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Riding off into the twilight
on August 29, 2010
In this last volume of his breathtaking account of nuclear history, Richard Rhodes describes the post Cold War problems and hopes associated with nuclear weapons. The books bears many of Rhodes's trademarks- it is extremely well-researched and contains sharp portraits of the major players as well as fast-paced accounts of key events that make you feel as if you were there. Rhodes's abilities as a storyteller are still remarkable. This book is relatively slim and does not command the high-octane prose of Rhodes's masterpiece "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" but as usual, Rhodes's authoritative knowledge of nuclear matters provides many revelations and he has a novelist's eye for detail which keeps the reader hooked.
The book can roughly be divided into four parts. The first part concerns the first Gulf War and the dismantling of Iraq's nuclear infrastructure, the second part describes the race to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet republics after the fall of the Soviet Union, the third part briefly talks about South Africa's nuclear ambitions and and then in more detail about attempts to contain nuclear efforts by North Korea and the last part concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War and some final thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons. One striking omission in the book is Iran, and I think readers would have appreciated Rhodes's insightful thoughts on the Iranian nuclear problem.
The first part examines the troubling evidence in the 1980s that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear capability. Rogue Pakistani scientist A Q Khan had even tried to unsuccessfully sell Iraq a bomb design based on a Chinese weapon. At the same time that the US was providing aid and goodwill to Iraq to support it against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, it was also unearthing evidence in the form of dual-use equipment shipments and intelligence analysis that Iraq was pursuing enriched uranium. Interestingly, the technology that Iraq was using turned out to be electromagnetic separation, a primitive technology that the US did not initially believe would be used; for nations pursuing nuclear capability, separating uranium isotopes by using centrifuges is much more efficient. Yet electromagnetic separation is exactly the kind of technology that a relatively primitive and cash-strapped economy would pursue. This is a good example of how biases can lead to false conclusions in spite of supporting evidence. Later, Rhodes has pulse-racing accounts of searches for enrichment technology in Iraq conducted by the weapons inspectors of the IAEA and the UN. Even after the inspectors discovered evidence of enrichment in the form of equipment used for electromagnetic separation, this was not yet conclusive evidence of weapons building. Probably the most exciting moment was when, deep down in a small room in a basement, the inspectors discovered a report that did provide such evidence in the form of clear and detailed descriptions of materials and design for an implosion bomb.
The second part of the book deals with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the spirited and at times desperate race to acquire nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. There are many heroes in this story which stands as a model of bipartisan cooperation against a serious threat. Among these are David Kay, Hans Blix and Bob Gallucci who were nuclear inspectors and disarmament specialists. Probably the most prominent ones are the Democratic and Republican senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar who worked day and night to acquire funds from Congress to secure nuclear material and weapons from the three countries and have them transferred back to Russia. Concomitantly, Secretary of State James Baker hopped from one capital to another, urging the presidents of the new nations to sign the NPT and START using a combination of carrots (in the form of monetary rewards) and sticks (in the form of possible sanctions and threats from Russia). All three nations agreed that they were better off without nuclear weapons, and the result was a transfer of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons back to Russia. A third important and massive effort involved blending down the enriched uranium from Soviet weapons to reactor grade and shipping it back to the US for use in US nuclear reactors; Americans may be amused to know that about 10 percent of their current electricity derived from nuclear energy comes from nuclear weapons that their former foe had targeted against their cities. Curiously, the biggest reformer in this drama was President George H W Bush who orchestrated the largest arms reductions in history (he abolished entire classes of weapons, including missiles with multiple warheads and all ground-based weapons), and he needs to get much more credit for doing this than what has been given to him. Rhodes also describes the sense of wonder that directors of weapons labs in the US felt on meeting their Soviet counterparts for the first time, men and women who until then had been ghost-like figures in secret installations on the other side of the world, slated to possibly remain perpetually anonymous. When the director of Los Alamos Sigfried Hecker first traveled to the Soviet Union and met his counterpart Yuli Khariton, the man who had worked on Soviet atomic and hydrogen bombs since the beginning, the latter said, "I have been waiting for this moment all my life". Everybody involved knew that this was a new chapter in history.
In the third part Rhodes first briefly talks about the dismantling of South Africa's nuclear program, which is a fine lesson for nations wanting to eschew nuclear weapons. In case of South Africa, the same reasons- internal strife, border conflicts and international alienation because of the government's apartheid policies- that provoked the country to acquire weapons also encouraged them to give them up. An uglier reason was their fear in the 80s that the weapons might fall into the hands of the black government.
