The Looming Nuclear Danger
only the third quarter, but right now the scoreboard reads:
Axis of Evil 2, Bush 1. While Saddam Hussein may be in jail,
North Korea has announced it has nuclear weapons and Iran
is moving briskly in that direction. The administration,
which has all the trouble it can handle coping with its
"catastrophic success" in Iraq, doesn't know what to do
about either Kim Jong Il or the ayatollahs in Tehran.
all fairness, there may not be much anyone can do to stop
or undo these nuclear programs. Doomsday weapons can be
an invaluable asset in a dangerous world -- which is why
we hang on to ours despite having the most powerful conventional
military force in history. North Korea and Iran may want
nuclear weapons to terrorize their neighbors or us, but
they doubtless also want them for self-protection.
what's the downside of becoming a nuclear power? Well, you
may suffer isolation and criticism from the international
community. But ostracizing North Korea is like lynching
a corpse. You can hardly shame a government that is already
the chief pariah on the planet. Kim Jong Il is prepared
to make his people feed on grass for as long as necessary
to advance his ambitions.
government in Tehran may be slightly more interested in
gaining acceptance, but the nature of international relations
is that survival trumps all other concerns. If Iran thinks
it needs the bomb to ward off attack -- of the sort that
brought down the government next door -- it's not likely
to be seduced by promises of passionate economic intercourse.
displays of stubbornness are an embarrassment for a president
who thought he could intimidate our enemies with threats
and demands. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush
declared, "The United States of America will not permit
the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the
world's most destructive weapons."
was the rationale for the Iraq war, which only adds to the
mortification: We invaded a country that didn't have weapons
of mass destruction, while putting up with one that claims
it does and another that is far closer to getting nukes
than Iraq ever was.
demolition of Saddam Hussein was supposed to cow the others
into submission. As it happens, the invasion apparently
had the opposite effect. In the first place, North Korea
and Iran may have deduced that the greatest danger is not
building nuclear weapons. Hussein's strategic blunder was
to do just enough on weapons of mass destruction to attract
attention but not enough to defend himself.
important, the attack on Iraq didn't leave us much wherewithal
to whack anyone else. From the vantage point of Pyongyang
and Tehran, it served the welcome purpose of pinning down
almost all our combat troops in a war that could go on for
what can we do about these new nuclear threats? Invasion
is not an option, even if we had lots of troops twiddling
their thumbs at Fort Hood. Air raids might not eliminate
all the nuclear assets in either country, and they would
invite awful retaliation. Iran could launch missile attacks
on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. North Korea could rain destruction
on Seoul or Tokyo.
only real choices we have are unpleasant. One is to dangle
incentives such as aid and trade to North Korea, in the
hope of buying them off or at least reducing their economic
need to sell their nukes on the sly. Another is to offer
security guarantees backed by the United Nations: You agree
to give up nuclear weapons, and we agree not to attack you.
ultimately, there may be no way to divert them from the
nuclear path. In that case, we need to focus on what is
truly vital. After all, we can live with hostile nuclear
states -- as we've done in the past with the Soviet Union
and China. What makes North Korea scary is that it might
sell nukes to any willing buyer; what makes Iran scary is
that it might smuggle them to terrorist groups.
both need to get a blunt message: should a nuclear attack
take place that we trace back to them -- no matter who carries
it out -- they will face annihilation. Nuclear deterrence
kept the peace during the Cold War, and we may have no choice
but to make it serve the same purpose again.
may sound like an imperfect, highly troublesome option,
and it is. Unfortunately, we're fresh out of better ones.
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