth is
we are never going to use them," Perle said. "The Russians
aren't going to use theirs either."
By clinging to our own nuclear
arsenal, and touting the importance of these weapons to our own security,
the Bush administration has sent the world a schizoid message: Nuclear
weapons are very, very important and useful — but you cannot have
them. This double standard is impossible to maintain.
Last year, International
Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei said that until the
world was committed to eradicating nuclear weapons, "we will continue
to have this cynical environment that all the guys in the minor leagues
will try to join the major leagues…. They will say, 'If the big
boys continue to rely on nuclear weapons, why shouldn't I?' "
Bush administration officials
have proved expert at smashing the agreements their predecessors so
painstakingly built, but in doing so they broke the bars that had caged
the nuclear beast. Those who will have to repair the damage would do
well to look back at the handiwork of the past. They might learn a thing
Joseph Cirincione is a senior
vice president at the Center for American Progress. His new book, "Bomb
Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons," will be published
© 2006 Los Angeles Times
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