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No-nuke world: a pipe dream?

Today's topic: Is it even possible to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, let alone completely rid the world of them? Are there some countries that should always maintain nuclear arsenals? Andrew Grotto and Gabriel Schoenfeld finish their debate.

America is strongest when it works with its allies Point: Andrew Grotto

Gabe,

I think we can both agree that nuclear proliferation will be with us as long as there is motive and opportunity. Still, countries such as Iran and North Korea are the exceptions that prove the rule: Building nuclear weapons is exceedingly expensive and difficult, even in this age of globalization. This is a main reason why far more countries have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have gone on to acquire them. That's the good news.

The bad news, of course, is that some countries are nevertheless willing to bear the cost.

This gets us to the heart of nonproliferation strategy: How do we eliminate motive and constrain opportunity?

A credible nonproliferation strategy must recognize that states have complex motives for pursuing nuclear weapons. Often, however, interest in nuclear weapons can be traced to security concerns. Dispute resolution must therefore be a core element of nonproliferation strategy.

The Obama administration's new strategies of diplomatic engagement with Iran and the six-party talks with North Korea are, in essence, aimed at dispute resolution. But these strategies will take time to unfold. Moreover, these disputes may be so fundamental that resolving them is a distant prospect, at best. Iran and North Korea may well never give up their nuclear programs, or use negotiations to stall for time. The administration must be prepared for these contingencies.

One option for addressing this problem is to eliminate the regime in question through military action or economic sanctions. The problem with this approach is simple: Short of a full-scale military occupation, it doesn't work. Saddam Hussein survived more than 10 years of nearly comprehensive sanctions.

A smarter option, and one the Obama administration is pursuing, is to raise the costs of proliferation. One way is to erect greater barriers to acquisition of sensitive nuclear materials and technology. As I discussed in my essay from Thursday, stronger export controls and more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency would make it much harder for determined proliferators to acquire the necessary materials and technology. In addition, the United States must lock down and secure vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear material anywhere they may exist to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Gabe, no state is under any obligation to support these measures; they must be lobbied, cajoled or coerced. This demands U.S. leadership, and as I argued in Wednesday's and Thursday's essays, President Obama's endorsement of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is a necessary first step toward restoring that leadership.

In addition, as Obama has said, there must be consequences for countries that break the rules. Make no mistake: Iran and North Korea are already paying a price for their nuclear intransigence. Iran suffers double-digit unemployment and inflation, and there's a reason why North Korea is often referred to as the "Hermit Kingdom." The Obama administration should continue to work with allies and partners to intensify this burden.

Acting alone, however, the United States has very little economic leverage over Iran and North Korea. The impact of sanctions hinges on whether other countries join us. By seeking to engage Iran, the Obama administration strengthens its case for additional multilateral sanctions should engagement fail. Key U.S. partners and allies -- countries with real economic leverage over Iran -- have signaled their support for this approach.

But Gabe, the only country ever to be coerced out of a nuclear program was Hussein's Iraq in 1991. In this case, an unprecedented coalition of countries put Iraq on near total lockdown for a decade, thanks in large part to sustained, smart diplomacy by the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

Every other country of former proliferation concern, from Argentina to Sweden (yes, even Sweden once flirted with nuclear weapons development), abandoned programs because the costs were excessive and they believed benefits would flow from nuclear restraint. Libya, for example, gave up its program not only because of the toll that years of sanctions had exacted on the domestic economy; the George W. Bush administration promised Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi a rehabilitated political and economic relationship with the United States.

Similarly, the United States must also seek to convince Iran and North Korea that they are better off without nuclear weapons. This is fundamental, and it is precisely the message that the Obama administration will bring to the table in negotiations with those two countries. The Bush administration, for its part, was never really serious about this, which fatally undermined its credibility in negotiations.

Finally, the United States must retain a credible deterrent for as long as other countries possess nuclear weapons. Obama has made this point time and time again, and it is an important one. The U.S. nuclear umbrella was a key factor in preventing allies in Europe and East Asia from acquiring independent nuclear arsenals. Some of these countries may still take comfort in this even as America's overwhelming superiority in conventional weaponry makes our nuclear arsenal less and less relevant to sustaining deterrence.

Gabe, this is a comprehensive strategy for dealing with 21st century proliferation threats. It rests on the fundamental proposition that America is strongest when it uses all the tools in its national security arsenal. It maximizes the chances of persuading Iran and North Korea to give up their programs, positions the United States to sustain pressure on them should they nevertheless cling to their nuclear programs, and will result in heightened barriers to nuclear weapons acquisition for terrorists and states alike.

