Polishing Up the Story on the PSI

 It has been a full year since President George W.


It has been a full year since President George W. Bush announced the establishment of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in Warsaw, Poland.  The PSI is a central pillar of the current U.S. strategy to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  The initiative works for concerted action among interested states, using their national capabilities to develop tools to interdict shipments of items on land, sea and air that could contribute to WMD programs.  On May 31, 2004, a two-day meeting was convened in Warsaw, engaging 85 states in broadening the development of the PSI and its activities.  

By some measures, the PSI has been a remarkable success.  The core group of states has reached 15, with Russia announcing its membership on May 31, and the presence of 70 more states at the Warsaw conference is testimony to wide international interest in elevating this nonproliferation mechanism to a higher level in diplomacy.  Liberia and Panama have completed agreements that now allow the U.S. to board the enormous number of ships registered under their flags if they pose proliferation dangers.  The State Department points out that PSI parties can now board approximately half the ships involved in international commerce.

The Bush Administration has simultaneously elevated another important principle in international affairs:  even if a foreign policy vehicle has broad international backing, its worth is low if it does not work.  Toward this end, the administration officials have therefore pointed to successful operations carried out within the context of PSI's Statement of Interdiction Principles.  Yet, upon examination, the PSI's effectiveness has not matched the administration's rhetoric.  Though marginally effective, the PSI has not led to the resounding non-proliferation victories trumpeted.

President Bush first announced a successful operation in the February 11, 2004 rollout of his approach to nonproliferation.  In the address, he detailed the October 4, 2003, interception by Germany and Italy, using U.S. and U.K.-supplied intelligence, of a vessel in the Mediterranean on its way from Malaysia to Libya.  The German-owned boat carried components for a "turnkey" uranium enrichment centrifuge factory produced with the expertise of the illicit nuclear technology sales network led by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, the administration official who has led the implementation of PSI, testified to members of Congress on March 30, 2004, about how this successful operation drove negotiations with Libya.  Although Libya refused to engage in "serious conversation about the importance of verifying" the elements of its WMD program, the PSI interdiction persuaded it to assent to "discussions on what became a very extensive series of inspections and visits [by U.K. and U.S. officials] proceeded."  After the October and December 2003 inspections, Libya agreed to permanently dismantle its WMD programs on December 19.

Libya's disarmament commitments represent an undeniable accomplishment in nonproliferation.  The astonishingly rapid pace at which Libya has divested itself of its nuclear and chemical weapons infrastructure deserves no second-guessing of any kind.  However, the October 2003 interception of the Libyan nuclear equipment is the only publicly disclosed instance demonstrating the effectiveness of the PSI approach and is offered as a justification for its expansion.  With Undersecretary Bolton arguing that the Libya operation was "the most recent example" of successful cooperative interdiction efforts, a closer look is required by the diplomats returning from the Warsaw meeting.

Initially, U.S. government officials drew no connections between the nonproliferation achievement in Libya and the PSI's operations.  While crediting the U.S. intelligence community and its existing coordination efforts with foreign governments for putting the pieces together on the Libyan program, the State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher explained on December 22, 2003 that the PSI was "a more recent development," although it did provide additional tools to combat WMD proliferation generally.

The link between the PSI and Libya's disarmament was only made clear in President Bush's February address.  However, the president's own statements suggested that the PSI was not essential to intercepting the Libya shipment.  The principles undergirding PSI interdictions had only been agreed to on September 4, 2003.  Bush, however, explained that "over several years," American and British intelligence agents had "pieced together" the network of nuclear proliferation emanating from Pakistan and used this information to track the Libya-bound vessel just one month after the PSI's procedures had been formally agreed to by the core parties, including Germany and Italy. 

The President and other administration officials have offered no clear explanation of why the years of investigation that preceded the operation were trumped by one month of authorized exchanges of information and cooperative interdiction activities under the PSI.  Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. would have found much resistance in recruiting Italy and Germany to stop a vessel that it was certain contained materials of concern.

Another question that has been neither asked nor answered concerns the content of the negotiations with Libya prior to the October interception.  If Libya was reluctant to allow the scope of its weapons programs to be verified, it is hard to understand why American officials would allow unproductive negotiations with Qaddafi to proceed for seven months.  Moreover, it is even more difficult to see why Libya would permit such sweeping inspections to occur within weeks of having its nuclear weapons capability cut-off in transit.