Nuclear shell game

The US continues to pursue a policy it the Bush administration says will end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But while the agreement is hammered out, Israel strikes targets inside Syria that, according to the international rumor mill, were of a nuclear nature and of a North Korean origin.

What is going on here, and what does it mean to the future of nuclear proliferation? Jim Hoagland and Stanley Kurtz are both working on these questions from different ends, and a trio of Democrat thinkers present a depressing display of scenarios and responses. John Bolton, the Bush administration’s vilified but effective anti-proliferation expert, suggests that there may be an inspections shell game going on.

The implications may be more serious than that.

Suppose Iran follows North Korea and declares via a test or other means that it’s a full fledged nuclear state. Suppose further that Syria, now largely a client of Iran, announces something along the same lines. Suppose a few months go by, and then the US is attacked with a nuclear weapon in one or more of its cities.

North Korea, Iran and Syria are all hostile states and all of them have longstanding relationships with terrorism. All three of them would have been declared nuclear states. Any of the three could be the source of the weapon that was used against us. Or, of course, the weapon or weapons could have come from other sources–Russian scientists or labs (rogue or otherwise), Pakistani or Indian sources, you name it.

The likeliest fountainhead of a nuclear attack on the US would naturally be Iran, given its bellicosity in Iraq and its leadership’s stated goals of destroying us en route to destroying Israel. But a diffusion of nuclear technology among US enemies means plausible deniability for all of those enemies. If North Korea, Iran and Syria are all declared nuclear states, which one do we hit after we’re hit? Can we justify hitting all three? Will Russia and China stand by if we do?

We don’t know what the Syrians intended to do with whatever it was that the Israelis destroyed. We do know that the Syrians don’t act without Iranian acquiescence these days, and we do know that the North Koreans were involved. That puts the three of them together in this deal, whatever it was. The Syrians would have to know that any major attack, especially involving WMDs, on the Israelis would invite an extreme response from them and probably from us and probably our other allies as well, so to me it doesn’t seem all that likely that they were obtaining nukes from North Korea for the purpose of staging an unprovoked attack that obviously came from Syria. If you don’t obtain a weapon to use it in an attack, then why do you obtain it?

You might obtain a weapon to hand off to an ally so they will attack an enemy, and given Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah (and new Syrian construction projects in the Golan Heights), that shouldn’t be ruled out even though such an attack would invite Syria’s own destruction. You might obtain a weapon to convince someone else not to attack you. Or you might obtain a weapon to confuse your enemies when someone allied to you uses a similar weapon. Such confusion can lead to paralysis, and if the US is paralyzed by indecision after we’re hit on our own soil, then the world will be on fire shortly.