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A Nuclear Mixed Message

In June 1963, John F. Kennedy famously declared that the United States would end above-ground testing of nuclear weapons and called for negotiations on a more comprehensive global test ban. “It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963, the further spread of nuclear arms,” he said.

President Bush offered a valuable reminder Wednesday that such weapons were “the greatest threat before humanity today” and far more widespread than in Kennedy’s day, when the United States and the Soviet Union had the bomb and China soon would.

In a speech at Washington’s National Defense University, Bush focused on the perils posed by governments like Iran’s that may be seeking nuclear weapons but also by a more private black market impelled by “greed or fanaticism or both.”

His speech will keep up the pressure on Iran to fully disclose its nuclear research and on Pakistan to unravel the network run by scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf after Khan admitted selling nuclear technology and knowledge. Bush also declared, “The world’s leading nuclear exporters should ensure that states have reliable access ... to fuel for civilian reactors, so long as those states renounce enrichment and reprocessing.”

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These proposals are beneficial, but their message is blurred because the administration is underfunding effective programs to curb proliferation. The 1992 Nunn-Lugar program of destroying Cold War-era Russian nuclear weapons to prevent them from falling into terrorist hands is scheduled in Bush’s 2005 budget to drop to $409 million from $450.8 million this year.

The other side of the equation, upgrading U.S. weapons, is overfed. The administration wants to increase the potency of the nuclear stockpile, including development of “bunker busters” -- battlefield nuclear weapons that would lower the nuclear-use threshold. The “Star Wars” missile defense system, unproven and concocted for a Cold War-style conflict, is to receive $10.7 billion. Neither would do anything to stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city.

The administration’s National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in December 2002, is based on the notion that the U.S. can enhance its missile force while asking the rest of the world not to build such weapons. But as nonproliferation expert George Perkovich notes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a double standard “seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing nonproliferation commitments rather than enhance it.”

After weeks of being pounded for intelligence failures, Bush wants to take the initiative again on foreign affairs. But he will have to think and act in larger ways to be effective in halting nuclear proliferation.

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