"The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," President Bush vowed in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address. Two and a half years later, one member of the "axis of evil" that Bush denounced in the same speech, North Korea, may have as many as eight nuclear bombs and be on its way to making about a dozen a year, with every intention of selling them to terrorists and other willing bidders.
A second member of the axis of evil, Iran's terrorist-sponsoring Islamic regime, is racing toward a bomb-making capability while thumbing its nose at Europe and the United States. The third member, Iraq, turns out to have had no substantial nuclear weapons program when Bush invaded, contrary to the prewar Bush-Cheney hype and the more measured, but also mistaken, suspicions of the world's major intelligence agencies.
Our unstable, nuclear-armed ally Pakistan, caught last year running a black market in weapons designs and equipment, is crawling with Qaeda sympathizers. And the 178-nation Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime is at risk of collapsing into a chain reaction of regimes going nuclear.
"On the current course, if everybody just keeps doing what we're doing, a nuclear terrorist attack is inevitable," Graham Allison, perhaps the nation's leading expert on nuclear terrorism, told several hundred people in his June 22 closing address at a two-day conference on nuclear nonproliferation sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "If the U.S. government and others just keep doing what we're doing, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not in the decade ahead."
More likely than not.
Are we better off than we were four years ago, when it comes to this, the greatest danger that we face -- the risk that Americans will be massacred by the hundreds of thousands or millions, with survivors fleeing our cities and an unimaginable impact on our economy and way of life? Listening to the speeches and reading the reams of stuff distributed at the conference made the task of preventing such a catastrophe seem like trying to plug thousands of leaks in a dike.
I supported Bush's invasion of Iraq -- wrongly, I now think -- as our best hope of stopping the nuclear proliferation that, if current trends continue, virtually guarantees nuclear terrorism. I believed (and still suspect) that invading was the only way to prevent Saddam from getting a nuclear bomb within a few years. But the invasion, which has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism and terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere, may not be worth the cost without the other benefit for which I had hoped: a victory so quick, clean, and low-cost as to deter Iran, Libya, Syria, and others from developing nuclear weapons lest they suffer the fate of Saddam.
Instead, the occupation of Iraq has been bloody, costly, divisive, and unpopular, both there and here; has overstretched our armed forces; and has discredited the abilities of our leaders and intelligence agencies to determine whether a hostile regime has weapons of mass destruction. All this makes it hard to imagine any president launching -- or voters supporting -- another regime-change invasion in the foreseeable future. So Bush appears to have exhausted his "pre-emption" doctrine on a regime with no weapons to pre-empt.
Was it the Iraq invasion that scared Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi straight, as administration officials claim? Perhaps. But many experts doubt it, citing Qaddafi's long-documented desire to end Libya's economic isolation. In any case, while the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, Iran and North Korea are racing to acquire weapons that would make them invasion-proof. And Bush appears to have no idea of how to stop them from becoming far more threatening than Saddam ever was.
Our only remaining hope of halting, or at least slowing, the spread of nuclear weapons appears to be the sort of painstaking diplomacy, international teamwork with coalitions of the not-entirely-willing, and payment of extortion to "evil" regimes that Bush and Cheney disdain.
The administration may already have squandered its best chance of bribing North Korea -- with some combination of nonaggression guarantees, recognition, trade concessions, and cash -- to verifiably freeze or abandon its nuclear program, as President Clinton and, to some extent, Colin Powell had sought to do. Bush's reluctance to deal with a tyrant who starves his own people and the administration's suspicions that North Korea would cheat (again) on any agreement are understandable. But it's hard to suppress the suspicion that the Bush approach of denouncing North Korea and pursuing an unwieldy six-state process, while refusing to engage in bilateral bargaining, has so far been an abject failure. With no visible progress, "Time favors North Korea," in the words of Donald Rumsfeld.
Allison, director of a program on science and international affairs at Harvard University and author of a forthcoming book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, said that Bush's North Korea policy may prove to be "the gravest strategic failure in American history, God forbid." Allison served in the Clinton Defense Department and strongly supports John Kerry. He gave a harsh overall appraisal of Bush's efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism. So did many of the other experts at the conference, where the administration was represented by fairly low-level officials, and where Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., gave a Bush-bashing luncheon speech.
Not all of the critics were Democrats. "We are spending less than a billion dollars a year on securing the huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials in Russia, which represents potentially a dagger pointed at our heart, while at the same time spending $10 billion a year on missile defense directed at a so-far-nonexistent problem and utilizing unproven technology," said Thomas Graham Jr., a career arms control lawyer, in an interview. He was President Clinton's special ambassador for nonproliferation and disarmament and served in the Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I administrations as a politically appointed arms control and nonproliferation expert. He calls himself an "Eisenhower Republican." Lamenting Bush's reliance on "ideologically driven neoconservatives" who disdain diplomacy, Graham urged a return to the bipartisan approach to foreign policy still embraced by Republicans including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Graham's critique of Bush's preoccupation with missile defense is echoed in a 94-page draft Carnegie Endowment report, "Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security," which notes, "U.S. intelligence assessments and military officials have said for years that the United States is most likely to be attacked with a nuclear weapon covertly delivered on a ship, plane, or truck."
Bush critics agreed with the Carnegie report in denouncing the administration's push to develop new, more "usable" nuclear weapons, including so-called mini-nukes and bunker-busters, and its refusal to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that the Clinton administration negotiated. New weapons would add very limited military capability at the cost of igniting a new arms race and mocking the U.S. promise in the nonproliferation treaty to work toward nuclear disarmament.
"It's hard to persuade other countries to move in one direction when we are moving in the other," former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia told the conference on June 21.
Nunn also stressed that by leaving thousands of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, the Bush administration and Russia are "running the irrational risk of an Armageddon of our own making" -- an accidental or unauthorized launch. Bush pledged during the 2000 campaign to "remove as many weapons as possible" from hair-trigger alert, but he has done little to follow up.
Would John Kerry do better? Allison thinks so. "Bush has had his turn at bat, and you can see the results," he said, "and John Kerry is eager to show that he can hit this ball." Allison expressed confidence that Kerry would make nonproliferation a "real presidential priority" and "do everything physically and technically possible on the fastest possible timetable to prevent" proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
I'm not sure I share Allison's optimism about Kerry, whose foremost priority now seems to be to say anything that might help get him into the Oval Office. And it is far from clear that Kerry would be more successful than Bush has been in dealing with the push by North Korea and Iran to acquire doomsday weapons.
Which of these men is a better bet to stop the terrifying drift toward nuclear catastrophe? Which of them better understands the logic of President Kennedy's assertion that "the weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us"? Our lives may depend on the answer.