Feed the Children or Stop the Nukes?


November 08, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON. — London -- Children versus nuclear bombs. Stripped of embellishment, this is what the discussion in the U.N. Security Council boils down to. Do we lift the embargo on Saddam Hussein's terms, and allow in food and medicine to feed Iraq's suffering children, or do we keep it in place until we've finally discovered and removed every piece of his nuclear production line?

UNICEF and the other children's-aid agencies are quietly pushing Iraqi diplomats to persuade Mr. Hussein to bite on the compromise offered by the Security Council, to allow Iraq to sell some of his oil, but for the money to go into a special account to be used by the U.N. relief agencies, who themselves will supervise the distribution of food and medicine to the ill and hungry.

But Mr. Hussein probably won't. The tussle will continue and, come winter, children will start to die.

Yet we must persist. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle, in Iraq first and most dangerously, but also in Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Brazil. Who knows, too, what is going to happen to some of those nuclear weapons in the ex-Soviet republics? Libya and Iran would probably pay whatever asking price these cash-strapped countries demand. It is not inconceivable that one of the Middle East terrorist organizations could drum up the wherewithal to buy a tactical nuclear munition or two.

This is the world today. It is frighteningly precarious. There is much more chance of one of these weapons being used sometime in the next five years than there was in the last 20 years of the Cold War.

We have no choice but to resolve to keep the Security Council's embargo of Iraq watertight. We are, in fact, trying to save millions more children from even worse tribulation in the foreseeable future -- death by nuclear annihilation.

This raises a related question. Without the trigger of Saddam Hussein's attack on Kuwait, neither the United States nor the Security Council would have been prompted to act against Iraq's bomb. But what is going to trigger the world community to intervene elsewhere when it fears nuclear danger? Shouldn't the Security Council authorize similar action against North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India and Brazil?

There really can be no hard and fast answer to such a question. The Security Council has to decide, in effect, which nuclear-weapon states are predatory nations, likely to use them for more than deterrence. It is a subtle problem, but if the Council is working as harmoniously as it did during the Gulf War, then it should be capable of deciding the most fruitful course of action on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. aid embargo against Pakistan and the Japanese financial embargo against North Korea are useful interim tools that certainly work to slow down the pace of the bomb-production lines in those two countries. As for Israel, the Middle East peace conference must address the de-nuclearization of the region.

Meanwhile, China's decision to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty encourages the hope that China can be dissuaded from being so careless about whom it sells nuclear technology to. But pressure on Beijing may have to be backed with trade sanctions, unilaterally imposed if necessary, by the U.S. and the European Community.

The big nuclear-have states must help. We shouldn't forget that those countries which have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty have justified their refusal by pointing to the asymmetry of obligation between the recognized nuclear states and all the others.

The former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara argues, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, that America no longer has an enemy against which it needs to deploy a nuclear force. It should start thinking about abolishing its stockpile altogether. Certainly it could make a start by agreeing with Moscow to cut their joint arsenal of 50,000 warheads to a mere thousand on each side.

Whatever we do, someone, somewhere, as long as scientific knowledge exists, will always be tempted to build or buy a weapon in secret and use it as a tool of intimidation or aggression. But once we find out about it, as now with Iraq, the full weight of the international community will have to be brought to bear, however hard it is to watch the innocent being squeezed by sanctions. It is painful to watch Iraq's children suffer. But what is the alternative?


Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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