In the release last week of a few more documents from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, the director of national intelligence included a list of the English-language books that were found in bin Laden’s possession. Among them, The Scrapbook was pleased to see, was one by our friend Henry Sokolski, an occasional contributor to these pages.
Sokolski has a theory for why bin Laden kept that volume, Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions (coauthored with Patrick Clawson), on his bookshelf. “I think OBL was interested in what a strategy to foster a Green Revolution in Iran might consist of,” he told The Scrapbook last week. “That’s what the book was all about—it came out five years before the revolution [in Iran] actually occurred and unfortunately failed.”
Bin Laden may have been curious, but it seems that no one in the White House read the book, or else the regime might have been toppled in the summer of 2009. Instead, it’s on a glide path to a nuclear weapon.
That’s hardly surprising to Sokolski, a former Pentagon official and now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. From his perspective, American policymakers are always a step or two behind, especially on nuclear proliferation issues. “We seem to wait until the problem is all but unsolvable in each case, rather than acting as soon as we can, when we still have options.”
His latest book, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future, explains why that’s a dangerous habit. “We wait until things get so bad, when it does become a problem there’s no easy solution,” says Sokolski. “Unless that culture changes, if you don’t want to do things modestly outlined in this book, you might be toast.”
Underestimated is a powerfully concise volume, 15 years in the making, explains Sokolski. “Other fields of study, like economics and military science, track trends and tell you how to avoid the worst. But when I looked at the field associated with the spread of nuclear proliferation, mostly what you have are tactical accounts and recommendations regarding current events. There’s little or no serious attempt to forecast the future. And I thought, shouldn’t you want to take a stab at what current trends might lead to?”
It’s not an upbeat book, as Sokolski confesses. “That’s not because these trends can’t be averted, it’s just that I don’t think we are going to do it. We like talking about it, but we are not taking it seriously.”
To take one example, Sokolski thinks it’s possible to curtail potential problems in East Asia before events outrun America’s ability to do anything about them. “The opportunities for restraint are enormous, but what we are doing seems contrary to that.” For instance, a proposed civilian nuclear agreement with Beijing that gives China wide berth to produce weapons-usable plutonium from U.S.-designed reactors risks rattling its neighbors even more than they already are.
As for the chief proliferation issues of the day—North Korea and Iran—Sokolski thinks the train has already left the station. “Twenty-five years of neglect regarding Iran, when we didn’t blow the whistle, and looked the other way,” says -Sokolski, who was writing memos at the Pentagon on Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon back in 1989. “And now we think that at the last hour you can stop this? I’m skeptical.”
As the author himself says, Underestimated is not an upbeat book. But it is an essential one.