Commentary: Back To The Cold War?

Facing up to the awful reality of rogue nations with nukes

Iran may soon acquire the ability to enrich uranium, paving the way for a nuclear arsenal. North Korea claims it already has the bomb -- and is reprocessing spent fuel to make more. Could sanctions make the nuclear upstarts stop in their tracks? Probably not. China and South Korea are balking: They don't want sanctions to drive North Korea over the brink. As for Iran, the U.S. and Europe can't see eye to eye on when or whether to apply sanctions at all.

What should Washington do? Well, here's a radical approach: Accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea and Iran, and let them join the nuclear club.

That sounds like anathema to U.S. policymakers. The Bush Administration, after all, has gone out of its way to depict North Korea and Iran as the most roguish of rogue states. Acknowledging their new role as nuclear powers would seem to mark a capitulation and set a dangerous precedent.

But years of threats by the U.S. have done nothing to curb these states' nuclear ambitions, and may even have strengthened them. There has to be a better way to deal with North Korea and Iran, and perhaps it can be found in the U.S. experience of the Cold War. That 40-year standoff was a scary time, but nuclear war never broke out. One reason was the U.S. pledge to retaliate massively against any nuclear attack by Russia or China. This approach, which evolved into the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), made it clear how the U.S. would act if the missiles started flying.

Another U.S. strategy during the Cold War did not involve missiles. It tacitly acknowledged that the other side had a right to exist. Yes, the U.S. propaganda machine regularly lambasted Russia and China for decades, but no Administration made a serious effort to bring either regime down. Although the U.S. never officially renounced the option of striking first in a nuclear exchange, everyone knew a first strike was far down on the list of possibilities. It was also understood that if certain rules were observed by all sides, a nuclear launch would never occur. Later, with the advent of détente in the Nixon Administration, dialogue and engagement were even possible.

Contrast this history with the behavior of the Bush Administration, and you see what it can learn from the Cold War. The Administration already has its version of MAD down pat. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan makes it clear that Washington will strike back hard against attackers and will topple hostile regimes.

Get-Tough Strategy

Yet the White House has also violated Cold War tenets by explicitly adopting the prospect of striking first, with conventional or other forces, as part of its get-tough strategy with rogue states. And the Bush team regularly calls for regime change for the remaining members of the Axis of Evil. Such rhetoric has put both North Korea and Iran in a corner and given them a perfect pretext for keeping their nuclear options open. "You have to admit they have a point," says Joseph Cirincione, an arms-control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A quiet retreat from the idea of regime change could do what all the saber-rattling of the past two years has failed to achieve: arrive at a new nuclear equilibrium. Leaving nukes in the hands of erratic leaders in Tehran and Pyongyang certainly doesn't look like a great idea. But the conventional wisdom about these regimes may be wrong. The mullahs "are not suicidal," notes Robert J. Einhorn of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Adds Shai Feldman, a Mideast expert at Brandeis University: "Iran is not Iraq. The Iranian regime is not prone to adventures or miscalculation."

North Korea may be more inclined that way than Iran, but it's not suicidal, either. While Dear Leader Kim Jong Il uses brinksmanship in negotiations, regime preservation is its central motive. Attacking U.S. troops or U.S. allies runs counter to that goal. Kenneth N. Waltz, a Columbia University nuclear-arms expert, says leaders such as Kim "have proved very good at figuring out where the line is that, if crossed, will cause great damage to their country." Recently translated documents from the Warsaw Pact governments make it clear that North Korea's leaders have long wanted the bomb for security reasons, not for blackmail.

Besides, there's already evidence that when the U.S. abandons demands for regime change, a substantial payoff can result. Libya turned over its weapons program last year after "a tacit assurance of regime survival," notes Robert Litwak, a nonproliferation expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

What could go wrong with such a policy shift? For starters, taking the pressure off North Korea and Iran would obviously conflict with the Bush team's laudable push to establish democracies worldwide. It would also seem to abandon the Iranian and North Korean people to despotic regimes. But the reality on the ground is more complex. In Iran, the nuclear program is genuinely popular, even among the many Iranians well-disposed toward the U.S. So an American policy of active opposition to Iran's nuclear program, coupled with calls for regime change, strengthens the hand of the most reactionary members of the mullahs' regime.

North Korea is a trickier case. But the Bush policy to date has not delivered any improvement in human rights in that country. Achieving some sort of thaw with Pyongyang might at least create the opportunity to open that country to the world -- and increase the chances for meaningful dialogue.

The biggest danger of a tacit acceptance of a nuclear Iran and North Korea is that it would kick off a global arms race. Accepting Iranian and North Korean bombs could encourage others to follow suit, especially Japan and possibly Saudi Arabia, which would feel the most threatened from their neighbors' truculence. But even as policymakers contemplate this dilemma today, the Cold War experience of the U.S. offers some guidance. As the tension between Moscow and the U.S. deepened, high-profile strategic alliances brought friendly countries under the American nuclear umbrella. That arrangement made it unnecessary for frontline states such as West Germany to develop nuclear weapons on their own. Similar guarantees for countries like Japan could have the same effect today, and could keep another arms race from starting.

New global arms accords would help, too. The Bush team trashes these accords because some nations have cheated on those Cold War-era treaties meant to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. But scores of other countries did comply. That compliance kept the nuclear club from expanding to 25 by the mid-1970s, as an alarmed President Kennedy predicted it would a decade earlier.

Changing policy toward North Korea and Iran won't remove the threat from these regimes overnight. Then again, the Cold War wasn't won immediately either. But the right combination of containment and diplomacy may yet win this new contest for the U.S.

By Stan Crock

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