Radioactive Hype

Radioactive Hype

Mini Teaser: Public enemies are unlikely to obtain nuclear weapons, despite widespread fears to the contrary.

by Author(s): John Mueller


LET ME be clear at the outset (since it will likely be forgotten by readers who manage to get past this paragraph) that I consider dissuading more countries from obtaining nuclear weapons to be quite a good idea and preventing terrorists from getting them to be an even better one. Indeed, I am even persuaded from time to time that the world might well be better off if the countries who now have them gave them up. Perhaps we could start with the French, who cling to an arsenal presumably under the imaginative notion that the weapons might one day prove useful should Nice be savagely bombarded from the sea or should a truly unacceptable number of Africans in former French colonies take up English.

My concern, however, is that the obsessive quest to control nuclear proliferation-particularly since the end of the Cold War-has been substantially counterproductive and has often inflicted dire costs. Specifically, the effort to prevent proliferation has enhanced the appeal of-or desperate desire for-nuclear weapons for some regimes, even as it has resulted in far more deaths than have been caused by all nuclear-or even all Weapons of Mass Destruction-detonations in all of history.

Presidents, White House hopefuls, congressmen, those in the threat-assessment business and the American public are convinced the biggest danger to the United States, and perhaps even the entire world order, comes from the two-pronged threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. This concern is understandable, but it is overwrought and has had undesirable consequences.

Casualties of the Non-proliferation Quest

THE QUEST to prevent atomic spread and the resulting destruction has been bipartisan. The current disastrous Iraq War, with deaths that may well run into the hundreds of thousands, is a key case in point. It was almost entirely sold by the Republican administration as a venture required to keep Saddam Hussein's pathetic-and fully containable and deterrable-rogue state from developing nuclear and other potentially threatening weapons, and to prevent him from palming off some of these to eager and congenial terrorists. Democrats have derided the war as "unnecessary", but the bulk of them only came to that conclusion when neither weapons nor weapons programs were found in Iraq: Many of them have made it clear they would support military action and its attendant bloodshed if the intelligence about Saddam's programs had been accurate.

However, the devastation of Iraq in the service of limiting proliferation did not begin with Bush's war in 2003; this time they just embellished the terrorism angle. Over the previous 13 years, Iraqis suffered under economic sanctions visited upon them by both Democratic and Republican administrations that were designed to force Saddam from office (and effectively from life since he had no viable sanctuary elsewhere) while keeping the country from developing chemical, biological and especially nuclear weapons. The goals certainly had their admirable side. But, as multiple studies have shown, the sanctions proved to be a necessary cause of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them children under the age of five-the most innocent of civilians.

One might have imagined that the people carrying out this policy with its horrific and well-known consequences would from time to time have been asked whether the results were worth the costs. To my knowledge, this happened only once, on television's 60 Minutes in 1996. Madeleine Albright, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, was asked, "We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. . . . Is the price worth it?" Albright did not dispute the number and acknowledged it to be "a very hard choice." But, she concluded, "We think the price is worth it", pointing out that because of sanctions Saddam had recognized Kuwait and had come "cleaner on some of these weapons programs."

A Lexis-Nexis search suggests that Albright's dismissal of the devastation on a prominent television show went completely unremarked upon by the U.S. media. In the Middle East, however, it was covered widely and repeatedly. Osama bin Laden was among the outraged and used the punishment that sanctions were inflicting on Iraqi civilians as a centerpiece in his many diatribes against heartless American policy in the region.

The damn-the-costs perspective on atomic proliferation is also evident in the thinking of the distinguished Harvard political scientist, Graham Allison. In his thoughtful, well-argued and determinedly alarming 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism, Allison proclaims "no new nuclear weapons states" to be a central foreign-policy principle. He goes on to pronounce it to be no less than a "supreme priority" that North Korea be stopped from joining the nuclear club.

