Published on Friday, October 18, 2002 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
Proliferation, Not Iraq, Is the Issue
by William Hartung
The revelations regarding North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program raise new questions about the practicality of the Bush administration's narrow, militarized approach to stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
By stressing that Washington will seek to resolve this new crisis through diplomacy, rather than force, administration officials appear to have grudgingly acknowledged that threatening pre-emptive military action is a dangerous and limited tool for dealing with regimes seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Let's hope this newfound realism will carry over into the administration's policy on Iraq, where the use of force to impose disarmament is still a very live option.
The most jarring passage in President George W. Bush's recent speech on Iraq in Cincinnati was his assertion that "if the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year."
If Bush is serious about keeping Iraq from getting that softball-sized cache of highly enriched uranium, his administration should attack the problem at its source by launching a comprehensive program to purchase, destroy or neutralize the world's huge stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear materials.
Unfortunately, the administration has taken a lackadaisical approach to nonproliferation funding. The entire $1-billion annual budget for securing or destroying the raw materials needed to build nuclear weapons is equivalent to the cost of roughly three days of fighting in the proposed war against Iraq, which the Congressional Budget Office has suggested could cost $9 billion per month.
Going to the source of the proliferation danger means dealing with Russia's vast nuclear stockpile, which includes 40,000 strategic and tactical weapons plus enough enriched uranium and plutonium to build tens of thousands of additional nuclear bombs.
Shortly before Bush's inauguration, a bipartisan task force chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler reported that "the most urgent national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home."
The task force recommended the development of a $3-billion-per-year, long-term plan to safeguard, destroy or neutralize Russian nuclear materials and nuclear weapons - three times current spending levels.
The Bush administration has been slow to heed this advice. The administration's original request for nonproliferation programs for 2002 was just $745 million, a $100-million cut from prior levels. It was only through the action of a bipartisan coalition in Congress that this initial figure was boosted to more than $1 billion. This year's administration request matches last year's final figure, but it hardly represents the kind of urgent funding increase that should be devoted to dealing with the nation's top security threat.
Even at current funding levels, major U.S. government nonproliferation programs have accomplished a tremendous amount, from financing the destruction of more than 4,400 Russian strategic nuclear warheads to orchestrating the airlift of nearly 600 kilograms of poorly-guarded, highly-enriched uranium from Kazakhstan in 1994.
But much more can and should be done. The Bush administration's removal of 2.5 bombs' worth of highly-enriched uranium from a research lab in Yugoslavia in August is a model for what needs to happen on a much broader scale. But even that important first step required a $5-million contribution from the private Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Unfortunately, the administration has failed to support members of Congress who are seeking establishment of a truly global nonproliferation fund that could purchase and destroy nuclear weapons and enriched materials from any nation of proliferation concern, not just Russia. The existence of steadier funding - and greater political will - might have forestalled the current nuclear crisis with North Korea, which was frustrated by delays in the delivery of aid and energy resources promised by the United States as part of the 1994 nuclear framework agreement.
Given the recent disclosure that the CIA believes that Saddam Hussein would be far more likely to promote a terrorist act utilizing weapons of mass destruction if he were attacked by the United States, military intervention in the name of nonproliferation is likely to cause far more damage than it's worth. A safer and more effective policy should include the following three elements: firm but fair UN inspections, devoid of extraneous demands; a revised sanctions regime focused narrowly on militarily useful equipment, backed up with enhanced border controls and economic incentives for Iraq's neighbors to curb smuggling; and a flexible, well-financed global program to eliminate weapons-grade materials in Russia and beyond.
Before he leads the country into a war of high costs and uncertain results, Bush should start playing hardball on nuclear nonproliferation instead of persisting in the patchwork approach that has prevailed during his first 20 months in office.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School, New York.
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