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Is deterrence losing its allure in arms race?

What an amazing coincidence. In the same week that U.S. troops pulled out of Iraqi cities, we learned that Saddam Hussein was only bluffing when he led the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction.

Fear that Hussein was developing a nuclear bomb was the main reason the Bush administration went to war six disastrous years ago. In an interview just made public under the Freedom of Information Act, Hussein told an FBI interviewer in 2004 that he didn't come clean about his weapons — or lack of them — because he was afraid of appearing weak to the "fanatics'' in Tehran.

He had reason to worry. As many as 500,000 Iraqis died in an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

While he never developed a bomb, Hussein's reluctance to admit it is testimony to the undeniable allure of nukes to countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Is it any surprise that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — were all early members of the world's deadliest club?

"There are states that look on and see that the permanent five have acquired an awful lot of international prestige and authority by virtue of the fact they've had nuclear weapons for 65 years,'' says Paul Cornish, head of the international security program at London's Chatham House.

The bomb has helped Britain stay in the top tier of nations even as its empire shrank to a few far-flung holdings. France, too, has maintained an outsized place in the world, thanks in part to its nuclear arsenal.

For China, the bomb was not just insurance against Japanese or Korean aggression, but a way to counter growing U.S. influence in the western Pacific after World War II. (Its end, of course, was hastened by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.)

China, in turn, spurred an arms race on the Indian subcontinent. Wary of the Chinese communists to its north, India, the world's largest democracy, developed its own bomb in 1974. And in 1998, India's neighbor and enemy Pakistan also went nuclear with the world's only "Islamic bomb.''

India and Pakistan are examples of countries "living in fear of a near neighbor or superpower, and (the bomb) is seen as kind of an equalizing gesture,'' Cornish says. "It's a version of the logic with which we became familiar during the Cold War, a kind of tit-for-tat reaction.''

Hussein's interest in the bomb was undoubtedly heightened by how close he came to being toppled during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iran today lives in a similar state of concern — it has U.S. troops to its east and west.

"Let's say you're an anti-Western power and you look around and think, 'Here we are confronted by the U.S. and its allies and they have such overwhelming superiority in conventional forces,' '' Cornish says. " 'The only possible way we can deter that or even hope to match that is by acquiring some other sort of weapons system, whether chemical, biological or nuclear.' ''

Because of the horror wrought on Japan, the bomb paradoxically became an instrument of peace that kept nuclear-armed nations from attacking each other for fear of being annihilated themselves. But, once again, its chief appeal may be its destructiveness, not its deterrence.

"We had 60 years of using it as a nonbomb, a device to prevent war,'' Cornish says. "My concern is that there are increasingly governments and organizations that look back to 1945 and the use of the big bomb on Japan and skip over all this 50 or 60 years of mutual deterrence.''

Though Iraq is not in the nuclear arms race, Iran is, for the reasons outlined above — deterrence, national pride, international prestige. And that is apt to cause a confrontation with Israel, whose own nuclear arsenal has been one of the world's worst-kept secrets.

"What I worry about is that there will come a point where Iran's nuclear program looks just about there and I think that's the point at which Israel will decide to do something about it,'' Cornish says. "And that's the point at which the Mideast is massively destabilized.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

Is deterrence losing its allure in arms race? 07/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 3:40pm]
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