by Joseph Cirincione
In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. Joseph Cirincione responds.
FIRST, LET me agree with one of John Mueller’s main points: The dangers to our national security are very often hyped, and this alarmism produces undesirable consequences. And it is not just venal politicians and ideologues who participate in this threat exaggeration, but otherwise well-intentioned reporters and, yes, experts. This was pointed out to me not by a journalist, but by a man who pretends to be a journalist: Jon Stewart. Interviewing me on his Daily Show shortly after the hyped-up scare of Jose Padilla’s alleged “dirty bomb” plot in 2002, he asked about my role in the media coverage. “For a guy like you”, he said, “is this like when you see the weatherman and a hurricane is coming, and the weatherman never really gets to be at the top of the news, but in a hurricane, he is. And he’s got his big rain slicker on and saying, ‘It’s a devastating event!’”
He was right. That is exactly what it is like for dozens of experts put in front of the cameras and microphones and asked to play their role in the frenzy of “Crisis with Iran”, “Showdown with Iraq”, “America in the Crosshairs” or whatever title, music and drama can convince the viewer not to flip the channel. We try to give just the facts, but it is hard not to get caught up in the moment or to provide a sound bite that will be used absent any qualifiers. Couple this media tendency with an administration’s inherent dominance and ability to frame any national-security debate, and Mueller is right to be very worried about the use of fear to manipulate even the informed public.
In the prelude to the Iraq War, we saw a considerable amount of threat-mongering. Now, some of the same people who claimed we had to invade that nation or risk nuclear weapons in the hands of an Iraqi dictator are trying to convince us that we must continue to occupy that nation or risk nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian dictators. As Mueller points out, some want to go further, attacking Iran directly. His arguments about the futility of a military answer to the Iranian program are on point, particularly the negative lessons of Osirak.
Just Because You’re Paranoid. . . .
MUELLER GOES too far, however. His major thesis—“the obsessive quest to control nuclear proliferation . . . has been substantially counterproductive and has often inflicted dire costs”—is not correct. I wish it were true that we had an “obsessive quest.” I wish we truly did make the number one threat to our national security our number one national-security priority. But we do not. Non-proliferation is a political and budgetary afterthought: an occasional speech, an occasional presidential finding and about $2 billion per year total on all our non-proliferation and counter-proliferation programs—about what we spend in Iraq every week.
Let me be clear: Nuclear proliferation is a real danger. George Bush and John Kerry were correct when they agreed in a 2004 debate that it is the number one threat to America. The threat comes in four flavors. Most serious is nuclear terrorism. As terrible as another 9/11 attack would be, a nuclear 9/11 would destroy an entire city, kill hundreds of thousands, wreck the economy and change the political life of the nation, perhaps permanently. Our number one priority must be to make sure any further terrorist attack is non-nuclear.
Second is the danger from existing arsenals. There are still 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to destroy the planet several times over. Even a small regional war in South Asia using one hundred weapons would trigger a nuclear winter that could devastate food crops around the world. Accidental or unauthorized use is a real risk. Consider the September flight of a B-52 with six nuclear weapons that the crew didn’t know they had. If the most sophisticated command-and-control mechanism in the world fails to stop the unauthorized possession of the equivalent of sixty Hiroshimas, what is going on in other nations?
Third is the risk of new nuclear nations. I agree with Mueller that the danger here is not that Iran or North Korea would use a nuclear bomb against America or their neighbors. Deterrence is alive and well; they know what would happen next. Nor is it that these states would intentionally give a weapon they worked so hard to make to a terrorist group they could not control. Rather it is the risk of what could happen in the neighborhood: a nuclear reaction chain where states feel they must match each other’s nuclear capability. Just such a reaction is underway already in the Middle East, as over a dozen Muslim nations suddenly declared interest in starting nuclear-power programs. This is not about energy; it is a nuclear hedge against Iran. It could lead to a Middle East with not one nuclear-weapons state, Israel, but four or five. That is a recipe for nuclear war.
Finally, there is the risk of the collapse of the entire non-proliferation regime. Kennedy was right to worry about ten, fifteen or twenty nuclear nations. He did not make this number up. It was based on a 1958 NPT that warned that while there were then only three nuclear nations (the United States, the USSR and the United Kingdom), “within the next decade a large number of individual countries could produce at least a few nominal-yield weapons.” Indeed, several nations already had programs underway. Subsequent NPTs confirmed the proliferation danger and the linkage to existing arsenals. Other nations’ decisions on proceeding with programs, the intelligence agencies concluded, were linked to “further progress in disarmament—aimed at effective controls and reduction of stockpiles.” Kennedy negotiated a limited nuclear test ban and began the process to get the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty completed by Lyndon Johnson and ratified by Richard Nixon. This bipartisan dam held back the nuclear wave; its abandonment by the current administration risks a return to the 1950s nuclear free-for-all.
Cassandra Was Right
JUST BECAUSE some of the predicted nuclear catastrophes did not occur does not mean that those warning of them were wrong. Jon Stewart shared Mueller’s skepticism. “For all the scenarios that we have concocted, nothing has ever really happened”, he said. I told him what I tell Mueller: This is not because the dangers were not real; it is because leaders took action to prevent them. As a result, there are fewer countries with weapons or programs now than there were in the 1960s, ‘70s or ‘80s. More countries have given up nuclear weapons or programs in the past twenty years than have tried to acquire them. Negotiated treaties have cut in half the number of nuclear bombs from Cold War levels. And most of the 183 non-nuclear nations that have signed the NPT believe what the treaty says: No one should have nuclear weapons. Over 66 percent of the American public agrees, according to an Associated Press poll.
For any president who understands this widespread anti-nuclear desire, the programs to denuclearize are already in place. They could be reactivated or accelerated to effectively eradicate nuclear terrorism, shrink global arsenals, stop new nuclear nations and rebuild the nuclear levees. It just takes vision, honesty and the courage to put our money where our threats are. And it wouldn’t hurt to have less hype and more factual analysis.
Joseph Cirincione is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, 2007) and the director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress.