Grave & Gathering Complacency
Should we rely on our enemies to make mistakes?


There is a new consensus emerging about the war against Saddam’s regime: that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and by extension WMDs generally, have not been the threat that was feared. The policy wonks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have declared that the Iraqi threat was exaggerated. The paranoid, like Nation columnist Robert Scheer, claim that any Iraqi danger was outright concocted. This new wisdom is an exercise in self deception that downplays the issue of WMD proliferation even while the true extent of the danger is only now becoming apparent.

The complacent insinuation that other WMD threats may also be inflated was summed up by the New York Times when it declared on February 8, 2004 that:

a decade of international import restrictions, United Nations arms inspections and United States military deterrence look far more effective than once thought. That is a crucial lesson for Americans to digest at a time when other countries dream of building biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and when the risks of waging preventive war on the basis of faulty intelligence have become so starkly evident.
Put otherwise, the old methods work. All that is required is a mixture of sanctions, the occasional threat but rarely credible use of force, and diplomatic chit chat between the dishonest underlings of a dictator and visiting foreign dignitaries. We must always engage, but never act.

Yet the recently exposed trade in nuclear proliferation organized out of Pakistan is a result of the old methods that the perennial engagers are wedded to. WMD programs flourished in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea in an environment where the preference was for continual engagement over determined enforcement. For the countries to which it should apply, the international arms-control regime is generally observed in the breach.

The U.S. and Britain have long alleged that there is a dangerous illicit trade in nuclear equipment, an accusation publicly confirmed on February 1, 2004 with the confession of the chief Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. While opinion columnists in the U.S. are scratching their heads wondering why Saddam did not keep stocks of VX ready to hand for the U.S. to discover, Pakistan has acknowledged that its scientists were involved in trafficking in the most dangerous of technologies.

The old methods of shaking hands and wagging fingers have not rid terrorist supporting states of their dangerous appetite for these weapons. The nuclear program that many doubted that Libya ever had was surrendered after U.S. and British forces were massed on the borders of Iraq, poised to enforce the U.N. resolutions that too many had decided to forget.

Libya has demonstrated how easy it is to acquire nuclear technology and just how recalcitrant these regimes are. Lacking the capacity to either manufacture or assemble centrifuges with which to enrich uranium, Libya imported its first set of centrifuges from Pakistan directly. The Libyan nuclear program then graduated to having parts for its Pakistani designed centrifuges made to order in a Malaysian factory. Despite indicating to Britain and the U.S. that he was willing to surrender his WMD stocks and programs in March 2003, Khaddafi was still attempting to import centrifuge parts as recently as October 2003, when a shipment was seized en route.

Good intelligence, not Libyan good will, prevented those centrifuges from arriving in Tripoli. Those centrifuge parts would now be hidden somewhere in Libya had the Libyans and Pakistanis not slipped up somewhere along the way–their mistakes are our accurate intelligence. Even Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA and a great advocate of perpetual engagement, conceded that export controls on nuclear equipment are “kaput.”

Similarly, it was Iraqi paranoia, not intelligence or international law, which prevented Saddam’s regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon on the eve of the first Gulf War. At a time when U.S. and allied forces gathering in Saudi Arabia following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Iraq received a Pakistani offer to hand over designs for a nuclear weapon and to assist with uranium enrichment. The proposal, reported in an October 1990 Iraqi intelligence document, stated that the supplier was the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. The Iraqis appear not to have followed up with Khan’s intermediary, a man known as “Malik,” even though the price, a mere $5 million, was a bargain. Apparently the Iraqis feared that they were being set up; that the offer was a con job.

How we prevent the world’s worst regimes from arming themselves with the deadliest of weapons, or sharing them with each other, is a matter of choice. We can demand, on the basis of the laws and treaties that the civilized nations respect, that these regimes disarm or perish. Or we can continue to rely upon loose-tongued Libyans and neurotic Baathist intelligence officers to make the wrong decisions.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.