Paul Pillar

Where Our Best Information Comes From

A front-page article by Mary Beth Sheridan in today's Washington Post discusses a major downside of the expiration several months ago of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty: the suspension of on-site inspections, as authorized by the treaty, that permitted U.S. experts to examine directly the missiles, silos, warheads, and other components of Russian strategic nuclear forces.  Inspections will not resume until the newest START agreement, negotiations on which were completed in April, is ratified.  Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the Senate's few genuinely knowledgeable members when it comes to nuclear weapons, observes that the verification gap is "very serious and impacts our national security."  Ratification of the new treaty has been held up mostly by Lugar's Republican colleagues over such questions as what impact it would have on missile defense.  The hold-up is partly political posturing by members of the opposition party, who assumed a remarkably different stance toward a similar treaty that had been negotiated by a president of their own party.  It also appears to be partly a function of ignorance about things such as monitoring and verification.  Arizona Republican John Kyl, when asked about the suspension of on-side monitoring, said,  "I thought we were just going to continue doing business as usual."

Lugar is right to be concerned about this aspect of national security, even though worries about Russian cheating on nuclear weapons agreements ceased long ago to be the high-profile issue that it was during the arms control efforts of the Cold War.  But this aspect of the handling of START is part of a larger pattern of disregarding the best sources of information about what adversaries, or would-be adversaries, are up to.  Those sources arise, just as they have in the U.S.-Russian context, out of engagement, cooperative threat reduction, and things such as on-side inspection that are made possible by agreements such as START. There is no substitute for direct observation, particularly regarding military activities and the development of weapons.  But instead of recognizing this, we too often reject possible agreements, disregard the costs that rejection has in the form of lost information, and unrealistically expect intelligence services to obtain through unilateral means all the information we want to have about what adversaries are doing.

This pattern was exhibited before the initiation of the Iraq War in 2003, when the Bush administration kicked international weapons inspectors out of Iraq to clear the decks for the invasion.  The departure of the inspectors meant the loss of what was easily the biggest source of information about what Iraq was or was not up to regarding the development of unconventional weapons.  In this instance, booting out the inspectors probably had less to do with ignorance about sources of information than with the fact that the administration had already determined many months earlier that it would launch the war, for which the issue of weapons of mass destruction was a selling point rather than a prime motivator.

A similar pattern has been exhibited regarding Iran and the fixation with its nuclear program.  Left unexplored have been avenues of possible agreement for putting to the test Tehran's claim that it does not intend to build nuclear weapons, and for monitoring and verification arrangements that would go beyond what the International Atomic Energy Agency has done.  Instead, we have declared all Iranian enrichment of uranium to be out of bounds and have vainly expected our intelligence services to provide definitive answers to all our questions about what Iran is up to, including impossible-to-answer questions about Iranian decisions not yet made.

There are several good reasons for exploring areas of common ground with our adversaries.  Keeping better tabs on what they are doing is one of those reasons.