Thursday, October 26, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/26/06)


One might think from all the politically inspired fear generated in Washington that something inconceivable happened when North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion. Having a nuclear device is not the same as having a compact, efficient bomb or warhead that can be delivered on a missile. North Korea still has a long way to go. Let's put the test--a low-yield, inefficient device--into realistic perspective.

The world is a veritable nuclear-armed camp today. Consider how many nuclear warheads exist on the planet, who has them and when that nation first tested a nuclear weapon; the numbers are estimates from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: United States (1945), 5,735-9,960; Soviet Union/Russia (1949), 5,830-16,000; U.K. (1952) >200; France (1960), 350; China (1964), 130; India (1974), 75-115; Israel (1979), 75-200; Pakistan (1998), 65-90; North Korea (2006), 1-10. Portions of North Korea's technology came from A. Q. Kahn's secret nuclear bomb program in Pakistan. After Pakistan revealed that it had The Bomb, the U.S. called it a rogue nation for making it in secret. Pakistan has since become our great ally because of its commitment to our ill-defined war on terror.

And how many nuclear weapons tests have occurred over the last 61 years, particularly test in the atmosphere that spread contamination? The United States leads in such testing, having conducted 1,127 nuclear and thermonuclear tests, including 217 in the atmosphere. The Soviet Union/Russia conducted 969 tests, including 219 in the atmosphere; France, 210, including 50 in the atmosphere; the United Kingdom, 45, with 21 in the atmosphere; China, 45, with 23 in the atmosphere; India and Pakistan, 13, all underground; South Africa (with Israel) one atmospheric test in 1979. Three states, India, Israel and Pakistan declined to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to which 190 other nations are signatories. On Jan. 10, 2003, following the U.S. accusation that it had started an enriched uranium program, North Korea withdrew from the treaty.

For the moment, however, North Korea should be the least of our worries. A U.S. Department of Energy task force has warned of the vast number of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, "poorly controlled and poorly stored." One of the first acts of the Bush administration was to cut back a modest program to assist Russia in safeguarding these weapons and providing alternative employment for nuclear scientists, a decision that increased the risk of the weapons falling into the wrong hands.

What we should be worrying about are the ticking bombs in our own midst--more than 100 aging, outmoded and obsolete nuclear power plants, prone to accidents and of doubtful security. What we should perhaps fear from North Korea is the sale of weapons or technology to terrorists. North Korea already sells much of its limited military technology to other countries. But let us not forget that the world's largest arms merchant is the United States. Recently, we supplied the weapons used in Lebanon by Israel, loathsome flesh-mutilating cluster bombs indiscriminately dropped on unarmed civilians and still littering the landscape.

The implications of North Korea's test are disturbing for other reasons. First, hostilities in the Korean peninsula have never formally ended; what we have is an armed truce. American troops would be vulnerable to a nuclear device, however primitively delivered. Second, the North Korean test came at a time when George W. Bush was exploring military options to end Iran's nuclear program--even though we have no proof that Iran intends to create nuclear weapons. There's no denying its fear of nuclear-armed countries it sees as hostile. In 2003, defense analyst Harlan Ullman warned prophetically that a country like Iran, feeling threatened, "might hurry its nuclear weapons program after seeing the United States lead an assault on Iraq." The mess we made of Iraq and lack of available troops makes it virtually impossible for Bush to stage the invasion of Iran advocated by neocons now thoroughly discredited by their wrong guesses about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.

Some form of air attack on Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities by the U.S. or Israel cannot be ruled out, but traditional bombs and cruise missiles would be ineffective. A few military theorists have advocated using ICBMs with nuclear warheads--but these would arouse violent worldwide protests. The Pentagon may be considering use of non-nuclear ICBMs--arming a portion of the U.S. fleet with non-nuclear warheads to achieve deeper penetration underground. However, Russia's anti-missile forces are on high alert against the launch of even a single American ICBM, and we can ill afford a Dr. Strangelove hair-trigger scenario that increases the danger of nuclear destruction by accident.

Thus, an unexpected outcome of the North Korean test may be that aerial bombardment of Iran is now more unlikely. How can the U.S. justify an attack to prevent the development of nuclear energy in Iran when we have done nothing about North Korea, which actually has nuclear weapons? Moreover, Iran is an Islamic nation; our relations with the rest of the Islamic world are already in disarray. The way to allay our fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea is through negotiations. The U.S. must abandon its arrogant refusal to talk and deal with other countries. Our adamant silence works against our own vital interests.

However much we may wish that nuclear weapons had never been devised, at this uneasy period efforts leading to nuclear disarmament are almost certainly doomed to failure in a world heavily armed with nuclear weapons. Why would any nuclear power give up weapons that magnify the influence and prestige of the nation that has them. And why should other nations, facing both the immense power of the United States and its often-bullying tactics, not want to have them? The entire Western world looked the other way as Israel went about developing nuclear weapons. Why does little Israel need them? Why did the Soviet Union, which spent so much on armaments that its economic system collapsed, keep its costly nuclear arsenal?

If Western nations can understand the uneasy fear that drove Israel to want atomic arms, why can't they understand why North Korea might want them? For years, the United States has refused to talk and threatened and punished North Korea in many ways. President Bush has treated the North Koreans with the same dismissive contempt and intimidating attitude he has displayed toward other countries. How could this approach ever achieve anything but what it has now produced?

Editorial writers are fond of calling North Korea irrational and unstable, but such descriptions are wrong. Soviet-style regimes have been extremely stable. Any regime that has lasted for more than half a century can hardly be called unstable. Only when Soviet-style governments experimented with reforms and loosened their absolute hold on people's lives were they toppled. In North Korea, there is little likelihood of a Gorbachev emerging to assume power.

North Korea may have acted bizarrely at times during the last fifty years. In turn, the United States has pointedly isolated and ignored North Korea. From its point of view, its actions have not been irrational. In fact, it is U.S. policy toward other nations that has been irrational.

How else to explain more than forty years of trying to ignore the existence of Castro's Cuba so close to our shores or our foolish attempt to unseat its leader with the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and assassination?

How else to describe the vicious war in Vietnam that cost more than 58,000 American lives?

How else to characterize the ill-advised invasion of Iraq and the resulting trillion-dollar war without end?

Irrational is indeed the only word that fits these reckless adventures.


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