MARCH 8, 2004
On February 11, just days after a supposedly penitent Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed on Pakistani television, President Bush appeared at the National Defense University to describe how the father of Pakistan's atom bomb had for years run a global network that sold nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Bush praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for "assur[ing] us that his country will never again be a source of proliferation," even though it was not clear Musharraf could promise any such thing, and lauded the U.S. intelligence community for its "hard work and ... dedication," even though for years it had idly watched as Khan became one of the most dangerous men in the world. Perhaps realizing that these reassurances were insufficient following such frightening revelations, Bush also announced a series of proposals intended to "strengthen the world's efforts to stop the spread of deadly weapons."
The president's speech was well-received by many arms control experts, who in general have found much to loathe in this White House. "The huge cost of the Iraq war and his sinking poll ratings seem to have convinced the president that ... it is time to move some political capital to international organizations and cooperative ventures," wrote Joseph Cirincione, head of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If only. In truth, Bush's proposals represented not a shift in his thinking but a restatement of it. Faced with increasingly obvious proliferation problems that called his own policies into doubt, Bush didn't suggest bold, binding, and enforceable strategies for dealing with states like Pakistan, men like Khan, and their weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Instead, he fell back on the flimsy tools he has long preferred: rhetoric that protests his seriousness, verbal commitments that rarely translate into action, and voluntary codes of conduct that in essence cede responsibility for our security to the goodwill of other nations. Two of the president's most concrete suggestions call for expanding existing efforts. The first, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), was created last May to prevent North Korean smuggling and complement--or, as some hawks would have it, substitute for--the fitful six-party negotiations to halt Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. PSI is a voluntary association of 16 countries that have conducted a series of maritime exercises and, in the one success that has been announced, stopped the BBC China, a ship carrying centrifuge parts to Libya. Interdiction is an idea supported by hawks and doves alike, and the BBC China seizure has given it a big boost--John Bolton, the administration's top arms control official, insists that PSI was a major factor in convincing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to renounce his WMD programs. The problem is, PSI does little the United States and others weren't doing already-- for example, in 1999 and 2000, years before the creation of PSI, at least two shipments of missile components and missile-related products to Libya were seized by Indian and British authorities. Of course, to the extent PSI increases intelligence-sharing and military cooperation, it's valuable, but the initiative has some serious limitations. It doesn't, for example, include Russia and China, whose cooperation--because of their technology, geographic location, and intelligence on states like North Korea and Iran--is essential. Nor, according to Bolton, are PSI efforts targeted at the world's chief proliferator: Pakistan. And, while it may be possible to interdict bulky items like ballistic missiles, it's far more difficult to stop nuclear material, which can fit in a suitcase. In light of such gaping holes, the program--and the president's proposal to expand it--hardly seems like it should be a pillar of U.S. security. According to Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, "PSI is a good initiative, but it's hardly a panacea. ... [T]he wisest and most efficient approach is to stop proliferation at its source, rather than in transit." Alas, the Bush administration doesn't seem particularly interested in stopping proliferation at its source. In his speech, the president pledged to expand Nunn-Lugar programs--which help former Soviet states secure their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons--to include other countries. But, instead of proposing commensurate funding for the already woefully underfinanced Nunn-Lugar, the president has done the opposite. Just before the National Defense University speech, the White House sent its 2005 budget to Congress, asking for $40 million less for Pentagon Nunn-Lugar efforts than was allocated last year. It's a pattern with this administration, which, in its $20 billion post-September 11 package for fighting terrorism, requested no money for securing fissile material abroad. Today, U.S.funded security upgrades have been completed on less than one-quarter of Russia's nuclear material, much of which is stored under frighteningly lax conditions--even though it is known that terrorists have scouted the storage sites. As Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University, put it, "From a fast-paced effort to clean out the potential bomb material from all the world's most vulnerable sites to doubling the pace for destroying Russia's nuclear bomb material, key initiatives that would reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism were notable by their absence in the president's speech." The president's speech did contain two ambitious-sounding proposals aimed at preventing states