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Bolton's Nuclear Risk

This column from The American Prospect was written by Wade Boese.
During his four-year tenure as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton prided himself on his frank manner, mistrust of legally binding international agreements, and zealous aversion to any constraints on U.S. freedom of action. But although Bolton can point to a few successes on his watch, his uncompromising mindset prevented some potential nonproliferation breakthroughs. His legacy as he seeks confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is largely one of jilted and discarded treaties, offended diplomatic counterparts, and lingering proliferation dangers that the Bush administration refused to confront directly.

After assuming his post in May 2001, Bolton wasted little time in stamping his imprint on the administration's arms-control approach. In July, the administration rejected an agreement (then six years in the making) to deter and detect cheating on a treaty banning biological weapons and opposed more stringent worldwide restrictions on small arms. Bolton argued that the measures would have infringed too much on the United States or done little to dissuade and catch cheaters. The administration would return to these arguments in July 2004 for objecting to formal verification provisions for a proposed treaty to ban production of two key ingredients for building nuclear weapons.

Bolton delivered the U.S. positions in his characteristically blunt and uncompromising fashion. He shocked U.S. allies with a vehement warning against resurrecting the biological-weapons treaty measures by reportedly pronouncing them as "dead, dead, dead."

In the course of spurning the anti–biological weapons proposal, Bolton unveiled what would become another hallmark of his approach: "naming names." Departing from past diplomatic practice, Bolton accused countries by name of pursuing biological weapons. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea were the alleged guilty parties. In Iraq's case, Bolton asserted, "The existence of Iraq's program is beyond dispute."

U.S. arms inspectors scouring the country after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, however, found no evidence that Iraq had actively pursued biological weapons in the past several years. Bolton's allegations about Libya also have gone unverified following Libya's December 2003 renunciation of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

The scuttling of biological-weapons and small-arms measures, however, was only a prologue to Bolton's and the administration's top arms-control priority: freeing the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which barred nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missile attacks.

After Bolton spent several months unsuccessfully trying to convince Russia to mutually "move beyond" the treaty, President George W. Bush announced in December 2001 that the United States would withdraw from the treaty in order to pursue missile defenses. To be sure, the worst-case scenarios of a renewed arms race with Russia and China envisioned by opponents of treaty withdrawal have yet come to pass -- but neither has a working missile defense system, despite this administration's expenditure of approximately $35 billion on the effort.

Although Moscow criticized the withdrawal as a mistake, its reaction was more muted than predicted because of a U.S. concession to codify its planned nuclear force reductions in an agreement with Russia, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The Bush administration's preference had been for both sides to carry out reductions without a treaty. Bolton served as the chief U.S. negotiator for the accord, which amounts to little more than a gentlemen's agreement. Although SORT commits Washington and Moscow to reduce their operationally deployed strategic warheads by roughly two-thirds to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads apiece by the end of 2012, it doesn't require the destruction of a single warhead or delivery vehicle, lacks verification provisions, and contains no progress checkpoints before 2012.

Underlying both the ABM treaty withdrawal and the SORT negotiations was Bolton's and this administration's guiding precept of avoiding binding obligations on the United States, even at the cost of allowing threats to persist. Maintaining that flexibility also lies at the heart of the administration's fervent opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear testing, and strong support for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to intercept WMD and related shipments at sea, on land, and in the air.


Bolton, a chief architect of PSI, proudly notes that it is "an activity, not an organization." The initiative is a political arrangement; it doesn't empower countries to do anything that they did not already have the authority to do, nor does it place any requirements on how participants implement the initiative. This has left Bolton free to concentrate on halting arms shipments to Iran, North Korea, and Syria while paying less attention to established nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan, in line with the administration's general approach of caring more about who has the weapons than about the weapons themselves.

In the administration's telling, PSI was instrumental in exposing the A.Q. Khan nuclear black market network and Libya's abandonment of its WMD programs. Both ostensibly stemmed from an October 2003 PSI interception of a Khan shipment of nuclear contraband to Libya. Yet this interdiction may well have happened without PSI: The countries involved in the seizure had intercepted dangerous arms shipments before PSI's launch; Tripoli was already engaged in negotiations with London and Washington about coming clean; and the Khan network had been under surveillance for years.

The administration's treatment of Pakistan in light of Khan's proliferation exploits is particularly notable considering its attitude toward the recipients of Khan's wares. Despite the lenient treatment Khan received following his exposure and the Pakistani government's doubtless awareness of and profit from the black market's existence, the Bush administration has responded by rewarding Islamabad with a special ally status, billions in aid, and, most recently the promise of advanced U.S. combat aircraft.

Similarly, the administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks has failed to sufficiently boost direct U.S. support for safeguarding the former Soviet Union's vast weapons complex, which is generally viewed as the primary target for proliferators looking to buy or steal arms. While cutting the nuclear supply line at the source is less challenging and more reliable than intercepting it in transit, the Bush administration has only modestly, and often grudgingly, increased funding for the programs aimed at ameliorating this threat from roughly the $1 billion per year level inherited from the Clinton administration, despite a January 2001 bipartisan panel's recommendation to triple this amount.

Although most U.S. programs to help Russia eliminate or secure its excess weaponry and materials are run by the Departments of Defense and Energy, Bolton was entrusted with resolving a liability dispute with Moscow holding up a program to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-usable material. His failure to accomplish this task drew the rare fire of a fellow Republican. "If [Bolton] doesn't think it's important enough to solve ... then I submit that you ought to get somebody that can," declared Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) last June.

And on Iran and North Korea, the two most troubling nuclear aspirants, Bolton has achieved no clear successes. He has made no secret of his distaste for negotiating with these two countries or offering them incentives to abandon their nuclear ambitions and capabilities. Although the administration has often been divided between Bolton's camp and those who consider engagement potentially constructive, the hardliners have generally prevailed. Their success, however, has only yielded a mish-mash posture of saber-rattling and tentative engagement while the heavy lifting is left to China or the European Union. Since that approach won out, North Korea has been unfettered in its nuclear pursuits and declared that it now has nuclear weapons. The Europeans have apparently succeeded temporarily in halting Iran's most worrisome nuclear activities, but with talks the United States has largely watched from the sidelines.

When it comes to two of the world's leading proliferation dangers, the man and the administration that constantly insist that the United States must command the driver's seat have chosen to stay in the backseat. John Bolton, it seems, would rather risk a world of well-armed enemies than forge agreements to control the world's most dangerous weapons.

Wade Boese is the research director of the non-profit, non-partisan Arms Control Association.

By Wade Boese
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved