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Russ Wellen: Whoa, Mr. President!

Polls Low, Bush Recasts Himself as the Next John Kennedy


Whoa, Mr. President! We haven't gotten over the first missile crisis yet.
By Russ Wellen

In language more lofty than most who advocate yet another preemptive military attack, Mark Steyn writes in City Journal: "Whether or not we end the nuclearization of the Islamic Republic will be an act that defines our time."

George Bush thought the Iraq War was his ticket to immortality. While vision was just a "thing" to his father, to him it's a quest. But, also the practical businessman, he knows he took a bath on Iraq. Always alert to a new opportunity, he and his administration have found yet another product to foist off on us. In other words, Bush hopes Iran will be his administration's gusher.


The Iran nuclear standoff is already drawing comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis. By allowing Soviet Premier Khrushchev to save face, John F. Kennedy was able to defuse the situation, but many believe it could have been avoided in the first place. For instance, his administration may have misinterpreted Russia's intentions.

Disingenuous or not, Russians, like Khrushchev's son, maintained afterward that they failed to understand the significance of stationing missiles in Cuba. Accustomed to aiming at and being targeted by missiles in the close confines of their border with Europe, they demonstrated a lack of appreciation for how touchy the US was about its elbow room. Besides, they'd already been patrolling our waters with nuclear submarines.

In the US meanwhile, as Seymour Hersh wrote in "The Dark Side of Camelot," "Few in Washington seriously believed that a few dozen ballistic missiles in Cuba could change the. . . balance of power: the Soviet Union was hopelessly outgunned."


But the Soviet Union actually held doomsday within its grasp, whereas Iran has yet to fire up its nuclear weapon assembly line. Speaking about Iran’s stated intention to build 3,000 centrifuges, National Counterproliferation Center chief Kenneth Brill was quoted in USA Today: "An announcement is one thing [but it] will take several years to build that many centrifuges."

But Iran's President Ahmadinejdad has been only to glad to fold his agenda inside Bush & Co.'s. It's rumored he believes war is a catalyst for the chaos the Mahdi, the revered twelfth Iman, seems to require before he returns and leads the world to peace. (Needless to say, many believe Bush's underlying agenda is also an appointment with Armageddon.)

Yet to give Ahmandinejad his due, no matter how provocative his pronouncements about Israel, in the context of a nuclear world there's nothing irrational about his drive to weaponize nuclear energy. He views Iran as the victim of -- in that unfortunate phrase made famous by India -- nuclear "apartheid." But what nation in Iran's position wouldn't feel entitled to develop nuclear weapons? In fact, reducing a nation to the level of "it's not fair," infantilizes it, thus further disenfranchising it.

Of course, by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the US pledged to decrease its nuclear arsenal. But hidden in plain sight –- the Defense Department's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, for instance –- are contingency plans to go on the offensive with nuclear weapons. In Foreign Affairs Keir Leiber and Daryl Press explain that, due to lack of funding, Russia and China have faded from the arms race. Then they describe "the additional thousand ground-burst warheads [the U.S.] will gain from the W-76 modernization program. The current and future U.S. nuclear force, in other words, seems designed to carry out a preemptive disarming strike against Russia or China."

A Defense Department that's made its peace with taking out major powers is unlikely to harbor reservations about mounting a nuclear attack against small fry. Besides, the five nuclear-weapon-state signees to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have never formally incorporated a clause prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

What's in it then for the 179 non-nuclear weapon states that signed on to the NPT? Other than providing assistance for peaceful nuclear energy, the treaty is intended to free a state from worry that a neighboring state, ideally also a signee, will develop nuclear weapons.

But what if your neighbor is armed with nuclear weapons yet hasn't signed? You can see how Israel's willful accumulation of nuclear weapons unfettered by the NPF breeds proliferation elsewhere. When an outlaw nuclear state lies just 1,250 miles away as the missile flies, only the most enlightened Iranian would oppose uranium enrichment.

Furthermore, if a state happens to be one of NATO's 22 non-nuclear states, it's privy to protection by NATO nuclear members. Thus do the other nuclear, uh, underserved states feel shunned by the nuclear clique.

But further humiliations awaited Iran and, in fact, elevated the art of the double standard to a quadruple standard. Not only does the US recognize Israel, despite its refusal to sign the NPF, as a nuclear state, it set an equally terrible precedent by enabling another non-signee, India, in its pursuit of nuclear energy.

It's almost as if, confronted with its lack of logic on all things nuclear, the US turns red in the face. Like the child to which it reduces a state like Iran by withholding its nukes, it lashes out against that state when it attempts to stick up for itself.

