Prevention, not intervention: curbing the new nuclear threat.

Author:Hartung, William D.

From the moment he took office, President George W. Bush has been preoccupied with the need to protect U.S. territory, forces, and allies from a nuclear attack. He has followed through on this concern in a variety of ways: abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, boosting missile defense funding, striking a deal to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and unveiling a new nuclear doctrine that seeks to increase U.S. capabilities to destroy underground nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons facilities. But his most passionate anti-nuclear sentiments have been reserved for his assertion that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons represents the greatest threat to peace and stability in the world today.

Bush's anti-nuclearism is a muscular affair, grounded in the unilateralist credo of "peace through strength." His administration is not putting its trust in treaties or the rule of law to diminish the nuclear danger, but in its ability to use force or the threat of force to preempt the development of these devastating weapons by hostile nations or terrorist groups. Yet, in the real world, as opposed to the world that exists in the imaginings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, overthrowing Saddam Hussein will have virtually no impact on the future ability of al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group to get its hands on a nuclear weapon. Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," a terror network intent on gaining access to nuclear weapons or the ingredients thereof is likely to go where the bombs are. Bribing an underpaid Russian security guard or infiltrating the Pakistani nuclear program are far more promising avenues for terrorists seeking a nuc lear weapon than cutting a deal with Saddam Hussein's regime, which on present evidence does not possess nuclear weapons and would be extremely unlikely to share them with an Islamic fundamentalist group if it did. (1)

Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of aggressive regimes and terrorist groups will require the use of a powerful foreign policy tool that the Bush administration has never been entirely comfortable with--concerted, consistent international diplomacy. (2) Specifically, it will involve strengthening, rather than rejecting, the existing network of treaties and bilateral agreements that have kept nuclear weapons from becoming a far more pervasive problem. It will also require the systematic reduction of global stores of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials to the lowest possible levels. (3) Preventive diplomatic efforts will be far more effective in stopping the new nuclear danger than provocative military strikes.

What About Iraq?

Arms control skeptics in the Bush administration frequently point to Iraq as the ultimate evidence for their argument that diplomacy is of minimal value for dealing with regimes that are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. But a comparison of the administration's case for war against Iraq with the recent historical record and current policy alternatives suggests otherwise. The logic of the Bush administration's stance on war against Iraq is that Saddam Hussein is an adversary who has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against his own people, and that he would be likely to use nuclear weapons if he were allowed to acquire them. In the administration's view, an Iraqi bomb could be used against U.S. troops or America's allies, or passed on to a terrorist group or brandished as a threat to gain greater influence over the region's oil resources. Since no one knows for sure when Iraq might develop a nuclear weapon, administration strategists assert that it is better to "take out" Saddam Hussein sooner rather than later. As the president put it in a speech in Cincinnati this past October, "We cannot wait for the final proof--the smoking gun--that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." (4)

But there is no documented operational link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, nor is there any reason to believe that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons of mass destruction on to a terrorist group except as an act of desperation. Second, the notion that a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein would be "undeterrable"--that he would use a nuclear weapon against the United States at the risk of seeing himself and his regime completely destroyed in a devastating counterattack--is not in keeping with his behavior to date. Nor is there evidence to suggest that Iraq is on the verge of developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. And most importantly, there are alternative policy options available that would be more effective not only in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Saddam Hussein but in the still more important task of keeping them out of the hands of terrorist groups.

Woolsey-Headed Thinking

Try as it might, the Bush administration has not been able to document an operational link between Saddam Hussein's regime and the al-Qaeda terror network. This is no surprise to experts on the region. As former National Security Council analyst Daniel Benjamin has put it, "Iraq and Al Qaeda are not obvious allies.... They are natural enemies." Nor would Hussein be liable to trust a fundamentalist like Osama bin Laden, given his own troubles with internal Islamic opposition groups. As Benjamin notes, "Mr. Hussein has remained true to the unwritten rules of state sponsorship of terror: never get involved with a group that cannot be controlled and never give a weapon of mass destruction to terrorists who might use it against you." (5)

Friends of the administration like former CIA director and current Defense Policy Board member R. James Woolsey have tried to conjure an Iraq--al-Qaeda connection, citing as evidence such examples as an alleged meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence official and al-Qaeda suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta prior to the September ii attacks. Subsequent investigation of the alleged meeting has since led Czech president Vaclav Havel to conclude that no such meeting occurred, an assessment corroborated by U.S. intelligence officials. Woolsey, a professional Iraqophobe with strong ties to conservative think tanks and Iraqi opposition groups that have long advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, argued in the wake of the September 11 attacks that not only was Iraq the most likely "state sponsor of al-Qaeda but was a probable source of the anthrax that killed 5 Americans and terrified millions more in the fall of 2001. (6)

The closest the administration has come to forging a link is a free-association syllogism along these lines: if Iraq is evil, and al-Qaeda is evil, Iraq and al-Qaeda must be part of the same evil. As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice puts the case, "Terrorism is a problem, weapons of mass destruction [are] a problem, the potential link between the two is a problem. What September ii did is to vivify what [happens] if evil people decide that they're going to go after you, and that it doesn't take much." (7) Or, as President Bush put it in his Cincinnati speech, "Terror cells and outlaw regimes building weapons of mass destruction are different faces of the same evil." (8) But, as Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council staffer and author of a book advocating the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, notes, the idea of an Iraq-al-Qaeda link is a particularly weak argument for intervention: "It would be the dumbest thing in the world for Saddam to be supporting anti-U.S. terrorism right now, and mos t of what we've seen from him suggests he knows that." (9)

A threat that the administration's policymakers do not appear to be taking seriously is the possibility that by treating Iraq and al-Qaeda as a common evil they may promote connections between the two that would not otherwise have existed. As CIA director George Tenet noted in a letter made public last fall at the insistence of then Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing the line short of conducting terrorist attacks...against the United States. Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States might be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him." (10)

Softballs and Tiddly-Winks

The evidence put forth by the Bush administration regarding an imminent nuclear threat from Iraq has also been less than persuasive. The impressionistic tone of its case was exemplified by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's comments at a September...

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