To Whatever Extent Libya Is a Victory, It’s a Defeat for Nuclear Nonproliferation

However one might care to characterize the U.S.-NATO campaign in Libya, it’s another blow to worldwide nuclear nonproliferation. At the Christian Science Monitor, Reza Sanati writes:

The lesson is elementary. Eight years ago, Libya agreed to dismantle its infant nuclear program. … Would NATO have launched a bombing campaign against Libya if [it] had possessed nuclear weapons?

The United States set a precedent when it attacked Iraq in 2003. The door had been shut on Iraq’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons by the UN inspections regime known as UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission). Which, of course, didn’t prevent George W. Bush’s administration from propping up the corpse of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to justify its invasion.

Thus, adding insult to injury, not only did the U.S. attack a country without nuclear weapons, it conjured up the fiction that Iraq had renewed its program. This constituted a double blow to nonproliferation. What’s the point of a state disarming if it’s not only subjecting itself to attack, but leaving itself vulnerable to the possibility that a nuclear-weapons state might make the claim that, in fact, it hasn’t disarmed?

Of course, if Saddam Hussein, in the interests of regional security as he saw it, hadn’t tried to keep up the pretense that Iraq still possessed a nuclear weapons program, the accusations about its program might never have been mounted. What’s worrisome today is that Iran’s contentiousness makes it ripe for exactly that sort of double crossing.

More from Sanati:

Qaddafi’s forceful downfall will make acquiring nuclear weapons all the more justifiable to states that feel threatened by outsiders. In turn, that will erode the vision of nonproliferation that held such promise in the post-cold-war era.

Furthermore, while Iraq and Libya were attacked, “troublesome nuclear-armed states such as North Korea and Pakistan have not been attacked since they acquired the bomb. They’ve also garnered multilayered benefits from the international community.” In other words, Sanati eloquently writes:

The threat or reality of military intervention against nonnuclear states … at times done to dissuade them from acquiring nuclear capability, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By which he means that those states might seek to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the United States would be better served if it paid more than lip service to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s Article VI, which reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”

Nuclear-weapons advocates sometimes claim that Article VI is lip service itself. They maintain that Article VI does not actually require states party (aka signatories) to negotiate said “treaty on general and complete disarmament” into actual existence. They’re only required “to negotiate in good faith” to that eventual end. That’s despite an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in 1996 which maintained: “There exists an obligation to … bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.”

In any event, non-nuclear-weapon states, especially those that belong to NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) delight in throwing Article VI back in the faces of the nuclear weapons states. Failure on the part of nuclear-weapon states to take substantive disarmament measures, they claim, only allows states that aspire to nuclear weapons to justify their needs as they see them. But nuclear-weapons advocates believe that western leadership on disarmament would not only do nothing to discourage states that aspire to nuclear weapons but might even encourage them. Nevertheless, even though it might not produce immediate results, there’s really nothing for it but to deprive states that aspire to nuclear weapons of justification.

For its part, though, the United States will probably stick to the status quo. A token treaty like New START while it commits $85 billion to its nuclear weapons program over the next decade. Continuing to contain Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs with sanctions and incentives respectively.

Furthermore, the United States may comfort itself with the knowledge that the state of surveillance today makes it possible to detect nuclear programs in their infancy and cut them off at the root. How, though, is another matter. While Israel got away with its 2007 airstrike on an alleged undeclared reactor in Syria, just as it did in 1981 with Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the odds of arriving at an international consensus on an attack on, say, Burma, are slim to none.

As long as the United States continues to cultivate a thriving nuclear-weapons program, states that aspire to nuclear weapons — whether or not the effect of our disarmament on them is salutary or not — can continue to use ours to justify growing them in their own defense garden.