- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

We face three immediate crises in proliferation: First, the problem of not only disarming Iraq of its chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but also of containing or changing the intentions of its regime. Second, the challenge posed by North Korea, its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and potential processing of its reactor material into additional nuclear weapons. Third, the level of tension between a nuclear armed India and a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Each of these crises threatens stability in its own region, creates major problems for the United Nations, and presents new challenges for the set of alliances that has grown out of the Cold War and Korean conflict. Each crisis can literally explode at any time. Yet, in some ways, these current problems are only the tip of the iceberg. They are simply the most tangible symbols of changes in the international system and in technology that are likely to shape the world for decades to come. Proliferation is changing in the international system, or put differently, the international system is changing proliferation.
In broad terms, there is nothing new about the risk of proliferation. It has been a key focus of U.S. policy since the Eisenhower administration, and if anything the U.S. has worried for decades about a much faster rate of proliferation than has actually taken place, as well as a much more violent use of weapons of mass destruction in fighting wars.
The fact that things change more slowly than worst-case projections might indicate, however, is not mean they do not change. President Bush highlighted this when he talked about an "axis of evil" involving Iran, Iraq and North Korea. This phrase was ill-chosen to the extent it linked together three very different cases and sets of risks in ways that did more to blur the issues involved than address them. At the same time, no one can seriously deny that President Bush identified three very serious proliferators.
The problem is that there are others who openly proliferate and still others who carry out research and contingency planning, and we are not just talking about states. The international system has changed significantly since the relatively clearly defined patterns of the arms race and deterrence that occurred between the U.S. and Russia.
The good news is that proliferation has been rolled back in Argentina, Brazil and in South Africa. Nations that covertly started nuclear programs such as Canada and Sweden never completed them. The breakup of the former Soviet Union eventually saw non-Russian states give up their nuclear weapons. More than 10,000 NATO and Warsaw Pact theater nuclear weapons no longer are deployed. British and French nuclear weapons exist at the margins of international power.
The bad news is that proliferation and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are now concentrated in five sets of far less stable regional conflicts:
The Arab-Israel conflict and North Africa, where Egypt, Israel, Libya and Syria have WMD, and Algeria has at least shown an interest in them.
The Gulf, where Iran and Iraq are active proliferators, Saudi Arabia has long-range ballistic missiles, and Yemen once had token stocks of mustard gas.
India and Pakistan, where tensions over a strategic sideshow such as Kashmir could trigger a nuclear conflict.
The Taiwan Straits where the game of "chicken" between China and Taiwan involves a steady increase in the Chinese deployment of ballistic missiles and the tacit threat of using WMD.
The Korean Peninsula, and the threat of a new Korean War.
In each case, a seemingly small crisis can escalate out of rational bounds, just as the Cuban missile crisis threatened to do in the early 1960s.
These are not nations such as the U.S. and Russia, which had larger geographical buffers and could afford to take local losses. These are contiguous states. And these are states with fundamentally asymmetric values and perceptions. This asymmetry occurred between the U.S. and former Soviet Union as well, but there was a better-shared perception of risk, and certainly far more understanding of the war-fighting consequences of using WMD.
In most cases, countries would have to go to war with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons they have never really tested in depth for reliability, accuracy and lethality. They would do so with limited targeting capability and no satellites to measure battle damage and weapons effects. The target country in turn, would have no way to tell its leaders with any accuracy how much damage had been done and the potential cost of follow-on strikes. This is an escalatory nightmare that will be shaped by leaderships that cannot possibly know what they are doing.
We also are talking about asymmetric patterns of proliferation. In many cases, one regional power has a strong advantage in conventional forces, nuclear weapons and/or delivery systems. The other power or powers is forced to rely on proliferation to compensate for conventional weakness, must use chemical and biological weapons to compensate for nuclear weakness, and/or must use covert or asymmetric means to compensate for a lack of sophisticated delivery systems. Asymmetry breeds unpredictability and unpredictability breeds risk.
Moreover, proliferating states are only part of the problem. We have to consider terrorist movements and "proxies" as well.
Aum Shin Rikyo proved a terrorist movement could attempt attacks with biological and chemical weapons.
We have since learned that al Qaeda has carried out intensive efforts to obtain or build chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Groups such as al Qaeda are not seeking publicity to influence world opinion; they are not using force to negotiate. They do not have limits as to whom they seek to kill or how many they seek to kill, and they do not even expect to survive and triumph in any personal sense.
We need to be extremely careful about focusing on today's mix of states, terrorists and Islamic extremists. They may be today's most likely threat, but they may well not be tomorrow's.
There are many ethnic, religious and historical fault lines in the world. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, we have seen how quickly these divisions can explode into conflict.
There is no single approach that can solve the problem of proliferation. We have seen the limits to the U.N. arms-control effort in Iraq, and yet the best outcome of a war in Iraq will only get rid of a loathsome dictator and one serious threat of WMD. The broader regional process of proliferation will continue.
Even if we do fully disarm Iraq of its present weapons of mass destruction and production facilities, we will not get rid of its scientists. Iraq will also retain and build new dual-use facilities that will ensure it has a rapid-break capability to make biological and chemical weapons. It is impossible to disarm a modern state.
In practice, this means taking the following steps. We need a mix of measures such as arms control, international pressure, supplier regimes, negotiation, homeland defense, counterterrorism, military containment, extended deterrence, and even pre-emption and war.
We have been seeking to stop the advance of new threats and weapons ever since Western civilization tried to ban the crossbow in the Middle Ages. We have neither succeeded nor perished. If we are honest enough to face the real nature of the threats around us, we can contain and limit them, even if we cannot totally prevent them. The only way the future will be bleak is if we pretend these threats do not exist, or if we lack the courage to go beyond words when force is truly necessary.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair for Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This article was exerpted from a speech delivered at the Twentieth Conference of the World Media Association in Arlington Feb. 20.

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