Response to Heather Wilson's 'Missed Opportunities'

Response to Heather Wilson's 'Missed Opportunities'

Mini Teaser: Heather Wilson's article will, no doubt, win her few friends among her former colleagues in the Bush administration or among their successors.

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

Heather Wilson's article will, no doubt, win her few friends among her former colleagues in the Bush administration or among their successors. In fact, in the proliferation area, remarkably enough, these have proven to be one and the same--the thorough-going purge of Bush appointees that swept the Pentagon left a number of holdovers in the State Department and National Security Council. In any event, Wilson is probably right to say that neither the administration did very much to stop proliferation, with one major exception. The war against Iraq, launched in part to head off Iraq's bid for regional hegemony, turned into an assault on her nuclear potential. Had the Bush administration flinched from that conflict, or had it pursued its anti-Iraq policy less vigorously after the war, the world might well have witnessed the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East before the end of the decade. Furthermore, by explicitly making the Iraqi nuclear program a target of attack, Bush legitimized the American use of armed force for this aim. In these respects, then, he deserves rather more credit than she gives him.

Wilson errs, I think, in her assumption that American governments can do very much to stem proliferation. Three forces have come together to increase the danger of proliferation in the 1990s. First, over the decades technological know-how has diffused, putting nuclear potential within the range of a number of states. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union has created a vast pool of scientists available for hire to work on such programs. It has also, in all likelihood, made nuclear material, including weapons, available for sale to potential proliferators. At the same time, the implosion of the Soviet state has removed from the world stage a major military power that had come to see the benefits of preventing nuclear proliferation. Third, and ironically, the Persian Gulf War has made it clear that no country can match the United States in conventional conflict. To a hostile general staff, nuclear weapons look increasingly attractive as means of deterring either the Yankees or (more likely) their local clients, who provide the necessary bases from which American military power operates.

It is hard to see how any American strategy, no matter how clever the conception or assiduous the implementation could do more than meliorate the fundamental problem. The American government cannot legally prevent nuclear physicists from learning their trade at American universities, much less other institutions overseas. Nor can the United States simply buy up all the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons or pay off all the rogue scientists or impoverished guards, technicians, and operators who maintain the former Soviet arsenal. And, as suggested above, the Gulf War sowed the seeds of future proliferation even as it uprooted one of the more dangerous threats.

Of course it makes sense to pursue marginal remedies as energetically as possible, including those developed by Wilson in her article. But both technically and politically they can achieve only limited success. The problem of detecting mobile missiles during the Gulf War offers a good example. Even if American pilots had received instantaneous warning of Scud launches (and some did, when they witnessed the actual firing of the missiles), they simply could not locate the launchers with sufficient accuracy to bring weapons to bear on them. The relatively crude nature of the Iraqi missiles imposed restrictions on where and how their crews could operate that will not apply in the future. If ever the United States manages to defeat the ballistic missile, the low-flying (and soon, stealthy) cruise missile will prove a more difficult challenge yet. As for the talk of pre-emptive war, would that the United States were willing to engage in it, should the need arise. But really, who can imagine a president authorizing a large scale, unilateral air and possibly ground attack against a country that has done no direct harm to the United States or its allies? The days of Osirak-type raids on a single, easily located and above-surface nuclear facility are over. Secrecy, camouflage, deception, and dispersion will make preemption a far more extensive and uncertain operation than ever before.

It is altogether proper to be gloomy about the proliferation problem. In addition to undertaking the kind of measures Wilson suggests, the American government needs to prepare itself, materially, organizationally, and psychologically, for the day after the first nuclear weapon is used in anger. Then, but only then, will the kinds of drastic measures she favors become real policy options. The material preparation requires, among other things, a renewal of investment in the development of sophisticated nuclear weapons which the United States might use to destroy a nascent nuclear arsenal. It is technically feasible to develop nuclear weapons that could do useful work against such limited targets, without incinerating cities or blasting into the air large quantities of radioactive dust. The organizational preparation entails a kind of war planning unfamiliar to the armed forces in the recent past--crippling, punitive strikes against opponents whom the United States cannot disarm, or sudden, preemptive blows thrown at very short notice. The psychological preparation will prove the most difficult of all, however, for it will require a confession that none of the cleverly conceived arms control efforts (export controls, buy-back plans, and international agreements) will do more than defer the dark day on which, for the first time since Nagasaki, a country uses an atomic bomb as a weapon of war.

Essay Types: Essay