Andrew Grotto is a senior national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Under your strategy, expect a nuclear Iran in a few yearsCounterpoint: Gabriel Schoenfeld

Thank you, Andy, for your final contribution. In the course of your amusing attempt Thursday to argue by means of the logical fallacy (so often employed by liberals these days) known as reductio ad neocondum, you mentioned Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary article arguing in favor of a military strike on Iran.

But why do you pick only some of the cherries and leave others on the tree? While I was at the magazine, we published a variety of articles on the subject, including one by Edward Luttwak entitled "Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran — Yet." Luttwak counseled waiting patiently for years and exploring all options before taking military action. Your account of bloodthirsty neoconservatives bent on war was a caricature. No one relishes armed conflict, and everyone understands the costs.

Yet four years have elapsed since Luttwak wrote his article recommending patience. Iran is now much further along in its project to build the bomb. Indeed, we are drawing close to the point of no return. Under the circumstances, it would be a grave mistake to embark on a course that gives the Iranians what they most need right now: time to run out the clock. Yet this is precisely what you are in effect recommending in your "comprehensive strategy."

There is an air of unreality about a program that rests, as yours does, on "stronger export controls and more intrusive inspections" by the IAEA that "would make it much harder for determined proliferators to acquire the necessary materials and technology." Is it really necessary to point out that "determined proliferators" such as Iran and North Korea already have the technology they need and that both already have, at times of their own choosing, denied inspectors access to their facilities?

"Make no mistake," you say, "Iran and North Korea are already paying a price for their nuclear intransigence." If the issue were not so serious, I would have to laugh. In the case of North Korea, you state that the price tag is the isolation imposed by the world community and you then helpfully explain "that there's a reason why North Korea is often referred to as the 'Hermit Kingdom.' " But, Andy, that term has been in continuous use to describe Korea since the Chosun dynasty, which was established in the 14th century. Correct me if I am wrong, but in the 14th century, Korea may have been isolated, but it was not under United Nations sanctions. North Korea today is self-isolated, but that has no means hindered it from blackmailing its neighbors.

As for the price Iran is paying, you point out that it is suffering from "double-digit unemployment and inflation." I beg your pardon, Andy, but we're talking about a regime that has waged wars on its neighbors that cost the country hundreds of thousands of young lives in a quest for regional power. I somehow doubt that a bout of inflation and unemployment, due primarily, by the way, to the regime's own economic mismanagement, is going to alter the quest for a weapon that will radically improve the country's strategic position.

Your account of Libya's decision to abandon its nuclear ambitions is misleading in a number of ways that are pertinent. To begin with, despite Libya's signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its openness to IAEA inspections, the world was unaware of the extent of Libya's nuclear weapons program, which has to be tallied up as yet another failure of the NPT regime. We stumbled on the full dimensions of Libya's nuclear program when the A.Q. Khan network fell apart. When Moammar Kadafi decided to halt his nuclear program in late 2003, the decisive factor was not, as you assert, "the toll that years of sanctions had exacted" or a promise of rehabilitation in the eyes of the U.S. Rather it was the demonstration of American power in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein just a few months earlier.

Kadafi was not shy about conceding this. He told a French newspaper on the eve of the American assault on Baghdad, "Once Bush has finished with Iraq, we will very soon be targeted." After the invasion, he told Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, "I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid."

President Obama has chosen a different direction. He has told the Iranians and others, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." There is little harm in America extending an olive branch in any direction if it is prepared to follow up a rebuff with appropriate measures. But will that happen here? The Washington Post editorial page -- not exactly a bastion of neoconservatism -- has called the president's recent diplomacy toward Iran an "invitation to appease." And thus far, the president's open hand has been greeted with the sound of a jail door slamming behind a young American journalist baselessly convicted of espionage and with more obscenities about the Holocaust from the mouth of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the world community predictably and cravenly gave him a forum at the U.N. conference on racism in Geneva.

You asked me on Thursday, Andy, what course of action I would recommend. At an earlier point, there may have been a chance that draconian sanctions, such as an embargo on Iran's export of oil and gas and its imports of refined petroleum products, might have forced a change of course in Iran. At this juncture, such measures are probably too late; I have seen no evidence that the Iranians are prepared to relinquish their nuclear ambitions under any circumstances. Time is very short, but we should still give such sanctions a last-ditch try in the hope that they will destabilize the Islamic tyranny. Yet I see no evidence that Obama is contemplating such decisive action either with the world community or -- as surely would be the case should he ever try to marshal global support -- without it.

In closing, Andy, I regret to say that our exchange has left me in despair. If your "comprehensive strategy for the 21st century" is an accurate mirror of current thinking inside the White House, I will wager that within the first term of the administration, Iran will join North Korea as a member of the nuclear club with consequences that will be uncontrollable.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., is writing a book about secrecy and national security that W.W. Norton will publish next year.

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