The Nuclear Cowboys

What do the current Pakistani political crisis, Israel’s September air strike against Syria, and Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear enrichment all have in common? All three events reflect the aggressive policies adopted by the George W. Bush administration to deal with the growing threat of nuclear proliferation.

As US soft power in the region diminishes and its disdain grows for the transnational bodies meant to monitor the nuclear threat, the stakes could not be higher.

The nuclear peril, a 70-year-old problem of mutual concern for most of the world, has been couched as an integral target for the architects of the "war on terror." The Bush administration carefully outlined the threat – found at the "the crossroads of radicalism and technology" – in the 2002 National Security Strategy for the United States, a document that many Washington-Beltway insiders referred to as the "Bush Doctrine."

As journalist Jonathan Schell convincingly wrote in a recent article in the Nation, the nuclear threat has become a "mere sub-category, albeit the most important one."

In the post Sep. 11, 2001 universe, the Bush White House divided the world into two camps – those who were "with us," and those "against us." The first group – led by the US – consisted of moral "good guys," democratic countries, many of whom possessed the bomb. The second group consisted of malevolent dictators with designs on nuclear weapons, rogue regimes that could not be trusted, because they would presumably sell their technology to the highest-bidding transnational terrorist organization.

As nuclear proliferation specialist Joseph Circione writes in his book, Bomb Scare: the History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, the White House "in effect changed the focus from ‘what’ to ‘who.’"

In addition to advocating for preemptive military strikes against the US adversaries and terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction, Washington’s new approach would disregard multilateral consensus as a prerequisite for foreign policy and embrace unilateral action to establish security and spread democracy. It is no secret that right-wing hawk John Bolton, the US’s former representative to the UN, held the organization in contempt. He once quipped: "If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference."

And it appears that the Bush camp’s antipathy for the UN, as well as its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy (IAEA), continues to increase because of what the US perceives as the agency’s failures in addressing the Iranian nuclear program.

"Mr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei has coasted on the IAEA’s reputation as the authoritative source of information on the world’s nuclear secrets. Yet this is the same agency that was taken by surprise by nuclear projects in Libya, North Korea and Iraq in the 1980s," said a November editorial written in the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper’s editorial page often takes neoconservative views of US foreign policy.

"All this is reason enough for the US, Israel and any other country serious about stopping nuclear proliferation to refuse Mr. ElBaradei’s not-so-good diplomatic offices."

An IAEA report released last Thursday – part of a deal brokered by ElBaradei and Iran to avert a possible military confrontation between Washington and Tehran – said that while Iran had been truthful about key aspects of its past nuclear activity, knowledge of Tehran’s program was "diminishing." In response, the White House lashed out by saying Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and its failure to halt uranium enrichment justified Washington’s push for a third round of sanctions.

This September, Israeli warplanes conducted a mysterious raid in northeast Syria, and there is growing consensus among US government and independent analysts that the suspicious target was a nuclear facility. Whether or not it was, the episode – and Israeli, Syrian, and US silence over the issue – raises even more questions as to the timing of the raid, and what the unilateral action portends for nuclear ambitions of Israel’s regional neighbors.

"The Bush administration’s decision NOT to share its intelligence on the Syrian site with the IAEA, and thereby encourage and support the international agency’s aggressive inspection and evaluation of this alleged threat to peace, was another demonstration of the contempt in which the present US administration holds the UN Organization.," wrote former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Ray Close, in an e-mail to IPS.

"It suggests, in effect, that the United States intends to manage the international nuclear proliferation issue all by itself, independent of the rest of the international community – except for deputizing Israel to be the nuclear policeman of the Middle East," he said.

In a crowning irony, Bush’s dualistic narrative, and the policy he has implemented to conform to this narrative, has crumbled under the weight of realities on the ground. US soft power is fading in the region for many different reasons – the Iraq quagmire, US support for Israel’s 2006 aerial bombardment of Lebanese infrastructure, and the isolation of Gaza following the 2005 election victory of the Islamist group Hamas.

But the possible meltdown of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s government has accelerated the more immediate fear that – in the current environment of instability brought by Musharraf’s imposition of "emergency rule" – Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal could fall into terrorists’ hands.

A Times column co-authored by neoconservative Fred Kagan and liberal interventionist Michael O’Hanlon, entitled "Pakistan’s Collapse, Our Problem," is the latest example of the alarmist tone coming out of Washington, and it suggests that – in the absence of strong international mediators like the IAEA – the US will consider military options. The piece also reflects the growing partnership between the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Brookings Institution.

"We do not intend to be fear mongers," write O’Hanlon and Kagan, before warning that Washington should "think – now – about our feasible military options in Pakistan." The idea is to act fast and secure Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile before the political situation deteriorates further. Washington spent nearly 100 million dollars in the past six years on a classified program to help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported this weekend.

All conversations about US goals to deter nuclear weapons come back to the issue of Iraq. The Bush administration learned that Iraq had ended all of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs between 1991 and 1995, according to a 2004 report by the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA and Pentagon fact-finding mission sent to postwar Iraq to uncover the evidence to support the White House’s claims.

While administration officials tried to discredit UN inspections before the 2003 invasion, it appears that, in this case, sanctions did deter Saddam Hussein. And while the US never found any WMD in Iraq, its presence has bolstered the ability of transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to propagandize Iraq as an icon of jihad, thus drawing more potential recruits, and actually increasing the threat of terrorism.

Read more by Khody Akhavi