Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear technology

Sharif’s Return

The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”

The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.

Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.

The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990’s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.

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The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”

The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.

Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.

The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990’s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.

The Saudis are understandably determined to preserve their long-standing links with Pakistan. The ties are long and deep: the Saudis and Pakistanis worked closely together in the 1980’s, for example, to support the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis provided bases, training, and handlers; the Saudis (along with the Americans) provided the cash.

There are even unproven suspicions (denied vehemently by both sides) that the links may include Saudi financial contributions for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, in return perhaps for an understanding that Pakistani nuclear technology will be made available to the Saudis should they ever need it. That possibility is no longer so far-fetched: If Iran develops its own nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia may well feel compelled to match the “Persians.”

That could set off a destabilizing Middle Eastern arms race and raise the odds that a nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of jihadist terrorists. But from the Saudi perspective, going nuclear could be a necessary step toward preserving their security and prestige. If so, it would be helpful to the Saudis to have in Pakistan a leader who would offer Riyadh all the cooperation it needs. And Sharif fits the bill better than Bhutto.

But the Saudis had better be careful what they wish for. If Sharif is less dogged than, say, Bhutto would be in cracking down on jihadists, the results could come back to haunt the Saudis. Pakistan, after all, has become a haven of al Qaeda extremists who hate the Saudi regime at least as much as they hate America and Israel. It is in the Saudis’ interests to have the Pakistan government defeat the jihadists—something that Pervez Musharraf has not been willing or able to do and that Sharif may or may not be willing to do either, but that Bhutto has promised to do. Of course the ability of any of these leaders to stop the growth of Islamic radicalism may be limited because of the unwillingness or inability of many in the Pakistani security forces to fight especially hard against their Muslim “brothers.” But it would certainly be helpful to have a leader who appears more emotionally committed to the fight than Musharraf has been or than Sharif may be.

There is nothing wrong with allowing Sharif to compete in free elections; they would not have any credibility if he were barred. But one wonders how much covert support the Saudis may be providing him beyond simply his plush ticket back.

The Saudis had better be careful not to compromise their long-term interests in return for short-term gain—a mistake they last made in the 1990’s when, working hand-in-glove with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, they funded the most radical mujahideen groups fighting in Afghanistan. Many of those Afghan veterans then journeyed back to Saudi Arabia and formed the nucleus of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group that Saudi security forces have been battling for the last several years.

Saudi Arabia has already imported one plague bacillus; it should be wary of a re-infection.

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“There are differences, of course.”

This week’s Economist, in a long and intelligent piece about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his political fortunes, offers up a rather inflammatory comparison (and an instant retraction):

Yet in both America and Iran, currents of dissent are growing, even inside their administrations. In neither case do the dissenters differ much from their leader’s stated objective: for Iran it is to claim a perceived right to nuclear technology; for America it is to perform an assumed duty to stop Iran making atomic bombs. In both cases, critics lambast their leaders for tactics that may take their countries to war.

In some respects, those leaders are oddly similar. George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are both deeply religious, referring frequently to God’s guiding hand. Both are idealists rather than pragmatists, and skilled at folksy populism. Both have replaced dozens of competent officials with like-minded conservatives. And both are now considered, by a large slice of their countrymen, to be bungling and dangerous. The difference is that it has taken Mr Ahmadinejad just two years in power to achieve the unpopularity Mr Bush has gained after six.

There are differences, of course. Mr Bush may be accused of curtailing civil liberties in pursuit of his war on terror. But his government does not drag women off the streets for maladjusting hijabs, the obligatory covering of head and shoulders, or jail student activists as dangers to national security or smear political opponents as traitors or muzzle their speech.

The second and third paragraphs quoted are a bit mind-boggling. The wording suggests (at least to me) that dissent in America and Iran is identical in form, nature, and inherent risk; that “like-minded conservative” means the same thing in the context of Iranian politics that it does in American politics; that Bush’s populism is indistinguishable from Ahmadinejad’s. Isn’t it reasonable to say that the essential differences—the fact that George W. Bush, whatever his critics may say, does not preside over a theocratic, totalitarian regime—make the similarities purely superficial? Or even negligible? Puzzling . . .

