Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004 / 21 Tishrei 5765
Under construction: Threat of nuclear proliferation
Iran and North Korea are likely to be topics in Tuesday night's debate between the vice presidential candidates. The rogue nations were also at the center of last week's presidential debate.
Indeed, the only thing President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed on last week aside from the quality of each other's parenting was the threat of nuclear proliferation. Bush pronounced mullah "MOO-lah"; Democratic challenger Kerry lacked time to present detailed proposals. Still, the positions of the two sides on this crucial issue are clear. A review shows the "unilateralist" Republicans are offering the stronger even the more multilateralist policy.
Start with North Korea. Kerry charges that the U.S. has done nothing to stop Pyongyang from arming itself. As a result, Kerry said last week, North Korea has "gotten nuclear weapons." Kerry would, therefore, like the U.S. to initiate direct (one could say, unilateral) talks with North Korea.
As Vice President Dick Cheney is likely to explain Tuesday night, the Democrats' arguments are wrong on two counts.
The first argument is that North Korea's nuclear weapons are the result of Bush policy. The North Koreans have been moving toward a weapons program and covertly enriching uranium since President Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Clinton administration took great pains to lock North Korea into a commitment not to turn a fuel capacity into a military one but North Korea ignored it.
As for the Bush administration, it has worked hard on North Korea from the start, participating in a six-nation discussion that includes China. The U.S. does not have much influence over North Korea, which is probably one reason Pyongyang felt it could flout Clinton. But China does it provides 80 percent of North Korea's energy in subsidized coal and diesel fuel. This, as Cheney could point out, is one reason Bush hosted then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Crawford, Texas, two years ago.
Then there is Iran and its troubling uranium enrichment, which Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards will probably bring up. He has already blamed the Bush administration for allowing "dangers to mount" that is, allowing nuclear weapons to be developed.
Kerry also alleges that the U.S. has no Iran plan. Last week he said the United Kingdom, Germany and France "were the ones who initiated an effort, without the U.S. regrettably, to curb nuclear possibilities in Iran." He argued that the Iran situation would not be worsening had the U.S. offered nuclear fuel to Iran and supervised its nuclear fuel plants. Then if Iran had diverted material to nuclear weapons the U.S. could have punished it with sanctions.
The first rebuttal here is that, as Bush noted, the U.S. has approved of and supported the European initiative at issue from the beginning. The administration does not necessarily agree with this plan. But it has gone along, doubtless because British Prime Minister Tony Blair wants it to.
The second point is more fundamental: With or without supervision, providing nuclear fuel to Iran is a crazy idea.
Iran does not need a fuel source in the way North Korea does.
It has oil and natural gas. The only reason Iran would want to build its nuclear capabilities is to create a weapons program, or at least the potential for one. And, as Bush noted, those theoretical U.S. trade sanctions against Iran to which Kerry referred are already real, and in place. They predate this administration.
Finally, the U.S. has been aggressively working on the Iran problem through a traditional multilateral venue, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now is the moment to refer the issue of a weapons program to the United Nations Security Council, with the expectation of pursuing international sanctions on Iran. France, Germany and Britain have, however, been unwilling to make the difficult decision to join the U.S. in this push.
What about nuclear challenges beyond Korea and Iran? The U.S. and its allies have spent enormous energy preventing technology transfer: the sale of nuclear tool kits via the black market. This Proliferation Security Initiative includes more than 60 nations. An aggressive PSI interdiction at sea helped convince Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to give up his programs for weapons of mass destruction. Cheney recently explained his administration's attitude to multilateralism: The U.S., he said, wants to work multilaterally. But being multilateralist does not mean "submitting to the objections of a few." And multilateralism does not preclude Bush's stated policy of staying "on the offense."
In brief, what Democrats are asking for is a return to the emphasis on careful diplomacy that was the policy of the U.S. in Asia and the Middle East during the 1990s.
This is why Kerry recalled President Bush's father in the debate.
But the reality is that the look-away-and-pre-empt-not policy of the 1990s Bush-Clinton years did damage. It is a "colossal error" to borrow a Kerry phrase to give countries such as Iran and North Korea time to develop nuclear weapons. Diplomacy, as Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, said recently of Iran, doesn't have to "mean pretending something isn't there when it is there." In this new and unstable era, both diplomacy and offensive action have their place. Right now the Republicans are the ones showing they are ready to try both.
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