By William A. Cohn
In our fervor to fight, we are facilitating the most likely scenario for nuclear devastation. As Pakistan descends into chaos, the US has pledged more than $10 billion in combined military and civilian aid to Islamabad. President Obama vowed just last month to lead towards a global treaty to ban the production of fissile material, yet his policy in Pakistan undermines that effort. At a minimum, US aid enables Islamabad to free-up funds to meet its stated goal of enhancing its nuclear capacity. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.
There’s much tortuous debate these days about torture and bailouts, but nuclear disarmament should be a no-brainer. But for those rapacious fear-profiteers and our ability to make the simple complex, we’d have gotten rid of all nuclear weapons long ago. The need to abolish nuclear weapons is expressed in the NPT (the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and now more than ever we need to take these horrid toys from the boys who trade in destruction.
ast month, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed that confronting nuclear proliferation is vital to “our ultimate survival.” The nuclear disarmament agenda Mr. Obama set forth in his Prague speech offers a real opportunity for needed disarmament progress. Why can’t we just do what is so obviously the right thing?
A Chinese proverb warns, “Unless we change direction, we shall end up where we are headed.” Are we big-brained idiots doomed? In vowing to rid the world of nuclear weapons, President Obama has challenged us to choose survival over destruction. Can we close Pandora’s Box? Not if we don’t change our way of thinking. Sadly, the US Af-Pak policy suggests that just as in Iraq and Vietnam, profound ignorance, hubris and a militaristic mindset are driving a self-defeating US policy.
Tenacity, grace and grassroots mobilization are required in fighting those with vested interests in a destructive status quo. The lack of buzz stirred in the mainstream press on Obama’s atomic initiative is remarkable. Conspicuous in their absence have been editorials and analysis on Obama’s nuclear framework in the major dailies and networks. Of course they too represent vested interests in the status quo - perhaps that explains why they pay more attention to the ghost of Dick Cheney than disarmament. The status quo, however, is unsustainable with respect to nuclear weapons proliferation. As former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn stated in calling for abolishing nukes, “We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”
A US bipartisan commission on prevention of nuclear proliferation recently concluded, “Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing.” The greatest danger is not the bogeyman of so-called ‘rogue states’ (Iran and North Korea), the favored fear-mongering tool of, most notably, former US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, used to justify wasteful missile expenditures like missile defense (See Nuclear Umbrella? The Peril of Missile Defense, ICH, 10-12-06), but rather the rise of failed states and its result that violent extremist non-state actors have ever-greater possibilities for getting the Bomb. Today, Pakistan is the most combustible potential failed state.
Obama said in April that “in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build the bomb has spread.”
Harvard political scientist Graham Allison’s Newsweek cover story (“Stopping the Ultimate Attack,” March 23, 2009) highlights the danger of nuclear terror and calls for a revitalization of the concept of deterrence. Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: the Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe and Nuclear Proliferation: Risk and Responsibility, surely recognizes that the best deterrence is the abolition of nuclear weapons. Nuclear theorists and strategists should heed the call of former Pentagon chief Robert McNamara, who in 2003 acknowledged “it was luck that prevented nuclear war” and catastrophe in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Luck may not save us next time.
Nuclear threats now include: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other religious extremists getting nukes; India and Pakistan having the Bomb, with their bloody history and Kashmir dispute; a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with numerous doomsday scenarios; more states pursuing civilian nuclear technology as a source of ‘clean energy’ (but what do we do with the radioactive waste?) leading to bomb-building; accidents like the recent collision of French and British nuclear submarines; misuse of the bloated nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union where poor safeguards, political instability and corruption have given rise to a booming black market trade in nuclear materials; nukes in the hands of one of many militant separatist groups; Iran’s firebrand leader running a reelection campaign on nuclear nationalism; and, North Korea led by a lunatic who, impotent to meet the needs of his people, snubs cooperation at every opportunity, and whose only political capital is playing the international pariah. The scenarios for atomic annihilation are many, and growing.
The prospect of atomic annihilation increases daily as black market trade in nuclear weapons material and technology expands. Today, nuclear smuggler A.Q. Khan runs his own website from Pakistan. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei calls Khan’s nuclear distribution network the “Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation.”
We now have a window of opportunity to act, for as nuclear threats are spreading, voices of reason are rising. The past two years have seen peace activists and progressives joined by hawks like Henry Kissinger and statesmen like the prime ministers of Britain, India and Australia in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And for the first time, a US president has been elected on a campaign pledge of nuclear weapons abolition.
Disarmament is best understood as a process, a way of progressing, rather than an event, the magical result of “zero” weapons. The movement to abolish nuclear weapons aims to rapidly reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals so as to make nuclear weapons illegitimate. This movement is growing, but time is not on its side.
As noted by former chief UN weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix, “So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic.” The fact is, NPT is in shambles. The 2005 NPT review was impotent, and with its 5-year review coming next year, failure to make prompt progress may mean atomic anarchy.
We most stop our nuclear hypocrisy. The lesson drawn from Pakistan and India is that getting the bomb enhances state power. Since these states tested their Bombs, over a decade ago, the perceived value of obtaining nuclear weapons has increased. The lesson drawn from Israel is that the US approach to nuclear proliferation is geopolitical and hypocritical. All 3 of these states have flouted NPT yet received great benefits from the West. The only way to dispel these dangerous lessons and to secure our future is to take action in concert with all other nuclear weapons states to disarm. We most definitely should not be enabling Pakistan to beef-up its nuclear weapons capacity.