Sunday, August 1, 2004
The fuel that nightmares are made of
- Reviewed by Ian Garrick Mason
In October 2002, President Bush gave
a speech in Cincinnati. "Facing clear evidence of peril,"
he said about Iraq, "we cannot wait for the final proof --
the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
This image struck a chord, for in the years since 1945 the mushroom
cloud has grown into a symbol of almost quasi-religious significance,
a representation not just of personal death, but also of the death
of civilization. Though the symbol's power seemed to fade after
the end of the Cold War, it never completely vanished. And in the
shadow of Sept. 11 it has regained much of its strength.
As the founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy
School of Government, a former assistant secretary of defense for
policy and plans, and the author of an influential book on decision-making
during the Cuban missile crisis, Graham Allison is eminently qualified
to ring the alarm bells. In "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate
Preventable Catastrophe," he explains just how easy it is to
design and build a nuclear weapon -- a Princeton undergraduate in
1977 famously submitted a working design for one as his senior thesis
-- and how easy it would be to smuggle such a bomb into the United
States. A 100-pound nuclear weapon, for example, could easily enter
as part of a drug shipment. "Approximately 21,000 pounds of
cocaine and marijuana are smuggled into the country each day in
bales, crates, car trunks -- even FedEx boxes," Allison writes.
"Any one of these containers could hold something far more
Nevertheless, Allison believes that a nuclear attack
is preventable, and his book offers a concrete plan of action. The
key, he says, is control of fissile materials -- like highly enriched
uranium (HEU) and plutonium -- without which a bomb cannot be built.
"No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism.
It is that simple."
Allison goes on to argue convincingly that much of the world's fissile
material, perhaps most of it, can feasibly be recovered and placed
under tight guard by the existing nuclear powers. Modeling his ideas
on the already successful Nunn-Lugar program he personally helped
to set up as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, a program
that helped Russia recover literally thousands of tactical nuclear
weapons from former Soviet territories, Allison calls for a "grand
alliance" that would see America and Russia -- then China,
Pakistan and others -- take possession of fissile material lying
around in sheds and insecure research reactors in various ex-Soviet
and Third World states.
More broadly, he advocates a world based on "Three No's":
"no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes" -- by which he
means no new facilities for producing fissile material -- and "no
new nuclear weapons states." On the first "no" ("no
loose nukes"), Allison is utterly persuasive. He rightly castigates
the Bush administration for ignoring this basic preventative principle,
and points to the appalling fact that this administration has, at
least twice, attempted to cut funding for Nunn-Lugar, which continues
to secure nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. One feels
like sending cash to the State Department - - anything to help revitalize
and accelerate this program.
To deal with states such as Iran and North Korea
that wish to build their own fissile materials production capacity
(the second "no") in order to guarantee they'll be able
to construct nuclear weapons (the third "no") whenever
they choose, Allison proposes a mixture of carrots and sticks tailored
to the country at issue. In the coordinator's role, he recommends
a newly humble and diplomatic America, one committed to building
a community of nations that can act in concert to prevent the formation
of new nuclear powers. This is all to the good -- even if it is
very doubtful that the current administration has the diplomatic
skills to attempt it.
Allison even seems to be aware that fear of invasion
may be one of the key drivers behind a country's wish to acquire
nuclear weapons, because he recommends the United States offer nonaggression
guarantees as part of the bundle. As the stick, he advocates threatening
to bomb nuclear facilities in Iran or North Korea, should either
of those countries choose to reject the world's offer of carrots.
Yet although he excoriates the Bush administration
for its invasion of Iraq -- which, among other things, "discredited
the larger case for a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism"
-- it is hard to see how his own approach would lead to markedly
different results. Bombing nuclear facilities is not a less violent
and costly alternative to invasion and occupation, but rather a
precursor to it. Israel's fabled bombing of the nuclear reactor
at Osirak in 1981 may have set back Iraq's nuclear weapons program,
but it certainly didn't end it, and barely 20 years later, a nervous
United States decided that the only way to be sure that the threat
was really gone was to conquer the country and replace its government.
Ironically, force is probably no longer even an
option with regard to North Korea. Despite Allison's rather optimistic
notion that Kim Jong Il might be intimidated by being shown "a
special video with extensive footage of American precision-guided
munitions," it is likely that North Korea's suspected stockpile
of two to eight nuclear bombs is already more than enough deterrence
to keep American cruise missiles in their launch tubes. As Allison
himself made clear, delivering a nuclear weapon is not much of a
problem. North Korea doesn't need an ICBM when it can just go Fed-Ex.
Ian Garrick Mason is a Toronto writer. His
work also appears in the Spectator and the Boston Globe.