Even though Ahmadinejad defers in power to Iran's "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Khameini, his fantasy about wiping Israel off the map may well be the driving force behind Tehran's nuclear weapons program. Others speculate that Tehran seeks nuclear weapons to put the fear of Allah into oil-rich states like Kazakhstan that it seeks to usurp. (To deem peak oil concerns as beyond Tehran is to again underestimate it.) But aware it's seen as a threat by Israel and the US, its intentions are primarily for defense -- if, like the US, a preemptive shade of defense.

No matter what the outcome is with Iraq, there's always another state waiting in the wings to build or acquire nuclear weapons. (Strange how it's seldom acknowledged that Iran, which has obtained X-55 missiles from the Soviets, might also have been the proud recipients of operable nuclear warheads. They're also likely to have procured tactical nuclear "suitcase" bombs from the nuclear black market.)

Nuclear weapons are 60 years old. What other technology hasn't proliferated exponentially in that time frame? While the US may no longer face Armageddon at the hands of another superpower, it's in danger of being consumed by the spread of nuclear brush fires it figures to be stamping out for decades to come.

The Defense Department would have us apply that stale NRA argument -- guns don't kill: people do -- to nuclear weapons. But what firearm owner can resist taking his gun out for a spin? After all, who can deny that every weapon is pregnant with latent energy? In fact, the US must be credited with the super-human restraint with which it's kept its nuclear weapons holstered.

With its new, improved nukes, though, and a real live target looming, the US may no longer be able to resist airing them out. Worse, if it's people, not weapons, that kill, do we really want to see the world's most lethal weapons in the hands of people like -- our president aside -- Ahmadinejad?

Meanwhile, this crisis has become a convenient excuse to slide the dicey issue of nuclear weapon possession by a non-state actor out of sight. Conventional thinking holds that when Afghanistan was bombed after 9/11, the old Al Qaeda dissolved. Bin Laden, runs this line of reasoning, stepped back from active planning to drape himself in the mantle of Sayyid Qutb, his tormented mentor, and become instead the mentor of torment.

However, as Paul L. Williams reports in "The Al Qaeda Connection," bin Laden not only recouped, but exceeded, the fortune he squandered on projects while based in Sudan via the Afghanistan opium trade. Also it's common knowledge that Al Qaeda traded in African blood diamonds.

Williams, as well as the godfather of the anti-nuclear terrorism movement, Graham Allison, believe bin Laden has lavished his new fortune on nuclear materials and suitcase nukes -- in Williams's words, his "crown jewels." Compared to bin Laden, who would have you believe there's no word in Arabic for negotiation, Ahmadinejad is the soul of reason.

If only out of relief that we're not dealing with Al Qaeda, we need to proceed on that assumption. First we must try the tried and true sticks -- sanctions -- and carrots -- concessions -- route. Regarding the former, since Ahmadinejad fancies himself a man of the people, the threat may suffice, unlike with Saddam Hussein, who was impervious to sanctions. Concessions, meanwhile, encompass security, economic relief and technology transfer.

In response to nuclear weapons' very validity, we must work our way gradually up to what's become an existential question. First, we must increase funding for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Program, which confiscates loose nuclear material of the former Soviet Union. Then we should consider authorizing the CIA to outfit agents with millions of dollars -- and license to shop 'til they drop -- and run them in nuclear black markets. You know, the ones in Pakistan, Russia, or other former Soviet states, which, in IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei's words, suffer from no compunctions about the "clarity [of] the end user."

Then, in a display of derring-do -- fueled by a vintage bottle of good, old American can-do spirits -- send in Special Forces with host country units to upend the tables in the nuclear black-marketers' bazaar. If this sounds naïve in the current political climate, that's only a reflection of the depth of the fatalism Bush & Co. have instilled in the America people.

In fact, rolling back nuclear weapons has become one of those issues, like population growth, considered hopelessly idealistic. Since 9/11 and more than at any time since the American public considered it S.O.P. to slaughter Japanese, Americans pride themselves on realpolitik (that is, if they knew the meaning of the word).

Besides, warming up to global warming is enough of a challenge right now for a public skittish about having its credibility rating shredded by associating itself with the dreaded tree-hugger. As alpha-blogger Billmon writes in his post "Mutually Assured Dementia," it's "probably naïve to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran. . . . It’s just a little bunker buster, after all." In other words, Iranian deaths from a US missile attack are apt to roll off our backs like water off a duck.

When it comes to our security, though, Americans must remember that the illusion of safety afforded by Mutually Assured Destruction is gone forever. Furthermore, nuclear supremacy too has become an illusion in a world where both states and non-state actors have had access to a "turn-key gas centrifuge facility" courtesy of the Pakistan nuclear industry's dirty old man, Qadeer Khan.

To paraphrase Mark Steyn's opening statement about ending the nuclearization of Iran: If you're looking for an act that defines our time, end the nuclearization of the world.

*************

Russ Wellen, who often writes about nuclear security, is an editor at Freezerbox.com.

This piece was originally published at BaltimoreChronicle.com.

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