To deal with what he considers an urgent threat, Allison proposes several diplomatic steps, including the screening of a horror video for North Korea's Kim Jong-il ("known to be a great fan of movies") that would graphically depict the kind of destruction American munitions could visit upon Kim's errant country. Should diplomacy fail and this vivid bluff be called, however, Allison essentially advocates launching a Pearl Harbor-like attack. Yet he acknowledges that potential nuclear targets have been dispersed and disguised; we would likely fail to locate and destroy them all. Moreover, a resulting war might kill tens of thousands in South Korea-though to cut down on the civilian body count Allison does humanely suggest pre-emptively evacuating Seoul, one of the world's largest cities, which already boasts some of the most impressive traffic jams on the planet.

Members of the Bush Administration, perhaps because they had become immersed in their own anti-proliferation war in Iraq, were able to contain their enthusiasm for Allison's urgent advice, and North Korea is now a nuclear-armed state. Allison sternly insisted that such an outcome would be "gross negligence" and would foster "a transformation in the international security order no great power would wittingly accept." So, with all that behind us, we are in position to sit back and see if Allison's predictions have come true: A North Korean bomb, he declares, will "unleash a proliferation chain reaction, with South Korea and Japan building their own weapons by the end of the decade", with Taiwan "seriously considering following suit despite the fact that this would risk war with China" and with North Korea potentially "becoming the Nukes R' Us for terrorists."

And now we are at it again. Urged on by Israel and by its influential and voluble allies in the United States, the same geniuses who gave us the Iraq War seem to be contemplating air strikes or even an invasion of Iran to keep that country from getting an atomic bomb. The hysteria inspired in Israel by some of the fulminations of Iran's current president, a populist whose tenuous hold on office has been enhanced by foreign overreaction to his windbaggeries, may be understandable. But it does not necessarily lead to wise policy, even for Israel.

The casualties inflicted by an attack on Iran either through direct action or "collateral damage" (including, potentially, induced nuclear radiation) could rival those suffered by Iraq. And the results would most likely be counterproductive. Israel's highly touted air strike against Iraq's nuclear program in the Osirak attack of 1981, as Richard Betts pointed out in these pages in the spring of 2006, actually caused Saddam Hussein to speed up his nuclear activities and decrease the program's vulnerability by dispersing its elements-a lesson Iran has also learned. An attack on Iran is likely to lead to an uptick in their programs as well, and the radicalization it would inspire in Pakistan could lead to atomic assistance-or even the fraternal loan of a bomb or two. Iran would also probably exercise its capacity for making the U.S. position both in Iraq and in Afghanistan considerably more dire.

The Atomic Terrorist

HERE IS another favorite fantasy of the alarmists: A newly nuclear country will pass a bomb or two to friendly terrorists for delivery abroad. Yet as William Langewiesche stresses in Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, this is highly improbable. There would be too much risk, even for a country led by extremists. If the ultimate source of the weapon were discovered-whether before or after detonation-international retribution could be unfathomably fierce. Potential detection as a nuclear-terrorist abettor carries too high a price. Moreover, no state is likely to trust Al-Qaeda-most are already on its extensive enemies list.

Since they are unlikely to be aided by an established state, terrorists would need to buy or steal the crucial fissile material and then manufacture the device themselves. On this front, there is much rumor but little substance. Even though Bin Laden sometimes appears to talk a good game, the degree to which Al-Qaeda has pursued a nuclear-weapons program may have been exaggerated by the arch-terrorist himself, as well as by the same slam-dunkers who packaged Saddam's WMD-development scare.

The 9/11 Commission, media and various threat-mongers have trotted out evidence ranging from the ludicrous to the merely dubious when it comes to Al-Qaeda's nuclear intentions. One particularly well-worn tale-based on the testimony of an embezzling Al-Qaeda operative who later defected-describes Bin Laden's efforts to obtain some uranium while in Sudan in 1993. For his prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright interviewed two relevant people-including the man who supposedly made the purchase-and both say the episode never happened.

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