Certainly, the clearest and most positive peace dividend following Saddam’s defeat is the news that Prime Minister Blair and President Bush announced last Friday: Libya has decided to dismantle of its strategic-weapons programs, including a covert and fairly advanced uranium-enrichment program useful for making nuclear bombs. Other than celebrating this development, though, the question now is what to make of it? Will Libya’s move encourage other proliferators to give up their game? What, if anything, should the U.S. and its allies do to encourage more similar moves?
Looking to the conventional wisdom, there seem to be more arguments for doing nothing than taking some new course of action. Hawks insist that Khaddafi’s submission proves that Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his willingness to interdict illicit technology transfers are not only right, but far more effective in generating true nonproliferation than all the treaties and agreements dedicated to this purpose combined. They would let our actions in Iraq and against illicit-weapons commerce speak louder than any additional diplomacy or words. Doves, meanwhile, want to move quickly to exploit what they see as the new diplomatic climate. They insist that Libya’s announcement vindicates that jaw, jaw is far more productive than war, war. In their eyes, the next diplomatic mother-load to be mined is to be had by cutting quick deals over North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.
Sadly, the first view, although sound as far as it goes, is too passive. The later view, meanwhile, is just plain dangerous.
Certainly, Col. Khaddafi’s weapons renunciation hardly validates the superiority of any current U.S. nonproliferation strategy–military or diplomatic. In fact, the U.S. and its allies are still struggling to agree on how to restrain the nuclear-proliferation activities of Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, Syria, and North Korea. Without first having a consensus on these problems that is sound, neither America’s victory against Saddam nor Khaddafi’s latest submission will necessarily lead to any further nonproliferation successes.
That said, it would be foolish to believe that simply pushing nonproliferation agreements in their current form will get us very far. Libya, after all, signed the BWC, CWC, and NPT, violated them, and would have continued to be in violation had it not had a change of heart. Certainly, the NPT’s watchdogs, the IAEA, hadn’t seen any of the uranium-enrichment centrifuges that Libya was working on. Even our intelligence estimates low-balled how far Libya had actually progressed. None of this recommends using inspections to eliminate Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Instead, without a change of heart akin to regime change, we have to assume that proliferating cheaters will always get the better of inspecting snoops.
As for Tehran and Pyongyang changing their stripes any time soon, though, don’t hold your breath: Iran is still knowingly harboring al Qaeda operatives and declaring that President Bush deserves to suffer the same fate as Saddam. Not to be outdone, North Korea is demanding that U.S. pay tribute to freeze the very nuclear facilities Clinton bribed Pyongyang nearly a decade ago to put on ice. Picking away at these diplomatic sores is hardly a quick path to another Libyan conversion. Unfortunately, both Democrats who loathe the use of force and Republicans who are eager to prove their way is clearly better than their predecessors’ are all too inclined to hype the prospects of things going better now in Tehran and Pyongyang than they are likely to go.
In fact, they are looking in all the wrong places for their next success. Rather than the Persian Gulf or the Sea of Japan, nonproliferation opportunity is much more likely to be found in North Africa or the Levant. Algeria has been sitting on a large research reactor that it covertly built at Ain Oussera and circled with SA-5 air-defense missiles for over a decade. It doesn’t need this machine for any legitimate purpose (it has a second, perfectly adequate research reactor in Algiers). The U.S. French, Spanish, and even Libyans should lean on Algeria to give it up.
Then, there’s Egypt, which has chemical weapons, long-range missile programs (an overt, active SCUD program and a dormant Vector solid-rocket effort dating back to the l980s). Its officials claim they are planning to acquire a nuclear-desalinization plant (which would make lots of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium). Would Egypt be willing to renounce the later if Israel shut down its own plutonium-production reactor (now well over 30 years old and in need of major refurbishment)? Finally, there is Syria, a state that has rockets and chemical weapons and recently tried to acquire a nuclear desalination plant from Russia. If we are serious about getting Iran to drop its dangerous “civilian” nuclear program, wouldn’t our hand would be strengthened if we could get nations in the Middle East besides Libya to swear off nuclear-power reactors, uranium centrifuges, desalinization plants or large nuclear research facilities?
Pursuing this last set of ideas, of course, assumes that the U.S. has a nonproliferation strategy other than waiting for countries interested in strategic weapons capabilities to give them up or having our diplomats make concessions before these states have decided to change their ways. Now that our show of strength against Saddam has reaped the unexpected benefit of Libya disarming, we would do well to press a practical nonproliferation agenda with Khaddafi’s immediate neighbors now.
–Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C.