from developing nuclear weapons technology under the guise of peaceful energy programs--as Iran and North Korea already have. Bush suggested that the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a coalition of 40 states that are supposed to coordinate their atomic exports, should not sell nuclear technology to countries that haven't signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) allowing unfettered inspections of their nuclear facilities--a deal called the Additional Protocol. The other proposal would ask NSG members not to sell uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing technology- -which can be used to produce material for nuclear weapons--to any country that doesn't already have it. Instead, states without that capability could buy fuel from suppliers, like the United States, who would presumably take back the fuel after it had been used in reactors to ensure the spent product wasn't diverted for military purposes. These are reasonable ideas, but the export-control regime Bush wants to rely on has many limitations, not least that the NSG's membership is fairly small. For example, Malaysia, which has been implicated in Khan's network, is not included. Nor is Pakistan, which already has a fully functioning fuel cycle that has enabled it to produce hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Moreover, the NSG operates by consensus and its guidelines are strictly voluntary, meaning the Bush administration would have to convince 39 states to go along with its plans and any NSG member could break whatever agreement they came to at any time without consequence, something Moscow has already shown a habit of doing. In January 2001, for example, Russia transferred nuclear fuel to India, even though the sale was opposed by 32 other NSG states. Indeed, it's not even clear that Moscow can stop exports when it wants to: A 2002 CIA report noted that, not only are Russia's export controls inadequate, its enforcement of them is anemic. If the president had wanted a truly effective plan for keeping fissile material out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists, he could have suggested bolstering the nonproliferation regime. One useful step would be to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty (fmct), which would bar states (notably Pakistan, India, and Israel) from producing anymore highly enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons. Such a treaty could reduce the amount of weapons-usable uranium that might fall into terrorist hands if, say, Musharraf's government were to collapse and Islamic fundamentalists took over. It would also give the iaea, which would presumably enforce the treaty, a greater presence in Pakistan and therefore a greater chance of discovering wrongdoing. According to Sharon Squassoni, a defense expert at the Congressional Research Service, "Fmct is a better option than simply restricting any further enrichment and reprocessing. ... The more access you can get, the more eyes and ears on the ground we will have." Furthermore, by ensuring that Pakistan could build no more weapons, a treaty might reduce the centrality of the country's nuclear establishment, allowing Musharraf to exert greater control over it without incurring the wrath of military and political elements who revere Khan and the infrastructure he set up. Revitalizing the nonproliferation regime could also help dispel the notion that the United States considers itself exempt from nonproliferation rules. There is some question, for example, as to whether developing states will agree to the president's proposals restricting their access to nuclear technology, which is guaranteed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, when the United States is developing a new generation of nuclear weapons--in contravention of its own commitment to reduce its nuclear arsenal under that very same treaty. Such apparent hypocrisies have caused problems in the past. Referring to the U. S. rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999, iaea head Mohammed ElBaradei said the following year, "The Senate vote against the ban on nuclear tests was a devastating blow to our efforts to gain acceptance of more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities around the world." Alas, the administration continues to undercut arms control efforts, most recently holding up negotiations to produce an fmct. Would a treaty like the fmct have prevented Khan from building his WMD network? Doubtful. But one lesson we must draw from the Khan network is that the nuclear genie is even farther out of the bottle than was generally believed. Khan, after all, was peddling not only enrichment technology but full-fledged bomb designs--and the United States still doesn't know how many countries or, worse, terrorist groups he sold them to. Given Khan's actions, our best bet for stopping a nuclear catastrophe is to control the fissile material essential for any bomb, through efforts like an fmct and increased support for Nunn-Lugar. The administration, however, refuses to pursue either one. And, though Khan's revelations make it clear that Pakistan is a tremendous danger, the White House is granting Islamabad extraordinary leeway, praising its supposed cooperation with nonproliferation efforts and asking that Congress appropriate it $3 billion over the next five years. While Bush has repeatedly said WMD are a top priority of his administration, his remedies don't match his rhetoric. Confronted with a glaring example of how our current nonproliferation efforts are insufficient, the president apparently lacks the will to act. Let's hope the same is true of the terrorists.
By J. Peter Scoblic