The race against proliferation

Posted: Mar 04, 2004 12:00 AM

How high are the stakes in the war on terror? We are working to prevent the detonation of a nuclear device in an American city some day. That has made weapons proliferation -- hitherto the obscure province of arms-control experts and international lawyers --an issue of the utmost priority. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton is a Bush administration point man on proliferation, promoting a policy that -- like much else having to do with President Bush -- is under harsh attack.

John Kerry, citing Bush's alleged inability to work with other countries, has pronounced proliferation "one of the most glaring weaknesses in this administration." In reality, Bush has a multilayered strategy, mixing diplomacy, intelligence and force, that has achieved anti-proliferation successes in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. "We are changing the calculations of leaders like Muammar Qaddafi about whether it makes sense to pursue weapons of mass destruction," says Bolton in an interview.

The administration's Proliferation Security Initiative is a partnership with roughly a dozen other countries, including France and Germany, to interdict weapons-of-mass-destruction materials in transit. It scored a success last September when the United States and allies intercepted a shipment of centrifuges headed for Libya on the BBC China. The shipment was part of a Pakistani-run proliferation network that is now being dismantled. "It was really a great intelligence success," says Bolton, "and it ties in directly with the Libyan decision to give up WMD."

The background to Libya's choice was the invasion of Iraq, which demonstrated the consequences of not meeting the international community's disarmament demands. Bolton points out that the Libyans began serious discussions with the United States at the outset of the Iraq War, that they admitted Western experts after the BBC China incident, and that the negotiations were completed the week after Saddam Hussein was pulled from his hole. "That's a pretty clear correlation between external events and Libyan decisions," he says. "It is a classic example of a vindication of the Bush doctrine."

At the upcoming G8 summit at Sea Island in June, the administration hopes to put more multilateral teeth in Bush's anti-proliferation program. It will lobby allies to expand the reach of the PSI, and to close an enormous loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows non-nuclear states to tiptoe up to the threshold of bomb-building capabilities. It is hard to argue that Bush isn't taking proliferation seriously, but his critics argue it nonetheless.

Democrats complain that Bush has underfunded the Nunn-Lugar program to help Russia secure its nukes. But the administration agreed at the 2002 G8 summit to provide $20 billion over 10 years for Nunn-Lugar and related programs, with half of the funding coming from other countries. "You don't always have to spend U.S. tax dollars," Bolton explains. Also, the Russians have a strong self-interest in keeping nuclear material out of the hands of Islamic terrorists who hate Moscow: "Their military has every reason to have very high standards of control."

Bush critics point out that the United States isn't checking most shipping containers that come into the country. "If you checked every container, you wouldn't have shipping," Bolton replies, noting that the administration is constantly looking into better ways to check more containers. They argue that Bush, in a double standard, doesn't get agitated about Israel's nukes. "The fact is there is no threat from Israel to the U.S.," says Bolton. And they say the United States has undermined its credibility with its flawed intelligence on Iraq. "I don't see it," Bolton reports. "I'm with foreign officials discussing these issues all the time, and no one says about North Korea or anything else, 'We just don't believe you.'"

Unlike most policy initiatives, the success of Bush's anti-proliferation efforts will be seen in what doesn't happen, in a catastrophic attack on the United States that never occurs. Then, perhaps, years from now, proliferation can again become a blissfully neglected topic.