WASHINGTON and its closest allies - at least those who try to put themselves in Washington's shoes - now realize that they are beleaguered by the Pandora's Box of nuclear and missile proliferation and have no adequate policy to deal with them. Their moral authority is all but used up, just when they need it most, to deal with Iraq first and now North Korea.
George W. Bush must be wishing he were President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil - cancel the order for new military jets, tell the nation the money is going to relieve poverty, and meanwhile use the credibility earned to keep the Brazilian economy on a responsible course, even though that will incur quite a bit of belt-tightening for everybody.
Lula, a week into office, must be already set to win reelection. But what equivalent moral authority does Bush have in order to win over the hearts and minds of both his electorate and the UN Security Council? Could he really persuade either his voters or his closest allies to go to war simultaneously with Iraq and North Korea? Yet just to launch an invasion of Iraq, when it is the lesser sinner, seems by the day increasingly irrational.
It is North Korea that has the missiles, the bombs, and the possibility for producing quickly more plutonium and more bombs. Clearly something has to be done with both. But as word leaks out that under a previous Republican administration a blind eye was turned to Iraq's development and use of weapons of mass destruction in its war with Iran, the Bush administration (containing people like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was party to these previous decisions) finds it difficult to summon up sufficient credible moral authority to deal effectively with what has now become an exceedingly complex three-ring circus.
Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin are all culpable for letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle. It is no use blaming North Korea, China, and Russia when Western companies have been making a fortune over the years out of proliferation. Look at the case now being brought against Boeing and Hughes Electronic for selling forbidden rocket knowledge to China. It is good to see the case becoming so public as it reminds us what has been going on for decades. But for much of the time too little was done. As for government policy toward the proliferators, it has been, as Michael Klare wrote in his book ''Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws,'' ''ambivalent, indecisive, and inconsistent''.
A prime example of this is America's attitude towards Pakistan. In April 1979 the Carter administration, convinced that Pakistan was secretly building a nuclear weapon, suspended military aid, in a move mandated by Congress's Symington Amendment. However, when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 the administration persuaded Congress to overrule the amendment, and a large arms aid program was started up again.
For the next decade, in return for Pakistan's help in building up the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan - who later turned into Osama bin Laden's storm troopers - Washington turned a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear bomb efforts. Only in 1990 with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan defeated did President George Bush, the father, belatedly cut off military assistance.
Even today, after all the lesson's learned, in return for winning Pakistan's support in defeating the Taliban and pursuing Al Qaeda, Washington appears to be turning yet another blind eye to Pakistan's latest acquisition of missiles from North Korea.
It was the same with Israel. Although senior US officials (and probably those of other Western countries too) were aware in the early 1960s of the secret Israeli nuclear reactor and weapons plant at Dimona in the Negev desert, they chose to connive in concealing it from public knowledge. Nothing was allowed to interfere with Washington's ''strategic relationship'' with Tel Aviv, a policy whose chickens are now coming home to roost.
The issue of credibility also runs right through two important international agreements. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits five already declared nuclear weapon states - the United States, Britain, Russia, China, and France - the right to maintain their nuclear arsenals while denying this privilege to other countries. On the last occasion the treaty was renewed these nuclear-haves solemnly promised to start getting rid of their nuclear weapons in return for most of the rest of the world remaining signatories. The promise has been clearly and unambiguously flouted.
Similarly, the Missile Technology Control Regime allows member states - mainly the most advanced industrial powers - to possess unlimited numbers of ballistic missiles. But it bans sales of missile technology to nonmembers.
Maybe all this hypocrisy and double think had some justification when the West was locked in a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union. But for the last 10 years it has become visibly intellectually unsustainable. If President Bush feels that events are propelling him into a no-win situation with Iraq and North Korea, then here in 40 years of dissembling and double dealing is at least some part of the explanation.
Jonathan Power is a columnist based in London.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company