Rhodes then describes in detail the difficult relationship between the US and North Korea in the context of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Along the way, Rhodes also provides perspective by noting that the US had mercilessly bombed the North during the Korean War; since then the North Koreans have constantly been in a kind of perpetual state of war, surrounded by giant powers like Russia and China. It's also worth keeping in mind that the US had stationed hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea as a deterrent until about 1990. Although these actions by the US do not justify the North's nuclear efforts, they do explain the paranoia and deep sense of insecurity that has fueled North Korea's animosity towards the US. Again, there are heroes in this story, but one singled out by Rhodes is former President Jimmy Carter who went to North Korea of his own volition in 1994 and successfully mediated the Koreans' proposal to stop reprocessing in return for light water reactors; the consequence of this diplomacy was the so-called "Agreed Framework" to regulate North Korea's commercial nuclear program, which unfortunately broke down in 2003 in the face of North Korean non-compliance and disagreements. Since then, North Korea has always had to be kept on a tight leash and there have been several moments of tension between the two countries, but Rhodes's accounts make it clear how diplomacy has averted another Korean War. Rhodes also has succinct discussions of efforts to develop and implement a framework for the CTBT, which was signed by Clinton but unfortunately not ratified by the Senate.
The last part of the book concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War. This story has been told before but Rhodes tells it succinctly and well. Meticulous weapons inspections in Iraq between 1992 and 1998 had unearthed no evidence of a WMD capability, although Iraq had also not furnished clear documentation of the dismantling of its WMD capability. As Rhodes tells it, regime change had already been on the table, especially pushed by neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz but even contemplated by former Vice President Al Gore. But even after 9/11, it does not seem like Bush was thinking of attacking Iraq. However, as the record indicates, something changed in his thinking in the next two months, and invading Iraq became a concrete strategy in his mind. Rhodes thinks that a major reason for this shift in his thinking may have been the anthrax attacks which followed 9/11. It seems that these attacks really rammed the threat of terrorism home; at one point alarms even went off in the White House and Dick Cheney suspected that he himself may have been contaminated. Nonetheless, as is well-known now, Bush and his associates decided to invade Iraq fueled by the tried and tested strategy of threat-inflation and on evidence that was dubious at best. Rhodes clearly establishes the prevarications of the administration's claims about WMDs in Iraq, based on discredited reports about uranium shipments from Niger to Saddam (reports discredited even by the CIA) as well as Chinese imports of supposed aluminum tubes for centrifuges, which turned out to be parts for short-range rockets. At best Iraq was years behind the difficult goal of building a nuclear weapon, a goal which would have needed extensive operations of enrichment and processing which would most likely have been detected. No matter how you cut it, there was no concrete justification for invading Iraq except one based on ideology and belief. Bush also seriously damaged arms reduction efforts by withdrawing from the ABM treaty, by his belligerent rhetoric against North Korea (which withdrew from the NPT and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006) and Iran, by lifting sanctions on Pakistan (a particularly recalcitrant and prolific proliferator) and by agreeing to supply India (which had not signed the NPT) with nuclear-related equipment. And yet in the midst of this tragedy it is easy to miss Bush's one success in arms control in which he signed major arms reductions with Russia; these reductions brought down the number of warheads on US delivery vehicles from about 10,000 at the end of the Cold War to about 2600.
This brings us to the final, eloquent part of Rhodes's book where he talks about the possible abolishment of nuclear weapons. He describes the very serious problem of nuclear terrorism; in his view, while it may be very difficult for terrorists to use a sophisticated nuclear weapon, it may be much easier for them to acquire enough material for a crude explosive. Even state-owned nuclear weapons are susceptible to accident, miscalculation and misunderstanding. The bottom line is that as long as nuclear weapons are around, there is always a possibility that they may be used. The only, truly final solution for reducing the threat of nuclear weapons is to get rid of them. How do we achieve this? I would have appreciated more detail from Rhodes in this regard, but he describes promising developments. For one thing, simple laws of physics dictate that without nuclear material one cannot make nuclear weapons. So securing nuclear material is key and the Nunn-Lugar initiative has set a worthy bipartisan example for achieving this goal. Many recent initiatives to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons have also been refreshingly bipartisan. Efforts to ban nuclear testing have already been fine-honed for decades, and getting all nations on board the CTBT would mean a lot; in this context Rhodes singles out Australian diplomat Richard Butler and his Canberra Commission for special praise. The fact is that, in spite of nuclear proliferation, there have been hundreds of nations which have found it prudent not to develop nuclear weapons for various reasons (not the least of which is their expense; according to Rhodes it costs the US 50 billion dollars just to maintain its current stockpile of weapons), so there is hope.
In the end though, only political will, strong leadership and international cooperation can rid the world of these terrible weapons. At some point, owning a nuclear weapon needs to become a crime. It is absolutely necessary to stop regarding these weapons as partisan, parochial concerns which can be leveraged to score political points in elections. To underscore this point, Rhodes recounts a fascinating idea put forth by the Scottish writer Gil Elliot in his book "Twentieth Century Book of the Dead". Elliot talks about the international efforts to prevent and cure infectious disease and believes that war should similarly be treated as an international anathema that is to be abolished. Efforts to eradicate disease through public health campaigns crossed boundaries and saw even countries who were otherwise very hostile towards each other mutually cooperating. This was because disease was not seen as some other country's problem but as a common threat. Because of their sheer destructive power, nuclear weapons similarly pose a common threat to all of humanity. Rhodes says that only when nuclear weapons are similarly and completely depoliticized to the extent that infectious diseases are, only when the world sees them not as instruments of aggression and patriotism owned by specific nations but as a common scourge that threatens all of humanity irrespective of our political leanings and differences, only then will we all work together to abolish them.