WMD Rogues Back into the Fold?

As 2003 has turned into 2004, there has been a lot of movement world-wide in the area of – brace yourself for this all-too-familiar, overused bureaucratic term – “weapons of mass destruction” (call ’em WMD) and the “rogue states” that, to various degrees, have pursued their acquisition in the past. Most prominent was Libya’s renunciation of such weapons and agreement to adhere to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards, even before actually signing any written accord to do so. But North Korea also recently allowed a team of US observers visit its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. For its part, back in October Iran signed agreements granting the IAEA more scope for inspection of its nuclear facilities, and even Syria started to speak publicly last week about its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Zbynek Petracek, in the most-recent issue of the Czech commentary weekly Respekt, surveys these developments in an article he entitles So That You Don’t End Up Like Saddam. But is all this breaking of the nuclear ice attributable to the downfall of the Iraqi dictator?

If it were, Petracek notes, that would be somewhat ironic, given that the WMD justification for the invasion of Iraq hasn’t panned out at all; last week also marked what was attempted as the “quiet” pull-out from Iraq of the main American team of 400 WMD-searchers (but the media are always watching, especially these guys). But actually there’s precious little connection; indeed, and unfortunately, there has been less progress in fighting the spread of WMD even after the fall of Saddam, even after he was caught in his spider-hole, than you would hope.


The key to this depressing conclusion is primarily to be found in yet another “rogue state,” or perhaps better stated, “rogue state whose name no one dares to speak” – Pakistan. Under a section in his article called “Pakistan – Ally with a Question-Mark,” Petracek lists the nuclear/missile shenanigans involving Pervez Musharraf’s Islamabad regime that have recently come to light. That Libya was starting to make progress towards enriching uranium on the way to building a nuclear device in the first place was due to Pakistani technical assistance and key supplies of machinery and fuel (this in return for considerable Libyan financial assistance which had eased its way towards acquiring the first “moslim A-bomb.”) For that matter, North Korea’s atomic progress is also largely thanks to Pakistan. (While Pakistan’s atomic-warhead-carrying-missile progress is largely thanks to North Korea; that expertise was what Pakistan felt it needed to get in a hurry, once its arch-enemy India developed its own nuclear weapons at the end of the 1990s.)

American and British officials, in the meantime, steadfastly resist labeling Pakistan as the source of nuclear-weapons technology to states that are not supposed to get it, rationalizing away the incriminating equipment that has been found in cargoes seized from ships as stuff that could have been ordered from anywhere in the world-wide black market. But Petracek himself asks, “Is Pakistan really an ally of the USA and the West in the War Against Terrorism?”

Meanwhile, in Pyongyang, whatever the reason for that recent (private) visit by a group of Americans to North Korea’s main nuclear facility, it cannot reasonably be attributed to Kim Jong Il starting to feel nervous about suffering the same fate as Saddam. Petracek is instead much more in agreement with a recent piece from the New York Times (I read it, too, back then, and I believe it is this editorial by columnist Nicholas Kristof, unfortunately already among the for-pay archives), which reasonably states that the lesson Kim Jong Il drew from the fall of Saddam was that he needs more nukes to deter the Bush administration, “the more, the better.” In fact, American experts already concede that North Korea possesses one or two nuclear devices. The upshot is that we shouldn’t be holding our breath waiting for Kim Jong Il to have a Libyan moment of revelation; indeed, North Korea’s stance has continued to be that it only offers to freeze the progress of its nuclear program, not roll it back, in exchange for the security guarantees and humanitarian assistance it seeks.


You would think that Syria’s case would be rather more encouraging. After all, Syrian president Bashar Assad recently admitted to the Daily Telegraph last week that his country possesses chemical and biological weapons – and has the right to do so, to defend itself. At least there’s no more silly denying what is plainly there. (A game Israel has long played; see below.) What is more, just last month during a visit to Egypt Assad joined President Hosni Mubarak in calling for the Middle East to be made into a nuclear-free zone.

But if you take this to be encouraging, especially that last part, you would be wrong – in fact, you would stand in need of a refresher course in Cold War history, as Zbynek Petracek does not (nor do most thinking Czechs of a certain age, as they experienced the Cold War rather more closely than most of the rest of us). The Soviet Union, you see, was also fond of the idea of a “nuclear-free zone,” but within Europe. This proposal would always be good for scoring propaganda points with Europeans terrified at what nuclear weapons could inflict on their homelands (the “Better Red than Dead” and unilateral nuclear disarmament points-of-view), but ultimately it was a thoroughly cynical ploy: nuclear weapons, and the implicit threat of their use (as can be seen, for example, that neither NATO nor the United States ever adopted a “no-first-use” policy) were key to defending Western Europe against the numerically-superior forces of the Warsaw Pact. Taking them out of that equation would have meant that the “Better Red than Dead” advocates would never have had to witness a nuclear explosion, but that they, together with the rest of their countrymen, would have likely had front-row seats at a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe.

Petracek sees similar, if not identical, cynical motives in this call for a Middle East nuclear-free zone. Actually, the situation is not identical because, currently, it’s likely that Israel could still successfully defend itself against an attack by its Arab neighbors even without nuclear weapons (that it has never admitted to having, but which it is generally known to have possessed for over thirty years), especially in this era when the successor-state to the Soviet Union now demands hard cash, up front, for the military equipment it sells. But that was not always necessarily true, particularly back in the day when Israeli-Arab relations were more fraught, and when the Soviet Union was willing to ship top-class arms to its Middle Eastern client states for ideology rather than money; it seems that a catastrophic defensive breakdown on the Golan front, in particular, during the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack on Israel in October, 1973, was averted by means that you wouldn’t exactly find described in any conventional military textbook.


So take no comfort in what seems to be the refreshing sounds (in the key of WMD) coming out of Syria, and certainly don’t think they’re in any way connected to Saddam Hussein, OK? And that takes care of that, because for a coda Petracek wants to briefly take up instead a rather different subject, namely the whole debate of “If Israel can have these nuclear weapons – and we know it does – then why can’t we have them, too?” He gives a short answer in the form of his final section heading: “Weapons alone don’t threaten.” Does that remind anyone of “Guns don’t kill, people do”? Well, his point is that, in fact, it’s OK to let Israel have nuclear weapons (actually, there seems to be little that could be done to take them away) and not Israel’s bellicose neighbors because Israel has them, ironically, in order not to use them – i.e. as a deterrent. These other neighbors, on the other hand, would have them quite likely to actually use them – if not in the horrible physical sense, then at least to use them to make terrible threats.

Still: isn’t deterrence also a sort of threat? Petracek proposes a fuzzy criterion of judging whether states should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, in inverse relation to their “aggressivity” and ideologicnost, which is best-translated as “propensity to get carried away with ideology.” I would have preferred something more along the lines of degree of being a truly democratic state (which, among Arabs, not even Egypt qualifies for). In any case, the whole debate deserves its own treatment, rather than being at the tail-end of this otherwise useful, comprehensive article.

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