TNR, P.Scoblic, and Proliferation

I am just now getting the chance to write some comments about “Peter Scoblic’s TNR article about nuclear proliferation”: [full disclosure: Peter was the editor of _Arms Control Today_ when I first began working at ACA.]

These are just some thoughts I had while reading the piece, rather than a proper review. Overall, it’s very good and even experts can benefit from reading it.

That said, some comments:

*First,* I think Peter’s opening description of the Bush administration’s worldview is incomplete. Peter begins with “Democracy has become George W. Bush’s reflexive answer to terrorism.” But I would have included some other elements of the administration’s foreign policy in the introduction – such as its focus on regimes’ characteristics and disdain for international agreements – that Peter gets to later in the piece.

This is not merely for stylistic reasons –I think that, in general, many commentators impute a degree of coherence to the Bush second-term foreign policy “strategy” that just isn’t there. Yes, Bush reportedly read the Sharansky book and says some shit about democracy every so often. He may even think democracy promotion is a good idea.

But this should not be mistaken for a strategy. Instead, we should speak of a Bush administration “approach” to nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, this approach has been incoherent and (mostly) a failure.

It’s true that the administration thinks that there are no bad weapons, just bad regimes. But those bad regimes are defined as ones that don’t happen to be our friends/lackeys at the moment – democracy is not really the driving factor. [The inconsistencies of the administration’s alleged support for democracy need not be detailed for this audience.]

*Second,* Peter is still absolutely right that the “regime” focus of the administration is ridiculous. There are some examples that I think he could have spent more time on.

* Pakistan. Not only are nuclear-armed Pakistan’s democratic credentials a bit lacking as of late, but the Khan network has been a proliferation nightmare.

* Russia. One of the weaknesses of the Moscow Treaty that Peter doesn’t discuss is that it expires in 2012 and the current START I verification measures end in 2009. I have “written before”: that the lack of an arms control treaty with the only country whose nuclear arsenal presents an existential threat to the United States is a bit disturbing.

* India is another good example (My guess is that the issue was just getting sorted out while Peter was writing, so I’m not criticizing him for omitting it.) The existence of some common strategic interests with New Delhi, as well as the fact that India is the world’s largest democracy, appear to have led the administration to take the “ah, fuck it” attitude with respect to the “potential damage”: that the deal could do to the non-proliferation regime.

*Third,* I hate to do it, but I must quibble with Peter on one point. But only because it’s an argument I frequently see. Peter writes that the NPT allows NNWS:

bq. to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium for peaceful purposes, such as generating energy. This provision is the back door that Iran and North Korea have exploited to advance their nuclear programs…

The “back door” to the NPT is not the reason that North Korea and Iran are getting nuclear weapons. North Korea starting building its facilities well before signing the NPT. In fact, a combination of IAEA inspections and US intel helped bust North Korea during the 1990. Iran got much of its critical assistance from the Khan network and kept its program secret for a long time. [To be fair, the potential loophole _does_ complicate our ability to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear fuel program.]

*Fourth,* there’s a good bit of truth to Peter’s argument that the Bush people are good at narrative-building. But I don’t think democracy promotion was nearly as important to Bush’s re-election as was his ability to scare the shit out of the American public. For example, Bush frequently explained his way out of the Iraq goat rodeo by saying that he had to choose between protecting the American public or trusting Hussein’s denials regarding Iraq’s suspected WMD. This was to convey that Bush was more risk-averse than Kerry when it came to coping with terrorism and, therefore, a superior foreign-policy president.

Peter is absolutely right to say that pragmatism ought to receive greater emphasis. And I think there are persuasive stories that can be told to promote pragmatic policies.

But the problem, in my view, is not so much the way that pragmatists talk about foreign policy. It’s that the administration, aided by much of the press, lies without consequence and is not held accountable for its actions. [You all know the particulars.]

Simply put, people need to learn that many of the administration’s policies could suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Coming up with “big ideas” and neat slogans vis a vis national security will be insufficient as long as those in power can bullshit the American public as egregiously as this administration has done.

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