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An irresistible invitation

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Many intelligent people spent the 1950s and 1960s trying to think of
clever ways to use nuclear weapons to advance national objectives, with
no great success.

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck

Transmitted below is a typically wise article by Bill Pfaff.

Personally, I am much less worried by a few small nuclear weapons in
North Korean (or, eventually, Iranian) hands than I am by the
10,000-20,000 and 200-600, respectively, in the hands of the two
countries which, over a perod of decades, have been constantly attacking
other countries and which currently show no inclination toward reform or
restraint, let alone toward the renunciation of violence which they
demand of others armed principally with stones.

I do not believe that this is an unusual view in countries other than
the two just cited.

The argument has been made that North Korea is a special case because
its leadership is irrational.

Are there really grounds for distinction on that score? If so, is it
clear which way the distinction cuts?

International Herald Tribune <>
An irresistible invitation
William Pfaff Tribune Media Services
*PARIS* The main government destabilized by North Korea's claimed
nuclear explosion is clearly the government of the United States.
Washington said it would prevent this from happening.

The Clinton administration negotiated with an opaque Pyongyang to
exchange security assurances and qualified help in peaceful
nuclear-power development for an unreliable promise not to develop
weapons. The Bush administration spurned negotiation, insulted Kim Jong
Il and made empty threats.

However, this is only a step in what probably will be the eventual
failure of the entire nonproliferation effort. A complete breakdown is
likely so long as the five governments recognized in 1968 as legitimate
possessors of nuclear weapons do not honor their commitments under the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce and eventually eliminate their
own nuclear arsenals. The North Korean test is a demonstration to
Washington that it can't keep - and improve - its own nuclear forces and
expect the nonproliferation treaty to survive.

A system that allows only the original five nuclear powers - now
illegally joined by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea - to possess
these arms cannot last. Nuclear weapons will spread to any country that
considers itself at risk from an existing nuclear state.

The promise of the five eventually to renounce the nuclear weapon was
never convincing. Since then, the evidence has been that none will do
so. Certainly the United States will not. This reality destroys the
utility and relevance of the treaty. North Korea even went to the
trouble of formally withdrawing from the treaty in January 2003, after
the Bush administration denounced Pyongyang.

The North Korean test and Iran's supposed - if unconfirmed - intention
to acquire nuclear weapons are reactions to what is seen as the threat
of American intervention to bring about "regime change." The only value
of a nuclear weapon to a small or relatively weak country is to deter
attack, intrusion or interference by a more powerful country.

Nuclear weapons may not even be entirely convincing in that role because
their destructive power is disproportionate to their actual utility.
This is a source of unpredictability, and hence of deterrence through
uncertainty, but it is also an invitation to extinction if the enemy is
sufficiently ruthless.

Even a more powerful attacker would pause at the threat of a nuclear
reaction. In the North Korean case, suppose that a conventional American
attack were followed by a Hiroshima-scale retaliation against Seoul (not
only South Korea's capital but also the headquarters of U.S. forces in
the country). Who would have gained what?

Many intelligent people spent the 1950s and 1960s trying to think of
clever ways to use nuclear weapons to advance national objectives, with
no great success.

If the enemy possesses nuclear weapons, no matter how ingenious the
offensive tactics, the risk of failure or of overwhelming retaliation is
usually unacceptably high. We may be thankful that the usefulness of
nuclear weapons nearly always comes down to deterrence, certainly so for
countries like North Korea or Iran. And that is all they want from them.

The Americans and Israelis calling for war with Iran talk about Iranian
nuclear aggression, nuclear blackmail or bestowing nuclear weapons on
terrorists. None of this is serious.

You don't attack or blackmail other states unless you have what the
nuclear planner calls an assured second-strike capability. That is, you
have to be able to guarantee that even if your victim strikes back, you
can still inflict unacceptable damage on him in retaliation: hence, it
is not worthwhile for him to respond. Neither Iran nor North Korea will
be able to do that for a very long time. You need hardened missile silos
or submarines at sea - the panoply of the Cold War.

As for giving nuclear weapons to terrorists: Since missiles and
explosions can be traced back to their manufacturers, no matter who
pulls the trigger, that is not a prudent course of action.

The world has undoubtedly been lucky to limit the spread of nuclear
weapons, to the extent that its has, since 1945. The Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty was a good idea, but the major powers did not
sign it in good faith, and have not lived up to it.

The threats offered by the major powers to "rogue states" - or to any
state lacking conventional defenses - is an irresistible invitation to
proliferation. The one good thing that can be said about the situation
in which we now find ourselves is that the Japanese and Chinese
governments are going to be even more careful, and more cooperative,
than they were in the past.
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