The Clinton Administration has launched what amounts to a quiet revolution in the United States' long-term strategy for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, easing U.S. policies that have been in place for decades.
The thrust of the new, less idealistic approach is to accept as a fact of life that the spread of technology has made it possible for many countries to build a nuclear bomb and to concentrate instead on what can be done in the face of this grim reality.
In some areas, that means acknowledging that more countries will "go nuclear" and working on ways to make sure they do not use their new weapons. In others, it means devoting more attention to military methods for deterring or counteracting new would-be nuclear powers around the world.
Indeed, the Pentagon has been the driving force behind the unfolding series of changes, grabbing the initiative on non-proliferation policy away from the State Department.
"We face a bigger proliferation danger than we've ever faced before," then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin said in a major speech last year. "The rising tide of technology has made denial of technology an insufficient guarantee of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons."
In that speech, Aspin unveiled a strategy called "counter-proliferation," aimed at altering U.S. defense policies to add what he called "an element of protection" to the traditional approach of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
His successor, Defense Secretary William J. Perry, is expected to issue a major statement soon expanding on the new Pentagon strategy.
In addition to the emphasis on military preparedness, the Administration's new approach of accommodating the reality of nuclear proliferation has several components, some of which are proving to be fiercely controversial:
* Generally loosening export controls. U.S. policy during the Cold War and throughout the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations had been to ban exports of a wide range of technology that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction. But the Clinton Administration is retaining controls on only a few especially sensitive items while opening the way for sales of many others.
* Concentrating efforts on a handful of "rogue" regimes, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Under this approach, it is not the fact of proliferation itself that is a problem but rather the questionable character of some of the governments. Critics such as Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) say that this approach provides a rationale for easing proliferation policy toward the many other nations that are not classified as "rogues."
* Concentrating efforts on trying to persuade other countries to freeze their nuclear weapons programs at low levels of development.
Instead of trying to persuade Pakistan and India to abandon their nuclear weapons programs entirely, for example, the Administration has been willing to try initially to limit or "cap" these programs and hope that the two enemies will counterbalance each other.
"Rolling back" the two rivals' nuclear programs can wait until later, officials are now saying. Perry recently suggested a similar approach to North Korea.
The Administration hopes to do all these things without detracting from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international agreement that in the past had been the linchpin of U.S. policy on non-proliferation. The treaty envisions a world in which every nation except the five members of the U.N. Security Council completely forswears or abandons nuclear weapons programs.
Underlying these changes in U.S. non-proliferation policy are a number of factors, including the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War with Iraq and the Administration's drive to increase U.S. exports.
The collapse of the Soviet Union broke up the security arrangements that had inhibited countries from developing their nuclear programs.
"Many nations, once secure in the framework and discipline of a bipolar Cold War standoff, are now forced by the survival instinct to look not just at new alliances but to reconsider self-reliance for security--and therein (they) see a powerful attraction for nuclear weapons," analysts Roger Molander and Peter A. Wilson at the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. think tank said last year.
The end of the Cold War also wiped out the rationale for strict international export controls on the sale of high technology. For decades, these controls were made formal in an international organization called the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, commonly called COCOM, which banned the sale of goods to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.
On March 31, COCOM went out of existence. While Western nations are talking about setting up a new international regime to curb exports to non-Communist governments considered dangerous, they have not reached agreement yet on how to do so.
"We're aiming for October," Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis said recently.
The aftermath of the Persian Gulf conflict demonstrated how easy it was for Iraq to develop a clandestine nuclear weapons program even while it was a signer of the non-proliferation treaty and was submitting to inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Iraq dramatized the reality that small powers can now threaten U.S. forces and allies on distant battlefields with missiles and chemical or nuclear weapons," Robert A. Manning of the Progressive Foundation wrote recently.
Finally, the desire of U.S. companies for more sales overseas and the need to reduce the U.S. trade imbalance put strong pressure on the Administration to loosen at least some export controls.
"What we're seeing now in the Pentagon is a historic shift," said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "The Pentagon has abandoned its traditional support for strong export controls and is taking the view of the Commerce Department that the more exports the better.
"I think the motivation for this has been pressure from (the high-technology industry in) Silicon Valley, which was one of the earliest supporters of Clinton's campaign."
Defenders of the Administration's new emphasis on military responses to nuclear proliferation say it adds a needed touch of realism to the U.S. approach.
"Non-proliferation is going to fail, at least in some cases," said David Kay, who served as the head of the international inspection team in Iraq after the Gulf War. "And the U.S. government has got to have a way of responding."
What Kay meant was that almost certainly there will be new nuclear powers, in addition to the five nations that have long had nuclear weapons (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) and the three countries that have acquired nuclear capability over the last 25 years (Israel, India and Pakistan).
In his speech on the Pentagon's new mission of counter-proliferation, Aspin asserted last December that the Defense Department will change both its purchasing practices and its war-fighting strategy to be better prepared to protect U.S. interests against threats from new nuclear powers.
"For example, we're looking at improving non-nuclear penetrating munitions to deal with underground installations," he said. "We're working hard on better ways to hunt mobile missiles after our difficulties in finding Scuds during the Gulf War."
Administration officials insisted that they have not completely abandoned past policies on non-proliferation but rather are refining and updating them.
