As North Korea tests a short-range missile and Iran threatens to resume its enrichment of nuclear fuel, President Bush and his administration continue their counterproductive bluster against these two nations. The United States is preparing to echo its hard-line rhetoric as 180 countries meet this month for the periodic review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Yet only fantasy generals on the big screen use macho bombast against their fictional foes. The best real-life commanders try to walk quietly in the enemy’s moccasins to best predict their next move. The Bush administration spends so much time strutting and flexing before the world gallery that it fails to realize that such behavior accelerates nuclear proliferation.
Although Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are tyrannical regimes, they may have legitimate security concerns that drive their efforts to acquire so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They may want these weapons to deter neighbors or even a self-righteous superpower from attacking them. One does not have to be an apologist for the abysmal human rights records of those regimes to caution against feeding into their paranoia. But dictators in small, relatively poor third world countries don’t have to be paranoid to worry about attack from an interventionist superpower. President Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada; George H.W. Bush launched an assault against Panama and removed Manuel Noriega from power; Bill Clinton bombed Serbia over the Kosovo issue; and George W. Bush invaded and occupied Iraq. And the world saw that all of those non-nuclear states got a lot less respect than the likely nuclear-armed North Korea.
Most liberals and conservatives in the United States wring their hands over the proliferation of WMD—especially nuclear arms—but rarely acknowledge that an aggressive U.S. foreign policy overseas is a major cause of the problem. For example, during the war over Kosovo in 1999, the North Koreans refused to give up their nuclear and missile programs because of stated fears that the same sort of U.S. attack could befall them over their human rights record. Any nations secretly working on nuclear weapons probably had the same reaction to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. The perception is that nuclear arms are the only weapons powerful enough to deter a potent superpower attack.
In addition, Americans often see these “rogue” states as uniformly evil but don’t recognize the hypocrisy of their own government. During the NPT review, the United States will toughly accuse Iran of violating its treaty commitment not to seek atomic armaments by having a secret nuclear weapons program and criticize North Korea for withdrawing from the pact. Although the Iranians have lied to the international community about their nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency has not found any evidence that the program is designed to make atomic weapons. Signatories to the NPT are allowed to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes if they forgo developing nuclear arms. The United States, fearing that other nations will withdraw from the NPT, has criticized North Korea for overtly doing so, but mutes its criticism of more friendly nuclear-armed countries—Israel, India, and Pakistan—that have never signed the treaty.
Meanwhile, the United States has never had any intention of fulfilling its commitment under the NPT. In 1970, when the treaty was first signed, potential nuclear powers agreed not to seek atomic weapons in exchange for a commitment from the five original nuclear states—China, France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. This commitment for disarmament was reaffirmed during the review of the treaty in 2000. Yet the Bush administration alleges that the 2000 commitment did not reflect a post-9/11 world that includes terrorism, a nuclear black market, or a volatile Middle East. In fact, this vague excuse is designed to provide rhetorical cover for the Bush administration’s active research program on new types of nuclear weapons and new uses for them (for example, weapons that are especially designed to penetrate deeply buried concrete bunkers).
The United States should scrap such research and make progress toward its commitment by genuinely and significantly reducing its excess nuclear arsenal. Also, instead of threatening Iran and North Korea, implicitly or explicitly, with military strikes that would be unlikely to eliminate their nuclear programs, the United States needs to accelerate negotiations with these nations. U.S. threats against these two nations will only accelerate other countries’ quest for atomic weapons. Conversely, negotiated settlements with Iran and North Korea, which may require non-aggression pledges by the United States, would send a positive signal to other prospective nuclear states and might at least reduce their perceived need to develop atomic weapons to deter a potential attack from the superpower.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.
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