Has the Bush Administration Made Nuclear Proliferation Inevitable?

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Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

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On May 27, the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, designed to shore up the international commitment to creating a nuclear-free world, concluded in shambles. According to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the gathering accomplished “absolutely nothing.” He added: “We are ending after a month of rancor . . . and the same issues continue to stare us in the eyes.”

Originally signed in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, the NPT provides that non-nuclear nations will forgo the development of nuclear weapons and that nuclear nations will divest themselves of their nuclear weapons through disarmament measures. Review conferences, designed to secure compliance with the treaty’s provisions, occur every five years.

For decades, the NPT worked reasonably well. By 1997, no additional nations possessed nuclear weapons and, through arms control and disarmament treaties or unilateral action, the nuclear powers substantially reduced the number of nuclear weapons in their stockpiles. As late as the NPT review conference of 2000, the declared nuclear powers professed their “unequivocal” commitment to nuclear abolition.

But, since that time, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton), India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, and the Bush administration withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, pressed forward with the deployment of a national missile defense system (a latter day version of “Star Wars”), dropped nuclear disarmament negotiations, and proposed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons. Furthermore, two new nations may be acquiring a nuclear weapons capability: North Korea (which claims it is) and Iran (which claims it is not).

This unraveling of the NPT is a serious matter, and became the focal point of an acrimonious debate among the delegates of 188 nations at the NPT review conference, which opened on May 2, at the United Nations.

The non-nuclear nations hit sharply at the failure of the nuclear powers, and particularly the United States, to honor their commitments to nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, a number of countries, led by Egypt and Iran, demanded that the nuclear powers pledge never to attack non-nuclear nations and that Washington ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The U.S. government, in turn, sought to keep the spotlight on the alleged transgressions of North Korea and Iran. In one of the conference’s opening addresses, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Semmel also accused the International Atomic Energy Agency of failing to report Iran’s non-compliance with the treaty to the U.N. Security Council. At the same time, U.S. officials argued that the United States was complying with the treaty’s requirements.

Even many of Washington’s traditional allies found the U.S. position unconvincing. Apparently referring to the Bush administration, Paul Meyer, the Canadian representative at the conference, remarked acidly: “If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation.”

U.S. credibility was further undermined by the Bush administration’s decision to send lower-echelon officials, rather than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to represent it at the conference. According to observers, this snub represented an attempt to undercut the significance of the review conference and, thereby, mute the criticism that would emerge there of the U.S. government’s disdain for nuclear disarmament—or at least for U.S. nuclear disarmament.

Criticism of the U.S. role at the conference was particularly sharp among peace and disarmament groups. “The United States has had four weeks to demonstrate international leadership on nuclear proliferation,” remarked Susi Snyder, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “Clearly, the U.S. delegation never wanted to strengthen the treaty. Instead, they have spent four weeks . . . refusing to recognize agreements they made 5 and 10 years ago.” According to Alyn Ware of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, it was “impossible to prevent” nuclear proliferation “while the nuclear weapons states insist on maintaining large stockpiles of weapons themselves.” It was “like a parent telling a child not to smoke while smoking a pack of cigarettes.”

Given the obviously self-defeating nature of U.S. nuclear policy, why does the Bush administration cling to it so stubbornly? Why has it spurned the efforts not only of the world community, but of the U.S. government’s closest allies to strengthen the NPT and continue progress toward a nuclear-free world?

One possible explanation is that the Bush administration believes that it has the military capability to deter current nuclear nations and to destroy hostile nations that reach the brink of becoming nuclear powers. For example, if Iran continues to produce fissionable material, Washington will simply launch an all-out military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, the Bush administration sees no need to maintain the bargain between non-nuclear and nuclear powers that was struck decades ago through the NPT. As Bush administration officials frequently say, conditions in the world have changed, and U.S. policy will change with them.

A second possible explanation, which does not exclude the first, is that the Bush administration is getting ready to use nuclear weapons in future wars. Despite the massive advantage the U.S. government enjoys over other nations in conventional military forces, these U.S. forces are now overstretched in fighting an insurgency in a small country like Iraq. Furthermore, dispatching substantial numbers of U.S. combat troops overseas is quite expensive, and their death in large numbers undermines political support for a war—as it is now doing. In this context, the development and use of nuclear weapons to maintain what the Bush administration defines as U.S. “national interests” seem quite logical to U.S. national security managers. Ominously, the new nuclear weapons for which the Bush administration has requested funding from Congress are considered “usable” nuclear weapons: so-called “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes.”

