In Defense of Bush's Counter-Proliferation

March 31, 2004 Topic: Security

In Defense of Bush's Counter-Proliferation

When the Bush Administration took office, the specter of proliferating nuclear weapons was high on its agenda.

When the Bush Administration took office, the specter of proliferating nuclear weapons was high on its agenda. During the previous decade, six states acquired or sought nuclear weapons, including North Korea, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India. Except for the last two, all were signatories to the NPT, in which they legally pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons.

The past policies inherited by the new administration were seriously inadequate to the task they faced. Part of the problem was the conventional wisdom over the extent and nature of these weapons programs. For example, while Libya's chemical weapons program was a brief concern in 1996, its nuclear program was considered largely non-existent. North Korea's 1994 nuclear agreement with the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea was widely hailed as comprehensive and a success. As for Iran, the US and the European Union had sought to deal with the mullahs through economic engagement and trade. In addition, the intelligence community missed the nuclear bomb tests of Pakistan and India, largely because US policy had largely ignored Pakistan's nuclear program, while India was still not divided from its past close association with the Soviet Union, making approaches from the United States difficult.

Particularly troublesome was the flawed assessment of how serious nuclear threats from rogue states were becoming. This issue has been shielded from examination largely because of the fixation on the charge that the British and American Governments "sexed up" the threat assessment of Iraq's weapons in order to justify using military force.

Although this charge has not withstood closer scrutiny, it has meant a less than careful examination of the previous assessments of the threats from other rogue states. I believe much of the intelligence community and many policy-makers, including the IAEA, systematically "sexed down" the nuclear threat from rogue countries, in some part due to policy-makers' preference to see these problems "go away."

What is at least interesting, and in my view worrisome, is that since 2001, the Bush Administration has discovered, for example, what turned out to be a very extensive Libyan nuclear program, with over 1000 centrifuges, and private and government suppliers' networks far more extensive than any previous assessment had even hinted at, reaching all the way to Pakistan and China. Compare by contrast the book "Deadly Arsenals," published by the Carnegie Endowment just a few years ago, where the very idea that Libya had a robust nuclear weapons program was dismissed out of hand.

The Bush Administration also uncovered intelligence showing a North Korean dual-track effort at acquiring nuclear weapons with a uranium enrichment program running parallel to their Yongbon nuclear reactor. They had the courage to admit that the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, brokered in large part by former President Carter, was a fraud and had lulled the US and its allies to sleep under the pretense that the North Korean nuclear program was safely contained.

In addition, the administration discovered that while publicly proclaiming their adherence to a missile test moratorium, the North Koreans were actually shipping their rocket engines to Iran for testing - a stealth policy that allowed the North to both continue development of their missiles and, at the same time, win brownie points with the US disarmament community that touted the test moratorium as evidence of North Korea's good will.

The administration also inherited little, if any, framework for properly assessing or containing Iran's nuclear programs. The European Union was committed to maintaining its economic ties to Iran and strongly avoided any possible IAEA inspection report that would push the matter to the United Nations Security Council and possible mandatory sanctions against Iran.

In the one area where bipartisan support was fairly robust, such as the Nunn-Lugar program to dismantle nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, the recent defense budget request submitted by the administration to Congress contained over $1 billion. The program helps secure, in part, nuclear weapons junk in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, to prevent its proliferation to, in large part, rogue states. The administration has secured pledges of $17 billion toward a $20 billion goal, to expand the program over the next decade. Some parts of this effort have been successfully completed, with the result that some portions of the overall budget have declined. True to form, critics have jumped on this fact to claim a lack of interest on the part of the Bush Administration to secure the proliferating nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons programs that remain in the former Soviet Union and that have surfaced in the rogue states mentioned above.

Such criticisms are unfounded and belie a hypocrisy that is astounding when examined closely. The severest critics of the Bush Administration were the strongest supporters of the admittedly weak counter-proliferation efforts in the Clinton Administration. They were enthusiastic supporters of the North Korean deal and were sharply critical of any and all who even hinted that the North Koreans were not keeping their part of the Agreed Framework bargain.

The administration has successfully eliminated any chance the newly liberated Iraqi people will get back in the nuclear business. The Libyan government has come clean, giving up not only its nuclear weapons program, but its chemical and biological weapons program as well. This extraordinary breakthrough was outlined in detail by DCI Tenet recently but nearly ignored by the mainstream media.

On Iran, the IAEA keeps trying to give the mullahs a clean bill of health, and the Mullahs keep embarrassing the IAEA, as further and further details of yet another nuclear program in Iran surface. Whether the events in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq have the same impact on Iran, as they appear to have had on Libya's Qaddafi, remains to be seen.

On North Korea, early critics were insistent the Bush Administration compromise and sign a deal because of that country's current arsenal of two or three nuclear weapons. When the administration insisted on the complete dismantlement and elimination of the entire nuclear program, these same critics immediately back-tracked, claiming a freeze was in good order, because no one really knew whether the North really had nuclear weapons or not. Now that the administration has secured a unanimous agreement among the parties-other than North Korea-that a verified elimination is the only acceptable outcome-critics are once again blaming the administration for the North's refusal to even consider such a deal with its insistence that while it doesn't have a secondary enrichment program, it nonetheless has the right to keep one!

The administration inherited a policy described by Rich Lowry of National Review as "trust but don't verify" from the previous administration. The Clinton's own proliferation czar, Ash Carter, admitted the Bush administration should have thrown away his own crafted counter-proliferation plans, which the latter inherited, but then complains that the administration has changed course. Although the problems inherited in 2001 remain, much has been cleaned up by a tough and energetic approach by a new administration to an old problem, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, a cooperative effort to interdict nuclear smuggling and trade. In addition, the US and British have uncovered and hopefully eliminated an extensive rogue suppliers market for nuclear materials that appeared to have been centered in Pakistan.

The effort to end nuclear weapons programs in nations legally committed never to build them but committed to securing them nonetheless requires more than negotiations in Geneva, Bonn or New York. Diplomacy, without being backed by military power begins to look a lot like prayer or wishful thinking. A whole host of tools, including missile defense, export controls, arms control, deterrence, dissuasion, interdiction, and, yes, regime change, are all part of the diplomatic, military and political elements that will make up an effective counter-proliferation policy. This administration is moving very much in the right direction, and the removal of wicked dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq played no small part in the success to date.


Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a Maryland defense consulting firm. He is Senior Defense Associate at NDUF. He specializes in nuclear weapons, missile defense, terrorism and rogue states. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his affiliated organizations.