This week’s Economist, in a long and intelligent piece about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his political fortunes, offers up a rather inflammatory comparison (and an instant retraction):

Yet in both America and Iran, currents of dissent are growing, even inside their administrations. In neither case do the dissenters differ much from their leader’s stated objective: for Iran it is to claim a perceived right to nuclear technology; for America it is to perform an assumed duty to stop Iran making atomic bombs. In both cases, critics lambast their leaders for tactics that may take their countries to war.

In some respects, those leaders are oddly similar. George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are both deeply religious, referring frequently to God’s guiding hand. Both are idealists rather than pragmatists, and skilled at folksy populism. Both have replaced dozens of competent officials with like-minded conservatives. And both are now considered, by a large slice of their countrymen, to be bungling and dangerous. The difference is that it has taken Mr Ahmadinejad just two years in power to achieve the unpopularity Mr Bush has gained after six.

There are differences, of course. Mr Bush may be accused of curtailing civil liberties in pursuit of his war on terror. But his government does not drag women off the streets for maladjusting hijabs, the obligatory covering of head and shoulders, or jail student activists as dangers to national security or smear political opponents as traitors or muzzle their speech.

The second and third paragraphs quoted are a bit mind-boggling. The wording suggests (at least to me) that dissent in America and Iran is identical in form, nature, and inherent risk; that “like-minded conservative” means the same thing in the context of Iranian politics that it does in American politics; that Bush’s populism is indistinguishable from Ahmadinejad’s. Isn’t it reasonable to say that the essential differences—the fact that George W. Bush, whatever his critics may say, does not preside over a theocratic, totalitarian regime—make the similarities purely superficial? Or even negligible? Puzzling . . .

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Should We Invade Pakistan?

On Friday, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that U.S. military intelligence officials are trying to figure out what will happen to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if Pervez Musharraf, the nation’s leader, is overthrown. The strongman’s rule has looked increasingly fragile in recent months as a series of incidents has rocked the nation. CNN reports what everyone knows: Musharraf’s control over the military appears tenuous, as it is limited to influence over “top commanders and units.”

“Pakistan’s strategic assets are completely safe and secure, and the highest level of institutionalized protection is accorded to them,” the Foreign Ministry, replying to the CNN report, stated yesterday. “Pakistan’s command and control structure are not controlled by individual personalities but are institutionalized and multi-layered to ensure safety and security at multiple levels.”

Institutionalized? That is not comforting; Pakistan’s institutions are filled with fanatics. No matter how many internal checks exist, the country’s arsenal of about 50 nuclear devices could fall into extremists’ hands if there were extended turmoil in Islamabad.

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On Friday, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported that U.S. military intelligence officials are trying to figure out what will happen to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if Pervez Musharraf, the nation’s leader, is overthrown. The strongman’s rule has looked increasingly fragile in recent months as a series of incidents has rocked the nation. CNN reports what everyone knows: Musharraf’s control over the military appears tenuous, as it is limited to influence over “top commanders and units.”

“Pakistan’s strategic assets are completely safe and secure, and the highest level of institutionalized protection is accorded to them,” the Foreign Ministry, replying to the CNN report, stated yesterday. “Pakistan’s command and control structure are not controlled by individual personalities but are institutionalized and multi-layered to ensure safety and security at multiple levels.”

Institutionalized? That is not comforting; Pakistan’s institutions are filled with fanatics. No matter how many internal checks exist, the country’s arsenal of about 50 nuclear devices could fall into extremists’ hands if there were extended turmoil in Islamabad.

Pakistan, unfortunately, is the nation that conclusively disproved the optimistic notions of “realists” like Kenneth Waltz, who argued that nuclear weapons made their custodians responsible. After all, generals like Musharraf watched Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, make deals with Libya, Iran, North Korea—and, undoubtedly, other nations—for nuclear technology. Two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with al Qaeda representatives in 2000 and 2001, which indicates the strength of the ties between extremist elements and the nation’s nuclear programs. And agents in the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, have provided substantial support to al Qaeda and the Taliban. If the country’s military and civilian officials act this way, just imagine what its rogue elements will do. It’s safe to say that there are few responsible custodians of nuclear weaponry in the Pakistani government.

