War Stories

Bush’s Foreign Fantasy

The president thinks the world is safer than it was three years ago. Which world is he living in?

"Safer": a slippery concept
“Safer”: a slippery concept

Earlier this week, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, home of the Y-12 nuclear-weapons facility, in Tennessee, President Bush gave one of his best-written speeches. This was his “America is safer”speech, and we will no doubt hear variations on it many times in the next four months. In it, he lists the world’s hot spots, one by one (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan), contrasts what each was like three years ago with what it’s like now, and concludes each success story with the refrain, “and the American people are safer.” After the last item on the checklist, he expands the viewfinder, exclaiming, “and America and the world are safer.”

It’s a very effective speech (the Oak Ridge scientists greeted each repetition with stormy applause), unless you take a closer look at the examples it cites—in which case questions of comparative safety (are you safer now than you were three years ago?) seem at best ambiguous and in some cases downright depressing.

The “slam dunk” case would seem to be Libya. Three years ago, Muammar Qaddafi was acquiring materials for nuclear weapons. Today, he’s surrendered the materials, invited in international inspectors, and stepped into the civilized world. Libya has a particular resonance for Oak Ridge, because it’s the national lab where Qaddafi’s nuclear materials are now stored.

Without question, any action that keeps Qaddafi away from an A-bomb is an unequivocal plus. But just what did turn him away from such ambitions? And how close was he to building a weapon, anyway?

In the past, Bush has suggested that Qaddafi changed course because he saw what happened to Saddam and wondered if his own crown might be next. Bush implied as much at Oak Ridge: “[T]he Libyan government saw the seriousness of the civilized world and correctly judged its own interests.” It seems plausible that fear of impending invasion may have played a role in Qaddafi’s calculations. But there are a few facts that weaken this theory.

First, when Bush first touted Libya’s disarmament in his State of the Union address last January, he heralded the move as the result of “nine months of intense negotiation” involving Libya, the United States, and Britain. Qaddafi made his announcement in December. “Nine months” suggests the talks started the previous March. That was before the war in Iraq began.

At the same time, Bush said at Oak Ridge, the crucial step came when U.S. and British intelligence tracked a large shipment of nuclear equipment on a German-registered cargo ship bound for Tripoli. They informed the Germans, who diverted the ship to an Italian port, where the cargo was confiscated. This incident took place just last autumn—months after Saddam’s toppling. If Qaddafi was trembling from the great display of American power, his fear didn’t stop him from continuing his quest for black-market nuclear gear.

So, Qaddafi was negotiating about giving up his nuclear ambitions before the war in Iraq, yet he furtively persisted in these ambitions after Saddam’s regime had tumbled. Maybe his nuclear gambits—the arming and the disarming—had little to do with the war, after all.

How close was Qaddafi to getting a bomb—that is, how much disarmament did his sacrifice involve? Mohammad ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, after examining the cache and the facilities, said Libya’s nuclear program was “at a very initial stage.” Not just an initial stage, a very initial stage.

David Albright, a specialist at the Institute for Science and International Security, breaks it down. Libya had ordered 10,000 centrifuges but almost none of the associated components needed to connect them into a spinning cascade for enriching uranium hexafluoride—that is, almost none of the stuff you’d need to turn uranium into bomb-grade material, much less into a bomb.

It looks like Qaddafi knew his nuclear program was going nowhere—he’d tried it once before, in the 1980s, to no avail. Then he got caught. Meanwhile, his economy was tanking. And maybe he sensed it would be a good idea, for now, to chummy up to the West. So, he made a big deal of giving up something he didn’t really have, with hopes of reaping a big reward in return.

That’s fine. But it had little, if anything, to do with what Bush calls America’s “new approach in the world” after 9/11.

About Afghanistan, Bush’s speech celebrated the crushing of the Taliban and the new reign of Hamid Karzai, “a good and just president.” The military defeat of the Taliban was indeed Bush’s singularly great accomplishment. But what happened afterward? The U.S. troops left in place—even with NATO assistance—were too paltry to stabilize the territory. As a result, warlords are once again slicing up the country. Elections have been put off due to poor security. Poppy growth and subsequent heroin exports to Europe are at nearly an all-time high. Taliban fighters are gaining ground here and there. And the eastern border to Pakistan, not at all secure, almost certainly still harbors Osama Bin Laden.

On Iraq, Bush—as usual—was very careful with his language. Three years ago, he told the Oak Ridge scientists, Iraq was ruled by “a proven mass murderer who refused to account for weapons of mass murder.” (Note: “weapons of mass murder,” not “weapons of mass destruction”; and “refused to account for,” not “refused to disarm.”) Now, Bush went on, Iraq is “becoming an example of reform to the region.” Because America “helped to end the violent regime of Saddam Hussein, and because we’re helping to raise a peaceful democracy in its place, the American people are safer.”

As the pundits say, that remains to be seen. Maybe Iraq will emerge from the chaos as an exemplar of reform; maybe it will slide further into chaos and only encourage neighboring tyrannies to intensify their clampdowns. Meanwhile, terrorists, who it turns out didn’t enjoy safe haven in Iraq before the war, have carved out camps in its aftermath. Leading Shiites are forming unsettling alliances with Iran. The Kurds are balking at any incursions on their autonomy. And, in the first month of Iraqi sovereignty, the most cherished consumer item for many citizens—thousands line up for one—is a passport to get the hell out of there.

Another case of progress, according to Bush’s speech, is Saudi Arabia’s decision to join us in the war on terror and to crack down on the jihadist “charities” in its midst. But this came about (to the extent it truly has come about) only after terrorist bombers mounted attacks in Riyadh. Bush acknowledges the Saudis’ belatedness on this matter. And, no question, better late than not at all. Still, the shift (again, to the extent it’s genuine, lasting, and effective) has little to do with Bush’s foreign policy, which had tolerated the Saudis’ diffidence before and after 9/11.

Most troublesome of all are Bush’s claims about nuclear proliferation. Yes, Western intelligence agencies traced and shut down A.Q. Khan’s vast black-market supply network and even persuaded the Pakistani government to relieve him of his duties (if not to punish him personally). Good has also come of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a truly multilateral effort to police nuclear trafficking.

However, the world’s most alarming and concrete instance of proliferation—the open emergence of North Korea as a nuclear state—has been appallingly mishandled by the Bush administration. For over a year, Bush refused even to discuss the matter with the North Koreans, despite their clear desire to negotiate. A month ago, he finally offered a deal nearly identical to the deal the North Koreans offered us at the beginning of 2003—but it’s too late. They have since moved much closer to mass production of A-bombs, and so they’ve stiffened their terms. Possibly even more than the war in Iraq, this could go down as Bush’s deepest diplomatic disaster.

This says nothing of the frustrated effort to stall Iran’s nuclear program. Bush didn’t say much about that, either.

The key failure is that Bush said nothing—and has planned nothing—about devising a general international policy toward nonproliferation. Police enforcement can go only so far. An effective policy must deal with the reasons certain nations want to go nuclear—and the incentives, as well as the punishments, that might deter them from doing so.

Toward the end of his speech, Bush said this:

Three years ago, the world was very different. Terrorists planned attacks, with little fear of discovery or reckoning. Outlaw regimes supported terrorists and defied the civilized world. … Weapon-proliferators sent their deadly shipments. … The world changed on September the 11th, and since that day, we have changed the world. We are leading a steady, confident, systematic campaign against the dangers of our time. Today, because America has acted and because America has led, the forces of terror and tyranny have suffered defeat after defeat, and America and the world are safer.

Stirring words. But what world is he talking about?