In the yearlong dispute over North Korea, they noted, the Administration's approach has been the traditional one of using international diplomacy and the non-proliferation treaty in seeking to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Yet foreign policy specialists outside the government said the Administration's heightened concentration on military strategies represents a dramatic change.
"Non-proliferation was almost a theological goal in the (Jimmy) Carter Administration," said Jonathan Pollack, an expert on Asian security policy. "Carter had a bug about it. We (the United States) spent endless hours trying to sign up the Indians to the (non-proliferation treaty). Counter-proliferation posits that you already have states with nuclear or near-nuclear potential and asks, 'What can we do to deal with that fact?' "
Critics say one problem with the change in emphasis from non-proliferation to counter-proliferation is that it may give the world the idea that the United States tolerates those nuclear programs that have already been developed--and will not try too hard to roll them back.
They also complain that the Administration's policy changes seem to be going in different and possibly conflicting directions.
"There is a fairly clear tension between the Pentagon's counter-proliferation policy and its policy on export controls," Pollack asserted.
The emphasis on new military strategies seems to represent a more hard-nosed stance toward countries trying to develop nuclear weapons. But the Administration's decision to ease controls on exports makes it easier for other governments to obtain technology that they could use for nuclear programs.
Over the last year, the Administration has loosened the restrictions on U.S. sales of high-speed computers, telecommunications equipment and space-launch technology. The President has linked the move directly to the need to increase U.S. exports.
"We still have to worry about proliferation of weapons, but we freed up $30 billion worth of computer exports and $7 billion worth of supercomputers and telecommunications exports," Clinton boasted last October. "That will create a lot more jobs in California, and a lot of the companies in California have already issued statements saying it will create more jobs."
Advocates of strict non-proliferation policies worry that high-speed computers can be used for the design of nuclear weapons by helping to carry out simulations of nuclear explosions. And they fear that technology ostensibly bought for launching space vehicles can easily be put to work in building ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Administration officials argue that curbing the sale of technology has been overrated as a method for stopping nuclear weapons.
"Export controls are not the strongest weapon in our arsenal to fight proliferation," Undersecretary of Defense Frank Wisner told the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee earlier this year.
The United States and its Western allies have not lifted all export controls. Instead, they have temporarily extended the controls on a few particularly sensitive technologies useful to would-be nuclear powers while they work together to try to assemble a new regime that would replace COCOM.
But one of the main problems is deciding exactly what countries should be subject to the export controls: Who are the enemies these days, and what are their characteristics?
Increasingly, the Administration has turned to the new concept of "rogue" or "backlash" states. The idea was first spelled out by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine and recently has been adopted by other Administration officials, including Undersecretary of State Davis and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright.
While loosening export controls to the rest of the world, Davis told a recent news conference, the United States and its allies will work to adopt a new export-control regime to counteract "threats posed by rogue countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea."
Sen. Glenn, one of Washington's staunchest advocates of strict non-proliferation policies, complained recently that "targeting the rogues allows some exporters to pay lip service to non-proliferation without inhibiting sales of potentially dangerous goods to other customers who represent much larger markets anyway."
Other critics say it is hard to come up with a workable definition of a "rogue" nation that the United States and its allies can agree upon.
Governments in Western Europe and Japan do not believe, as the Administration does, that Iran should be treated as an outcast.
"Taiwan is China's rogue nation, and India and Pakistan are each other's rogue nation," one congressional staff member observed.
And it is always possible that a nation considered responsible, and therefore permitted to buy sensitive technology, could later, through civil war or revolution, turn into a "rogue."
For example, the Iranian revolution of 1979 gave the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime access to all the hardware that the United States had been selling to its ally, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Similarly, the Pentagon's new counter-proliferation strategy has raised questions about how the policy would really operate in practice.
"North Korea is a good case. We have two very threatening nuclear reactors scheduled to come on line in the next year or two, which will threaten the whole world and would be perfect targets for a strike," Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project said.
"But such a strike would provoke a war, and so it's not being seriously considered. Which proves to me that counter-proliferation basically doesn't work, and its main effect is to justify a higher budget for the Pentagon."
In the face of difficulties such as these, Administration officials are reluctant to part entirely with the traditional zero-tolerance proliferation policies championed by people such as Glenn.
"I was in the State Department's policy planning office in 1975, when India set off its bomb" in a nuclear test, said Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia. "At the time, people were wondering how many other nuclear powers there would be in 10 or 15 years. Most people would have predicted many more than we have now.
"The basic concept has had enough success that we ought to stick with it--namely, that we just don't want any more nuclear weapons. And we shouldn't get into the mode of thinking that some people having nuclear weapons is better than others. That may be true, but it's a slippery slope."
Pentagon's Preemptive Tactics
The Pentagon's new war against the buildup of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons involves a new set of tactics, including:
1. Improved intelligence: Painstaking assembly of information on the location and interior layout of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons facilities--including their structural weak spots.
2. Special operations teams: Use of non-lethal weapons aimed at confusing the enemy and disabling or destroying its facilities.
3. Special munitions: Deep-penetrating, precision-guided munitions that could pinpoint the vulnerable parts of an underground nuclear facility and pierce its protective bunker.
4. Missile hunters: High-technology missile-hunting equipment that can locate and destroy mobile missile-launchers, such as SCUDS.
5. Export controls: More narrowly focused export controls to deny shipments of sensitive technology to rogue countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Noth Korea.
Source: Pentagon, Times Washington Bureau