Wednesday, May 30, 2007

As the tragic-comic nuclear drama in North Korea lurches on and the nuclear crisis in Iran heats up, it may be appropriate to acknowledge some good news from Libya, which qualifies as a fourth member of President Bush’s “axis of evil” club. In his 2002 State of the Union message, Mr. Bush said these regimes threaten world peace by sponsoring terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Since Mr. Bush voiced his apt designation, North Korea and Iran have continued to suffer under repressive regimes that support terrorists and seek to achieve a nuclear capability. Iraq is obviously a work in progress. Strangely, Moammar Gadhafi, strongman of Libya, has taken a different path.

Today, North Korea has an estimated six-plus nuclear weapons, while Iran is working feverishly to produce weapons grade uranium before the U.N. invokes tough sanctions or the U.S. imposes punitive trade or other measures.

So far only Libya’s Col. Gadhafi has surrendered his nuclear arms program — surprising in view of his long support of terrorism, including the 1988 downing of PanAm 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 persons, mostly Americans. Despite stiff U.S. sanctions against his regime, Col. Gadhafi continued his nuclear quest.

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Col. Gadhafi suddenly realized he, too, was vulnerable to U.S. willingness to attack and overthrow a terrorist regime in the volatile Middle East. On Dec. 15, the day after U.S. forces captured Saddam in his spider hole, Col. Gadhafi informed U.S. diplomats he would terminate all his nuclear weapons program if the U.S. and Britain would lift their economic sanctions against him. Negotiations began immediately.

In 2004, U.S. and British teams dismantled Libya’s nuclear facilities in the presence of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. All documents and components of Col. Gadhafi’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs were crated and airlifted to the United States and now are safely stored in a nuclear facility in Tennessee under tight security.

Ironically perhaps, Libya’s highly enriched uranium from its Nuclear Research Center was sent to Russia for reprocessing for civilian purposes. In turn, the U.S. lifted most of its trade restrictions on Libya. All this with little public attention.

One can wish North Korea and Iran would follow Libya’s example. But with persistent U.S. pressure and implied threats, neither has yet done so.

North Korea’s reckless dictator Kim Jong-il, has built six-plus nuclear weapons and fired several test missiles across the Sea of Japan, an obvious threat to the region, including U.S. forces in South Korea. After long negotiations initiated by Washington and including Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo, Mr. Kim agreed to give up his nuclear arms program in return for substantial food and financial aid to his impoverished country. The deal may be sealed in the near future. If so, a serious danger to the region would be muted.

In Iran, its erratic leaders are suspending a Damocles Sword over the Middle East and beyond. Located in a volatile region and sharing a 268-mile border with Iraq, Iran presents a more intractable problem than North Korea because of its oil reserves and a volatile population.

Washington accuses Iran of attempting to build nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic program and of fomenting violence in Iraq by arming and training terrorists — charges Tehran predictably denies. During his recent trip to Iran, Vice President Dick Cheney warned that Washington understands the “consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon.” Fortunately, Washington’s major allies see the problem much as we do.

This picture of nuclear arms in “axis of evil” states underscores the need for a realistic appraisal and the dangers of a moralistic approach to foreign policy.

The key actors in international politics remain the big powers. The United Nations and the World Court are little more than brittle artifacts of the liberal imagination. These facts do not rule out ethics and high purpose, but simply affirm that such attributes must be expressed through the traditional instruments of statecraft.

In 1943, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull saw it differently. When assessing the embryonic United Nations, he rhapsodized: “There will no longer be any need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power… by which in the unhappy past the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests.” Hull received Nobel Prize for peace in 1945.

Ernest W. Lefever, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is author of “Nuclear Arms and the Third World,” and editor of “Arms and Arms Control” and “The Apocalyptic Premise.”

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