The world is struggling with a Hindu bomb, a Muslim bomb, and a Jewish bomb; Latino, Ukranian, Japanese, German, African, and Central Asian bombs appear to have been averted. Perhaps the Korean bomb should be counted as a “maybe.” At least one developing world nuclear war was narrowly averted (India-Pakistan) and another is currently threatening (Israel-Iran). Washington’s strategy for controlling the bomb is a disaster waiting to happen.
With the Hindu bomb, the Muslim bomb, and the Jewish bomb already fully deployed by countries that have had no shortage of Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish extremist leaders quite willing to countenance wars of choice, Nuclear Armageddon no longer needs superpower irresponsibility as its ally. Today, the remaining superpower is pleased to see itself as the world’s best hope of preventing Nuclear Armageddon, but its approach has become predictably short-sighted: identify a proliferating regime, watch for local political forces resistant to superpower “guidance,” and pressure the regime into submitting to discrimination. As long as the superpower remains very strong and very alert and very determined, the tactic sometimes works…over and over and over. An emergency tactic that works only occasionally and must be reapplied endlessly is bad strategy.
Once there was a Muslim society comfortably (from Washington’s perspective) controlled by a military dictatorship. Deep in the desert it had a nuclear reactor. No one, it seems, much cared, though rumors of an Algerian plan to produce weapons grade plutonium have circulated. Then a wave of democratization, not surprisingly including all flavors of Islamist thinking, erupted. Washington became concerned, pressured the generals, opposed democratization. The existence of the reactor came to public attention, so the generals swore that they had no interest in the bomb but would never give up their right to possess the technology. The country was Algeria…in 1991, when the long U.S. war against Saddam was getting under way. [Abed Charef, Algerie Le Grand Derapage, (Editions de l’Aube 1994), 68-74.] Today, the democracy movement having been suppressed by a decade of state terror, Algeria remains under a military dictatorship, still has the nuclear reactor…plus a second one, and receives U.S. nuclear support! Like Iran, it is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and aspires to generate electricity from nuclear power despite being an oil producer. According to a report by Spanish military intelligence, Algeria had the ability to produce military-grade plutonium in 1998. As for the Algerian people, they will perhaps someday be deemed “ready” for democracy.
It is the same story over and over: a developing country denied its right to technology and a society denied its right to liberty, and everyone who identifies with the society that has been discriminated against feels that much more resentful toward the West. Multiple, serious, long-term negative results in order to gain the single temporary positive result of preventing proliferation to a single, small region of the globe.
Such tactics are illustrate a classic policy-making failure: the fix that fails. Yes, the problem of an Algerian bomb was “fixed” at the level of Algeria, but the real problem was and remains proliferation in general. A generation-long war against Iraq, a generation-long threat of war against Iran, an Israeli attack on Syria, years of pressure against Libya that finally succeeded, and years of pressure against North Korea that failed, and the horrifying South Asian nuclear game of brinkmanship clarify the system-level nature of the problem and the utter inadequacy of the country-level tactics being used to solve the problem. As long as the “fixes” are at the local level, not only will failures be predictable, but the system-level problem of a general desire for nuclear equality will not end because resentment at second-class citizenship and the perception that a country only loses when sacrificing nuclear weapons will continue to fuel that desire.
The Algerian story is important to remember precisely because it has become such a common story and is so easy to forget. The lesson here lies in the number of times that the exercise of pressuring an emerging nuclear power into accepting discriminatory treatment has been repeated and the very sorry record of accomplishment. When surgeons have to operate over and over to cut out the same cancer as it metastasizes in one organ after another, eventually the time comes to change the treatment.