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The Iraq War's Nuclear Boomerang

By Ivan Eland
June 20, 2007

Editor's Note: George W. Bush still insists that toppling and executing Saddam Hussein made the world safer, but the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- after it had disarmed and was cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors -- sent a dangerous message to other countries on Bush's hit list.

Seeing the consequence of disarmament and cooperation, North Korea and Iran stepped up their nuclear programs, seeking a meaningful deterrent to U.S. military might. In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland suggests that it's time for the Bush administration to replace belligerence with realism:

The Bush administration may live in a bubble of “unreality,” regarding its foreign policy in Iraq, but neo-conservatives inhabit a parallel universe on Iran.

Unbelievably, despite the fact that the U.S. quagmire in Iraq has greatly weakened the U.S. position vis-à-vis Iran, the neocons are pushing for military action against that theocratic regime.

According to the New York Times, David Wurmser, one of Vice President Dick Cheney’s principal advisors, told conservative groups of Cheney’s assertion that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic effort to shut down Iran’s nuclear program was faltering. Cheney further asserted that by the spring of 2008 President Bush might have to decide whether to use military force against that nation, according to the report.

Fortunately, however, the Times also reports that the friends and associates of Secretary Rice say she believes a military strike against Iran would be “disastrous” and is winning the internal administration debate so far.

Even more encouraging is President Bush’s decision in late 2002 and early 2003, when he decided not to give North Korea an ultimatum or threaten to attack that nation over its ejection of international nuclear inspectors and plans to create more weapons-grade plutonium that could be made into nuclear bombs. North Korea followed through on its plans, is now believed to have enough fuel for eight or more weapons, and exploded a nuclear device in the fall of 2006.

Yet during the time of Bush’s decision, North Korea already had enough fissile material to make some nuclear weapons, whereas Iran doesn’t. That is, the reality of going to war with a nuclear nation is much more sobering than going to war with a nation that is still three to eight years away from generating the fissionable material needed to make an atomic weapon.

Even if the United States launched air strikes against Iran, they would probably only delay the inevitable. Such strikes would be unlikely to eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, because the United States doesn’t know where all of them are located; in addition, some have been deeply buried, and still others are in densely populated areas.

Air strikes would likely rally the young Iranian population, thirsting for change, around the autocratic and theocratic fossils now running Iran’s government—eliminating all hope that regime change would terminate the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, such U.S. belligerence, or even saber rattling, is one of the prime factors motivating Iran to obtain the weapons.

If one doubts this effect, in late 2002 and early 2003, North Korea redoubled its nuclear efforts, a move that coincided with the North Koreans’ conclusion about what was going to happen to a non-nuclear Iraq. As a result, North Korea’s more recent agreement to readmit international weapons inspectors and stop its nuclear program, in exchange for aid and the unfreezing of its assets, should be taken with a grain of salt.

North Korea cheated on the last such agreement it made with the Clinton administration. More important, the agreement did not require the North Koreans to give up the fissionable material already generated.

Therefore, unless the United States is ready to launch unlikely ground invasions in both of these nations, in order to neutralize all their nuclear facilities, fissionable material, or weapons, which would make the invasion and occupation of Iraq look like a day at the beach, Iran and North Korea will probably get or retain nuclear weapons, respectively.

This reality should not preclude the United States from trying to negotiate a “grand bargain” with these nations: to get them to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for a full normalization of relations, to integrate them into the world economy by the lifting of economic sanctions, and to guarantee that the United States will not attack them.

However, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of non-nuclear Iraq and the existence of regional rivals—some with nuclear weapons or weapons potential—it is unlikely that either Iran or North Korea will negotiate away their nuclear programs.

Thus, the United States probably will have to deter an Iranian or North Korean nuclear attack, or the giving or selling of these nuclear weapons to terrorists, by using the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world. Such deterrence was effectively carried out against bigger and more powerful states—Maoist China and the USSR—until they either moderated their behavior or disintegrated, respectively.

In the case of Maoist China, the United States deterred a radical nation that indirectly threatened nuclear war with the West. If the United States deterred such large powers, it should certainly be able to deter the smaller and poorer Iran and North Korea.

It is also a good bet that both unpopular, autocratic governments will collapse at some time in the future. In addition, the United States could offer these two nuclear powers limited assistance in safeguarding their nuclear weapons against theft and tips on keeping control of them in order to avoid an accidental or unauthorized launch.

Acceptance, deterrence, and limited technical assistance are smarter policies than counterproductive U.S. saber rattling and belligerence, which merely cause more countries to start or accelerate secret nuclear programs in order to obtain the ultimate weapon to keep the United States at bay.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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