If fanatics take control of Islamabad, will we be willing to insert our military into Pakistan to secure its arsenal? If we are not, then are we prepared to let al Qaeda become the world’s 10th nuclear power?

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Bring on Bolton

Why isn’t John Bolton running for President? In contrast to a line-up of Republican candidates that seems, at least from a transatlantic perspective, somewhat lackluster, the former ambassador to the U.N. looks and sounds like a real leader. As he is not yet running for office, why doesn’t one of the candidates—Rudy Giuliani, for instance—consider him seriously as a running mate? Bolton looks like Teddy Roosevelt and talks like Ronald Reagan. What more do you want?

On Wednesday, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Bolton gave us a series of robust reminders of why his tenure at the U.N. was so controversial. He has no difficulty comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler in public, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney reportedly do in private, and he thinks the present situation with Iran is analogous to that of 1936, when the appeasers in Europe and isolationists in America carried the day: “I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don’t stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear program would be in Iran’s hands, not ours.”

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Why isn’t John Bolton running for President? In contrast to a line-up of Republican candidates that seems, at least from a transatlantic perspective, somewhat lackluster, the former ambassador to the U.N. looks and sounds like a real leader. As he is not yet running for office, why doesn’t one of the candidates—Rudy Giuliani, for instance—consider him seriously as a running mate? Bolton looks like Teddy Roosevelt and talks like Ronald Reagan. What more do you want?

On Wednesday, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Bolton gave us a series of robust reminders of why his tenure at the U.N. was so controversial. He has no difficulty comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler in public, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney reportedly do in private, and he thinks the present situation with Iran is analogous to that of 1936, when the appeasers in Europe and isolationists in America carried the day: “I think you’re at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point. If you don’t stop it then, the future is in his hands, not in your hands, just as the future decisions on their nuclear program would be in Iran’s hands, not ours.”

Bolton warns that Iran “is not going to be talked out of its nuclear program. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure.” It is too late to halt the uranium enrichment program, so the priority now is to prevent industrial-scale production. He favors economic sanctions “with pain” as the next step, followed by a serious attempt to bring about regime change from within. “And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force.”

He is not insouciant about the risks of air-strikes: “It’s very risky for the price of oil, risky because you could, let’s say, take out their enrichment capabilities at Natanz, and they may have enrichment capabilities elsewhere you don’t know about.” But he is clear-sighted about the much greater risk of doing nothing: “Imagine what it would be like with a nuclear Iran. Imagine the influence Iran could have over the entire region.”

He is scathing about the “doomed” European attempt to negotiate with Tehran, which Tony Blair reluctantly went along with: “Blair just didn’t focus on it as much as [former Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw did, and it was very much a Foreign Office thing because they wanted to show their European credentials, wanted to work with the Germans and the French to show ‘we’ll solve Iran in a way differently than those cowboy Americans solved Iraq.’” He accuses Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador in Iraq, and other Foreign Office officials of deliberately undermining Mr. Blair’s pro-American policy on a wide range of issues. But he rebuts the claim that Mr. Blair was a “poodle” of Mr. Bush: “Nobody in this administration has thought that. Nobody.”

War leaders are as rare today as they have ever been, and just as precious. I published an essay on the Iranian problem in the current issue of the New Criterion. My conclusion is as follows:

The Iranian regime has been at war with us from the moment it seized power 28 years ago. Ahmadinejad’s Iran represents a lethal combination of nuclear technology and Islamist eschatology. Détente is not an option. Ahmadinejad is not interested in peace; he longs for paradise. The duty of saving the world from the Persian peril falls to us. Leonidas, “the bravest of men,” was said to be descended from Heracles himself. Let us hope and pray that our leaders are made of the same stuff.

John Bolton, for one, most certainly is.

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Sunshine on a Rainy Week

You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.

The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”

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You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?

But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.

The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”

And it certainly does sound questionable, perhaps even worse.

But there is more to this story.

