Cassandra's Conundrum

In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exagger

In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. Joseph Cirincione responds.

FIRST, LET me agree with one of John Mueller's main points: The dangers to our national security are very often hyped, and this alarmism produces undesirable consequences. And it is not just venal politicians and ideologues who participate in this threat exaggeration, but otherwise well-intentioned reporters and, yes, experts. This was pointed out to me not by a journalist, but by a man who pretends to be a journalist: Jon Stewart. Interviewing me on his Daily Show shortly after the hyped-up scare of Jose Padilla's alleged "dirty bomb" plot in 2002, he asked about my role in the media coverage. "For a guy like you", he said, "is this like when you see the weatherman and a hurricane is coming, and the weatherman never really gets to be at the top of the news, but in a hurricane, he is. And he's got his big rain slicker on and saying, ‘It's a devastating event!'"

He was right. That is exactly what it is like for dozens of experts put in front of the cameras and microphones and asked to play their role in the frenzy of "Crisis with Iran", "Showdown with Iraq", "America in the Crosshairs" or whatever title, music and drama can convince the viewer not to flip the channel. We try to give just the facts, but it is hard not to get caught up in the moment or to provide a sound bite that will be used absent any qualifiers. Couple this media tendency with an administration's inherent dominance and ability to frame any national-security debate, and Mueller is right to be very worried about the use of fear to manipulate even the informed public.

In the prelude to the Iraq War, we saw a considerable amount of threat-mongering. Now, some of the same people who claimed we had to invade that nation or risk nuclear weapons in the hands of an Iraqi dictator are trying to convince us that we must continue to occupy that nation or risk nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian dictators. As Mueller points out, some want to go further, attacking Iran directly. His arguments about the futility of a military answer to the Iranian program are on point, particularly the negative lessons of Osirak.

 

Just Because You're Paranoid. . . .

MUELLER GOES too far, however. His major thesis-"the obsessive quest to control nuclear proliferation . . . has been substantially counterproductive and has often inflicted dire costs"-is not correct. I wish it were true that we had an "obsessive quest." I wish we truly did make the number one threat to our national security our number one national-security priority. But we do not. Non-proliferation is a political and budgetary afterthought: an occasional speech, an occasional presidential finding and about $2 billion per year total on all our non-proliferation and counter-proliferation programs-about what we spend in Iraq every week.

Let me be clear: Nuclear proliferation is a real danger. George Bush and John Kerry were correct when they agreed in a 2004 debate that it is the number one threat to America. The threat comes in four flavors. Most serious is nuclear terrorism. As terrible as another 9/11 attack would be, a nuclear 9/11 would destroy an entire city, kill hundreds of thousands, wreck the economy and change the political life of the nation, perhaps permanently. Our number one priority must be to make sure any further terrorist attack is non-nuclear.

Second is the danger from existing arsenals. There are still 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to destroy the planet several times over. Even a small regional war in South Asia using one hundred weapons would trigger a nuclear winter that could devastate food crops around the world. Accidental or unauthorized use is a real risk. Consider the September flight of a B-52 with six nuclear weapons that the crew didn't know they had. If the most sophisticated command-and-control mechanism in the world fails to stop the unauthorized possession of the equivalent of sixty Hiroshimas, what is going on in other nations?

Third is the risk of new nuclear nations. I agree with Mueller that the danger here is not that Iran or North Korea would use a nuclear bomb against America or their neighbors. Deterrence is alive and well; they know what would happen next. Nor is it that these states would intentionally give a weapon they worked so hard to make to a terrorist group they could not control. Rather it is the risk of what could happen in the neighborhood: a nuclear reaction chain where states feel they must match each other's nuclear capability. Just such a reaction is underway already in the Middle East, as over a dozen Muslim nations suddenly declared interest in starting nuclear-power programs. This is not about energy; it is a nuclear hedge against Iran. It could lead to a Middle East with not one nuclear-weapons state, Israel, but four or five. That is a recipe for nuclear war.

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Nuclear Proliferation