Tackling a common threat

March 02, 2005|By Graham Allison

PRESIDENT BUSH and his new national security team must be applauded for the progress made at the summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

While most of the press coverage focused on the testy head-to-head over Russia's backsliding on democracy, the most important issue addressed at the Bratislava meeting was securing Russian nuclear weapons and materials that could be stolen, sold to Osama bin Laden and used to destroy American cities.

To prevent this, the two leaders for the first time accepted personal responsibility for addressing the threat and for ensuring that their governments secure loose nuclear material in their countries on an accelerated timetable. Advancing the previous schedule, they set 2008 as a target by which this danger will be substantially contained.

They committed their governments to developing new emergency response procedures for missing nuclear or "dirty bomb" materials. They pledged that all U.S. and Russian research reactors provided to developing and transitional countries will be converted from highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium fuel from which nuclear weapons cannot be made. They also created a "Senior Interagency Group," chaired by Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Alexander Rumyantsev, to oversee implementation of these efforts and brief them regularly, the first report due by July 1.

About their private conversation, aides said little more than that it had been "frank."

One must hope that frankness included Mr. Bush's best efforts to help Mr. Putin feel this as an existential threat to Russia. If the Chechen terrorists who killed 172 schoolchildren and scores of others in Beslan last year get a nuclear bomb from Russia's arsenal, their first target will not be New York or Washington but Moscow. Mr. Putin must therefore see securing all nuclear weapons and materials from theft not as a favor to Mr. Bush, but rather as an essential exercise of his responsibility to protect his nation's vital interests.

In the first debate of the presidential campaign, the moderator asked the two candidates, "What is the single most serious threat to American national security?" Both answered: nuclear terrorism.

During the campaign, Sen. John Kerry drew blood by pointing persuasively to the wide gap between Mr. Bush's words about nuclear security and the administration's deeds. Specifically, as Mr. Kerry noted, in the two years after 9/11, fewer potential nuclear weapons in Russia were secured than in the two years before that attack.

He pointed out that in addressing the two immediate nuclear wannabes, Iran and North Korea, the Bush administration's fixation with Iraq had left the more dangerous members of the "axis of evil" free to pursue their ambitions.

In that breathing space, Iran advanced its nuclear programs to the point at which it now stands only months, not years, away from uranium enrichment facilities that will provide the infrastructure for its nuclear bomb. And since January 2003, North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that were monitoring its nuclear activities and reprocessed fuel rods with enough plutonium for six additional nuclear weapons.

At the summit, Mr. Bush confirmed Mr. Putin's pledge not to provide fuel for Iran's nuclear power reactor at Bushehr without a guarantee that the spent fuel (and the plutonium embodied within it) will be returned to Russia. Three days later, Moscow closed this deal with Tehran, saying that such a guarantee had been made but keeping details regarding fuel delivery "confidential." As Mr. Putin performs a balancing act between protecting Russia's commercial interests and assuaging international concern, Moscow's most recent action will come into play as Mr. Bush considers the terms of a bargain to denuclearize Iran. His national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, indicates that the "mix of carrots and sticks, and who should the carrots come from and what should they be" will now be at the top of Mr. Bush's agenda.

On North Korea, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin agreed that it cannot be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state, but neither appears to have a strategy to prevent this from happening. Their private conversation must have been more realistic than either has been in his public statements; Mr. Bush repeatedly has declared a nuclear North Korea "intolerable," but the Bush administration has refused to define intolerable.

The Bratislava meeting represents significant progress in confronting nuclear terrorism. But to close the gap between this summit's words and the hundreds of specific actions required to protect both countries' citizens from a terrorist's nuclear bomb will require daily attention and hard work by both presidents.

Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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