The AP report goes on to inform us that many of the documents removed from circulation “include the presumably dangerous, such as nearly half an enormous database from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with information about all federal facilities.” They also encompassed about “80 cubic feet of naval facility plans and blueprints.”

The entire effort to remove official documents from public view was set in motion after September 11 to safeguard “records of concern,” i.e., reports, blueprints, material pertaining to nuclear-technology, photos or sketches of sensitive installations, anything else that could be useful to terrorists.

Yes, a lot of perfectly mundane information was caught up in the sweep, including architectural drawings of LBJ’s presidential library in Austin, Texas. But as archive officials told the AP “We just felt we couldn’t take the time and didn’t always have the expertise” to review them all. The more urgent task was to get the sensitive ones–like information about the vulnerability of chemical plants and recipes for making biological warfare agents–off the shelves and away from terrorist hands.

Is this a scandal? Is the Bush administration wasting taxpayer money to pursue its obsession with secrecy? Or is it something else?

We certainly do need more dialogue about open government in the age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear explosion over New York would be brighter than a thousand suns. Let’s use the occasion of Sunshine Week to engage in seven days of dialogue about that.

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Putin the Comedian

Move over, Borat. The hottest new voice in comedy is Vladimir Putin, otherwise known as the man who saved Russia from freedom and democracy. Putin convulsed his audience at the Munich Conference on Security with this sparkling one-liner: “Nobody feels secure any more, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law.”

International law has been likened to many things—gauze, cotton, clouds, tissue paper, vapor—but a “stone wall?” Where did Putin come up with this utterly original metaphor? Perhaps from the idealistic years of his youth, when he proved his devotion to making people secure by going to work for the Committee for State Security (KGB). In his proudest assignment, Putin found safety behind an actual stone wall in Berlin and helped millions of East Germans to enjoy that safety with him, even those flighty individuals who, if left to their own devices, might have preferred to be someplace less secure.

Putin is understandably peeved that the expansion of NATO has already diminished Russia’s security by depriving it of its historic freedom to invade its neighbors. Now, adding insult to injury, Washington is considering placing anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would mean that Russia could not even fire rockets at these countries just to send them a message about, say, the advantages of buying more Russian gas at higher prices.

Putin has been forced to parry further assaults on Russia’s security, waged by American NGO’s that have set up operations inside Russia to promote democracy and human rights. “Russia is constantly being taught democracy,” he protested.

Is this how we repay Putin for all that he has done to enhance our security? He has furnished Iran with nuclear technology in order, so he explained, to make sure that Iran does not “feel cornered.” He has gone to great lengths to protect us from the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Above all, is this the reward that Putin deserves for having worked so hard to keep the world safe from Chechnya?

Move over, Borat. The hottest new voice in comedy is Vladimir Putin, otherwise known as the man who saved Russia from freedom and democracy. Putin convulsed his audience at the Munich Conference on Security with this sparkling one-liner: “Nobody feels secure any more, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law.”

International law has been likened to many things—gauze, cotton, clouds, tissue paper, vapor—but a “stone wall?” Where did Putin come up with this utterly original metaphor? Perhaps from the idealistic years of his youth, when he proved his devotion to making people secure by going to work for the Committee for State Security (KGB). In his proudest assignment, Putin found safety behind an actual stone wall in Berlin and helped millions of East Germans to enjoy that safety with him, even those flighty individuals who, if left to their own devices, might have preferred to be someplace less secure.

Putin is understandably peeved that the expansion of NATO has already diminished Russia’s security by depriving it of its historic freedom to invade its neighbors. Now, adding insult to injury, Washington is considering placing anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would mean that Russia could not even fire rockets at these countries just to send them a message about, say, the advantages of buying more Russian gas at higher prices.

Putin has been forced to parry further assaults on Russia’s security, waged by American NGO’s that have set up operations inside Russia to promote democracy and human rights. “Russia is constantly being taught democracy,” he protested.

Is this how we repay Putin for all that he has done to enhance our security? He has furnished Iran with nuclear technology in order, so he explained, to make sure that Iran does not “feel cornered.” He has gone to great lengths to protect us from the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Above all, is this the reward that Putin deserves for having worked so hard to keep the world safe from Chechnya?

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