Fighting Words

Want To Stop Nuclear Proliferation? Encourage Democracy.

Ignore the shady people promoting sinister theories to the contrary.

A.Q. Khan

It’s very unpleasant to be given lectures on good behavior by the profiteers of nuclear proliferation, but if you can hold still and swallow your vomit, there are lessons to be learned from the exposure to it.

On April 27, the New York Times ran a long interview with Aisha el-Qaddafi, daughter of the “King of Kings” and rabid demagogue. Having served as a member of Saddam Hussein’s legal defense team—an experience that seems to have taught her little—she had just had the experience of being referred to the International Criminal Court. In between various claims about the traitorous nature of the rebellious Libyans, she managed to insert an interesting retrospective claim about the past:

She complained of the “betrayal” of Arabs whose causes her father had supported and the Western allies to whom he had turned over his weapons of mass destruction. “Is this the reward that we get?” she asked. “This would lead every country that has weapons of mass destruction to keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya.”

Then last weekend, in an article written for Newsweek that did not even touch upon his role in selling nuclear weaponry to third countries, Pakistan’s notorious A.Q. Khan made a similar point, if point it is:

Don’t overlook the fact that no nuclear-capable country has been subjected to aggression or occupied, or had its borders redrawn. Had Iraq and Libya been nuclear powers, they wouldn’t have been destroyed in the way we have seen recently. If we had had nuclear capability before 1971, we would not have lost half of our country—present-day Bangladesh—after disgraceful defeat.

Both of the shady characters I have just quoted are, of course, engaged in special pleading. (The shudder-inducing Khan even calmly invites us to think of how Pakistan could have improved upon its conventional-weapons genocide against the Bangladeshis and threatened to level Indian cities into the bargain.) But in various forms, this argument has gotten itself repeated in more respectable forums as well. The vastly overrated Mohamed ElBaradei, in his new book The Age of Deception, attributes almost all rogue-state nuclear delinquency to the arrogance of the United States. The Libyan stockpile, for example—the entire existence of which he managed to miss during his tenure at the International Atomic Energy Agency—was “really” acquired in response to the April 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli. He speaks of a meeting with Qaddafi in which the latter “spoke earnestly of his desire to develop Libya.” George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a brilliant review of ElBaradei’s book, also cites his blissful naiveté about Iran and North Korea. Learning that senior Iranian mullahs planned to go after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he came to any agreement with Washington, he commented: “I sighed. Tehran had been spending way too much time following D.C. politics, I thought.” The regime of Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, is “isolated, impoverished, feeling deeply threatened by the United States but nonetheless defiant.” Defiant enough, certainly, to test one of its missiles by firing it without warning across the mainland of non-nuclear Japan, there to “splash down” in the Pacific.

Is it seriously argued that this whole loosely connected nexus would conduct itself more rationally if the United States adopted a more lenient strategy and showed more awareness of the needs and dreads that prompt dictators to go nuclear? We know one thing for sure. No state has ever surrendered its program without having to face the gritty question of regime change. It can do this either voluntarily, or it can do so under compulsion. The two great first instances are Brazil and South Africa, two very influential countries that had gone a long way on the nuclear road in the final Cold War years, only to decide that the nukes were an obstacle to their integration into the warmer and closer global family. (A “swords into ploughshares” sculpture, fashioned from parts of an abandoned nuclear weapon, was presented to the offices of the IAEA in Vienna in 1994.)

Nobody ever threatened either Brazil or South Africa with outside force. Rather, denuclearization was a part of the agreed democratic transformation of both former dictatorships. Turning from carrot to stick, the insane refusal of Saddam Hussein to come into compliance with the U.N. resolutions meant that his country was forcibly and comprehensively “inspected.” This in turn led Libya to approach British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush for a handover (of large stockpiles of materiel, not so much of finished or usable weaponry). Inspection of this trove led to the realization that a good deal of it could only have come from our “ally” Pakistan. As a result, the A.Q. Khan network—which had also had dealings with North Korea and probably Syria, and also escaped the attention of ElBaradei and the IAEA—was identified and partially shut down. In counterproliferation terms, this process ought to be credited as something of a success. The same goes for Israel’s recent obliteration of a secret Syrian site—since belatedly confirmed by the IAEA as a nuclear facility—without even a squeal of protest from an embarrassed Syrian President Bashir Assad.

In studying the remaining cases, it’s impossible not to notice the continuing connection between the weapons programs and the character of the regime. North Korea’s nukes are the perfect symbol of its own stunted, starved, isolated character and of its continued willingness to risk an apocalyptic outcome on the peninsula. The Iranian program is clearly designed to forward the mullahs’ policy of regional military blackmail (and probably also to gratify some of their less rational impulses of Messianism and anti-Semitism). But North Korea is already in a position to destroy much of South Korea with conventional weapons alone, and Tehran can, and does, easily threaten smaller Gulf states with its existing forces. Pakistan can continue to menace India with its own arsenal, but it is vulnerable to an annihilating second strike from New Delhi that would obliterate it as a state. Thus, the course of future confrontation and potential blackmail has already been determined, but by the dictatorships themselves. It is wrong for Aisha Qaddafi and A.Q. Khan to imply that the threats come from the other direction, or that nuclear arsenals can or will underwrite the security of such dictatorships indefinitely. (That logic, after all, would license a pre-emptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.) The possession of illegally acquired nuclear weapons remains a huge threat and burden to neighboring states and to international law, but history shows that it is also nearly insupportable for the offending state and has a long-run tendency to shorten the lifespan of its despots. It’s a good thing that, so far, disarmament and democratization have shown themselves to be natural allies.

Christopher Hitchens’ Kindle Single,  The Enemy, on the demise of Osama Bin Laden, has just been published.