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Why President Bush Needs to Learn His ABCs

Should the United States reconsider some old certainties in a much changed world?

May 24, 2002

Should the United States reconsider some old certainties in a much changed world?

The September 11 terrorist attacks created a wave of global sympathy for the victims of the devastation — and for the United States’ desire to root out terrorism.

Yet, that overall feeling of goodwill toward U.S. policy has dissipated in large part — for a variety of reasons. Allies of the United States have dragged their heels on issues as simple as the seizure of terrorist assets — let alone large-scale military action.

Some have even publicly questioned U.S. policies and overall strategy in the war on terrorism. However, it is just such opposition that makes it all the more important for the Bush Administration to “unlearn” its pronounced tendency to stay on the sidelines of international consensus — or to go it alone.

In that sense, President Bush’s promise in November 2001 to slash America’s nuclear arsenal by two-thirds over a decade, from 7,000 to 2,000 or fewer warheads is a promising signal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would respond in kind.

This mutual reduction illustrates the fact that the United States and Russia are no longer mortal foes — and as such, that is an important gesture.

The next item on the agenda for President Bush in learning his ABCs is obvious. He needs to embrace the benefits of multilateralism as a means of minimizing the spread of nuclear material. This lesson — while novel — should not be too hard to stomach. After all, Russia and the United States possess the vast majority of the world’s fissile nuclear material.

But Mr. Bush needs to realize that in the former Soviet Union, controls on such material were tight. These controls were, however, also designed for a world that no longer exists.

Behind its closed borders at the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union did not worry about “insider” threats at its nuclear facilities. But after worrisome reports out of Pakistan, the issue of stealing nuclear material is very much near the top of the global nuclear agenda now.

In fact, the looser political structure of post-Soviet Russia — and the entire region — requires a radical rethink on the part of the United States.

On the campaign trail in 2000, President Bush emphasized, with good reason, cooperative programs to help Russia dismantle old weapons and safeguard the material. But since winning election, the Bush Administration has twice cut funding requests for those programs.

The risks of neglecting this responsibility are now clear. Al Qaeda’s long-standing and firm quest to obtain nuclear material makes it plain that this is not the time to take risks with unsecured nuclear material.

Neither is it wise to gamble with the reliability of the Russian nuclear scientists who work with it. In the interests of global security, these scientists must not feel ignored — or be forced to scrimp by on meager wages and pensions.

The comprehensive ban on testing nuclear weapons (“CTB” for short) provides another multilateral test for Mr. Bush. On the surface, successive U.S. administrations have worried that the existing 1986 treaty is unverifiable.

In fact, they have been caught in a familiar arms control dilemma: Is it better to preserve the U.S. ability to test, or to eliminate testing for all nations — and the United States as well?

During the Cold War, the need to ensure the reliability of a large nuclear arsenal — and to keep a leg up on the Soviet Union — provided an ample rationale for testing.

Now, however, the United States’ nuclear superiority allows the focus of U.S. policy to shift. The goal changes from protecting its own advantage to preventing would-be nuclear proliferators from acquiring this capability.

The creation of networks of private organizations with the capability for seismic monitoring has added to international abilities to monitor such a ban.

Of course, such groups cannot replace formal government-to-government verification. But they demonstrate the possibilities for private watchdogs to buttress such agreements.

In this regard, ballistic missile defense will prove to be an even more difficult test. Despite the war on terrorism, internal politics and external diplomacy on the issue have already consumed much of the Bush Administration’s energy. With homeland security now on the front burner, missile defense will continue to dominate the White House agenda.

Of course, as in elementary school, “B” and “C” follow inevitably after “A.” For Mr. Bush, the necessity of forging a multilateral approach to the threats posed by biological and chemical weapons flows naturally from its approach to atomic dangers.

History provides some useful lessons about the effectiveness of such outreach. Almost 30 years ago, for instance, the Nixon Administration unilaterally renounced biological weapons such as anthrax — and led the negotiations creating the first treaty that banned an entire class of weapons.

The 1972 biological weapons convention, however, lacked the necessary means to monitor or verify compliance. In 1995, a number of signatory states began negotiations to fill that void.

In July 2001, however, the Bush Administration not only rejected the draft verification protocol — but also dismissed the entire effort.

The difficulty in verifying bans on biological and chemical weapons are obvious. Facilities for their manufacture are often small and easily concealed.

Many of the technologies involved in their creation can be used for legitimate or nefarious purposes. In addition, provisions for immediate “challenge” inspections of particular private facilities trouble legal and business constituencies in the United States.

To be sure, embracing a multilateral approach to the threat posed by atomic, biological or chemical offers no guarantees to the Bush Administration. Yet, the difficulties involved in crafting such an approach are no excuse for simply punting — or opting out, as the administration presently seems so fond of doing.

Its motives for doing so may be laudable but are ultimately naïve. We cannot realistically strive for a perfect world — only the best one we can make happen.

By taking advantage of this moment and working with other nations, the United States could narrow the room for weapons proliferation of all kinds — including those who pursue biological and chemical weapons.

Thus, the United States would brand the production and use of such weapons as beyond the pale — of not only U.S. standards, but those of the entire civilized world as well. It is well worth it for the United States to embrace its “ABCs.”