As a result, the collapse of the NPT review conference of 2005 and the hard-line nuclear policies of the Bush administration that have contributed to it have seriously undermined the willingness of nations to dispense with nuclear weapons. Indeed, these factors seem to place the nations of the world back in the nuclear arms race and, perhaps, on the road to nuclear war. Of course, popular protest and wise statesmanship have turned around situations like this in the past, and they might well do so again. But, in the meantime, we should recognize that evading disarmament commitments and plunging forward with nuclear weapons development and use is a surefire recipe for disaster.

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Joseph Uk Hoss - 6/17/2005

I think that the Us-Uk-Israel and some Nato members wants to promote a full-escale war in the Middle East against Iran and Syria,also.(but I think that the arab people could rise up against his governments) before the Peak´s oil arrives, and it be possible that Israel will attack Iran first, in October or November, (5766 in Jewish year).

Newsinsight(A pro-neocon site) :
"10 June 2005: Yesterday, we published intelligence of US forward planning to attack Iran for its clandestine WMD programme (“ US prepared for Iran war with split Nato”), and it has come within days of the French/ Dutch rejection of the European Union (EU) constitution. We foresaw this possibility (Commentary, “Good morning, America,” 3 June 2005), but events have rolled faster than we expected.

The man leading the Iran war-planning is the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and in almost a repeat of George W.Bush’s first term, he has gone about the task of coalition-building for the war excluding the secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice. There are no stories yet of squabbles between them, as were replete between Rumsfeld and Bush’s first-term secretary of state Colin Powell, but things could get there as the war fever hots up.

According to our intelligence, the plan to attack Iran will gather pace after certain crucial debates in the US Congress in July. The broad idea is to go with another “coalition of the willing” against Iran as in the First and not so much the Second Gulf War, and a Britain-led Nato will be a key player in that coalition. Diplomatic sources say that since the EU constitution was rejected by France and The Netherlands, Rumsfeld has been planning and succeeded in dividing Nato for the Iran war.

The Britain-led Nato will not include Germany, and will comprise generally pro-US states like Italy, Poland, Romania, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. With the exclusion of Germany, France will not be able – or as able as before – to put spokes in the war preparation. With the European Union tottering and the Euro getting hammered in the markets, French resistance will be weak against a second war in the Middle East in two years.

But despite what we wrote, the Iran war so soon, and with the boundless acrimony it is sure to generate, is surprising on another level, and that is seeing the general nature of second-term US presidents, who turn to the enterprise of making themselves look good to history. The first term of Bush we all know, when an almost evangelical America attacked Saddam for non-existence WMDs, a fact known to the president, the CIA, and the neo-conservatives lead by the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Cheney is less in evidence now, the neo-cons also appear to have had their day or term, as you like it, or they may be lying low, and generally, the fur is not flying about America, not since, at least, the Iraq elections, and the EU harakiri. But Iran war preparations and the war eventually will return the spotlights and hate on America, and a classical second-term US president should not like that.

So why is Rumsfeld hammering another coalition into shape, but more controversially, attempting to hammer Germany and France out of shape? Perhaps, there is no other option. The European Union tried through non-offensive means to get Iran to de-weaponise, but not only Iran thumbed its nose at them, it threatened Scud attacks on Israel, and is shopping around in Africa for dirty bombs, that is bombs that can spread radioactive death through conventional explosion, without triggering a nuclear holocaust. But it is terrible, such a bomb, all the same, and the Al-Qaeda has come close to having it from the nuclear blackmarket since 9/ 11. "

Amin Ali Golmohamad - 5/30/2005

I agree.

Also, there is no incentive for most nuclear nations to give up their weapons, as the US is continuing research into ever better ones.

Christopher Ball - 5/30/2005

Wittner exaggerates the success of the NPT up to 1997. India and Pakistan never signed the NPT (and even France remained outside of it until 1992). India detonated a "peaceful nuclear explosion" in 1974 and in the late 1980s, the argument was over whether Pakistan had nuclear weapons or not, not whether it wanted to produce them. The Indian and subsequent Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 certainly were a setback to non-proliferation efforts, but both states had nuclear weapons programs underway well before then. South Africa had an advanced nuclear program, as did Iraq prior to 1991. North Korea's program was advanced at the time of the 1994 accords, and Libya had a weapons program underway.

The Bush administration's nuclear diplomacy is clumsy at best, but it is a mistake to attribute the problems with the 2005 review conference solely to US obstinacy. Why should non-weapon states in the NPT abide by its terms if North Korea and Iran can breach them with relative impunity? Will _all_ the nuclear powers commit to a timetable for nuclear abolition (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK along with North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel)? If little is being done to reverse violations by North Korea, why expect that much would be done to prevent cheating on abolition by Russia or China?