The Magazine

The Qaddafi Precedent

Now that Libya's disarming, who's next?

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
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WITHOUT ACTUALLY meaning to do so, the Bush administration has pulled off one of the most remarkable nonproliferation victories since the advent of the nuclear age: Libya, a hostile, isolated dictatorship, pledged to give up its support of terrorism and its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. This nonproliferation "walk-in"--a direct result of Bush's invasion of Iraq and U.S.-allied efforts to interdict illicit strategic weapons-related goods--breaks the mold of nonproliferation history and suggests not only what's possible, but what should be done next.

Muammar Qaddafi's nuclear renunciation is unprecedented. The handful of nations that previously relinquished their nuclear weapons capabilities--South Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, and Argentina--did so less out of fear than from confidence, which each of these nations experienced when they moved toward more democratic self-rule. Until Qaddafi's submission, there seemed little reason to believe that authoritarian proliferators would relent without liberalization (or overthrow). The hardest cases--Iran and North Korea--suggest this is still true.

Libya's example, though, provides hope for the cases in between. Neither Libyan backsliding nor a repeat of America's 1986 bombing run on Qaddafi's home now seems probable. If we are willing to enforce the nonproliferation rules we have--as we did with Iraq and are now doing against illicit nuclear trade--blocking the further spread of nuclear weapons may be possible, in brief, without bombing every proliferating prospect.

The question now is how to exploit Libya's nuclear exit to accomplish this.

Many nonproliferation experts-- including those that rushed off earlier this month to visit North Korea's known nuclear sites and those who still object to America's invasion of Iraq--insist that Libya's announcement means we should now cut nuclear deals with Pyongyang and Tehran. Shooting at these goals now, though, is a surefire loser.

To begin with, Pyongyang and Tehran are hardly contrite about violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). When uranium enrichment equipment bound for Libya was interdicted this fall, Qaddafi showed penitence; he immediately signed a sweeping missile, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons renunciation pledge (penned with British and American officials); and invited international nuclear inspectors in.

After U.S. officials confronted Pyongyang with evidence of nuclear cheating, it countered defiantly, threatening everything from nuclear testing to plutonium exports. Now North Korea refuses even to freeze its known nuclear facilities (much less its undisclosed uranium production plants) unless it is paid handsomely in advance with energy aid and security guarantees. Dismantlement is something Pyongyang claims it will consider doing only after two U.S.-promised plutonium-producing power reactors are completed (i.e., pretty much never).

Iran is no less shameless. Over the last four weeks, its leadership announced that President Bush deserved the same fate as Saddam, insisted Iran would resume enriching uranium (and admitted to expanding its enrichment capacity despite its pledge last October to freeze such work), demanded Bush apologize for accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, blew off an American aid delegation headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole, and met with Russian officials to accelerate completion of a prodigious plutonium-producing power reactor at Busheir. Tehran is expanding its reactor and uranium enrichment efforts (both critical to making bombs) even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is still not yet able to find Iran in full compliance with the NPT.

Cutting a quick deal with Iran or North Korea, then, hardly guarantees another Libya. More likely, it will jeopardize the gains we have made. As a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman noted last week, the idea that Pyongyang might follow Libya's example by unconditionally renouncing its nuclear weapons capabilities is a delusion. "Expecting a change in our position," he explained, "is like expecting rain from a clear sky." Tehran's leaders, who insist on Iran's right to all forms of "peaceful" nuclear energy, are no less obdurate. If we make even partial concessions to their current demands, Qaddafi's worthy nonproliferation standard will be the first to suffer.