U.S. enjoys success in corralling nuclear wannabes

December 31, 2003|By John C. Bersia

ORLANDO, Fla. - Is the United States safer from nuclear attack on the eve of 2004 than it was a year ago?

Even critics of the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy would have to concede that the answer is yes.

Of course, global terrorists - who would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapon - pose a perennial unconventional threat. Still, the United States has made impressive strides toward restricting conventional nuclear wannabes, and thus their potential as suppliers to other countries and groups.

At the beginning of 2003, three nations with a history of notoriously bad behavior and nuclear weapons yearnings - Iraq, Libya and North Korea - loomed as persistent problems.

Today, a U.S.-led intervention force has neutralized Iraq and has a free hand to locate and secure any remnants of Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction endeavors. Libya, thanks to diplomatic pressure from Britain and the United States, has agreed to end its WMD programs. And North Korea has engaged in a historic series of meetings with the United States and other partners to address security concerns on the Korean peninsula, including Pyongyang's nuclear weapons.

Some critics argue that the United States is only marginally safer as a result of those steps. Iraq, they insist, posed a greater threat a decade ago, which justified the first Persian Gulf war. However, they say, that war essentially took care of the danger and persuaded Baghdad to modify its ways, which helps explain the meager findings of U.S. inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps, but we really don't know at this point. It is equally possible that evidence of nuclear weapons research and components remains hidden, as was Saddam Hussein until recently.

In Libya's case, the critics either minimize Tripoli's apparent change of heart, suggesting that it's consistent with earlier gestures by that country to improve its international standing, or offer the reminder that Libya has yet to prove its intentions.

But the latest indications of Libya's willingness to act properly warrant a little more enthusiasm.

Indeed, Tripoli has begun pressuring various neighboring countries to emulate its stance on weapons of mass destruction. As to verifying Libya's compliance with its new commitments, the United States and Britain have the incentive and the means to hold Tripoli to the highest standards and put it to the test.

And then there's North Korea. Naysayers see an aura of dM-ijM-` vu surrounding current diplomatic maneuvers and suggest that it's 1994 all over again, only with President Bush coddling the North Koreans instead of former President Bill Clinton.

That's a pessimistic and unhelpful perspective, especially in light of the peninsula's volatility and concentration of firepower. Renewed war there could shut down Northeast Asia and shake up the rest of the world. I would rather see the Bush administration attempt a dozen diplomatic approaches than prematurely resort to force.

Some months ago, Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, wrote in Current History that "nuclear proliferation is neither out of control nor inevitable. The tools required to reduce the demand for nuclear weapons exist and remain effective if they are used constructively by the United States and other concerned countries."

Although the world unfortunately gained two new nuclear-weapons states - India and Pakistan - in recent years, what strikes me as even more remarkable is that, a half-century into the nuclear age, only eight countries clearly possess such weapons.

By building on its anti-proliferation efforts, particularly with diplomatic initiatives, the Bush administration can aim to keep that number small and the nation safer.

John C. Bersia won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. He is also the special assistant to the president at the University of Central Florida and a professor there.

Columnist Cal Thomas will return Jan. 7.

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