July 14, 2011 | The New York Times

Too Much Mr. Nice Guy

WASHINGTON — There are three ways in which I believe recent decisions by the Obama administration are, unintentionally, actually fostering the proliferation of nuclear weapons rather than constraining them.

When judging the various policies President Obama has put forth in recent weeks to move toward zero nuclear weapons, we should bear in mind the old dictum of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — to really understand the law, “look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict.”

First, the president and others have proposed to enhance nonproliferation by sequestering nuclear material into one international depository. The idea is that those who need enriched uranium for peaceful means can obtain it from this facility as needed if they promise not to continue down the path of making weapons-grade material. More advanced reactor design may someday lower the proliferation risk. But this is also in the future.

We should not look at how the current nonproliferation regime would work through the eyes of, say, the Irish. We should look at it through the eyes of the governing powers in Iran and North Korea or like regimes who are inclined to secretly pursue weapons-grade material. In the world we live in, they are entirely capable of working hard to exploit the current regime or a future one in pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty as it currently exists grew out of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s. It actually encourages countries that obtain nuclear reactors to produce electricity to also enrich uranium. The problem is that if a country enriches uranium up to 3 percent, which is suitable to generate electricity, it has done nearly three-quarters of the work needed to move along the road to 90 percent enrichment, which is what is required to make a bomb.

Once a country reaches that higher level of enrichment, the weapons are the relatively easy part. A simple “shotgun” device like the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima is unfortunately, quite easy to design and construct. (That is why the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had halted its effort to build a nuclear weapon was deceptive. It gave the impression that the Iranians had halted what was most important to get to the nuclear bomb threshold — enriching uranium. But they were doing that in spades. They had possibly merely halted weapons design work.)

Either by withdrawing from the NPT — and thus avoiding monitoring — or by secretly placing their facility in a mountain, Iran or like-minded regimes elsewhere can process enough low-enriched uranium up to the 90 percent enrichment level it needs for a weapon.

The first Iranian bomb doesn’t have to be that sophisticated. Something that goes boom and sends a mushroom cloud up in the northern Iranian desert — even if it would not fit into the nose cone of a Scud — would still make Iran a nuclear power.

That would change the world.

Like Iran, other countries — including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia — say they want “peaceful” nuclear power for electricity. Given their vast oil resources, that is patent nonsense. They want a reactor in order to get on the road to highly enriched uranium and bomb material.

If we persist in sponsoring nuclear energy exports from the United States as well as other countries so that nations can have the technology for today’s light-water reactors — which gets them into the fuel cycle — we will become the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear weapons.

If the United States is helping spread light-water reactors and thus enriched uranium around the world in the name of peaceful atomic energy, it is creating a huge and dangerous problem.

Second, President Obama’s “Nuclear Posture Review,” which seeks to limit the circumstances in which the United States might use nuclear weapons, embodies hesitancy with respect to deterrence.

Some of the allies who once could rely on the United States to protect them from attack through “extended deterrence” may now doubt whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella still covers them. If, under Obama’s new policy, an ally is attacked by biological weapons, the United States is going to have to do a study to first see if whoever attacked is observing the NPT or not, since we will not now hit back with nukes if the attackers belong to the NPT and are not in violation of it.

The idea is that if the United States just continually takes steps in good faith to clarify and reduce the circumstances in which we would use nuclear weapons to protect our allies, then the world may progress toward being nuclear-free.

However, the incentives could work just the opposite way. Some friends and allies who felt protected under America’s nuclear umbrella are now going to start planning alternatives “just in case.”

Right after the North Korean nuclear test, a Japanese official was asked if that test meant Japan would move to nuclear weapons. They do, after all, have tons of plutonium available from their nuclear energy program. “No,” he said, “we have the mutual security treaty with the United States and we trust the Americans…. But,” he added, “if we decided to have a nuclear weapon it would take less than 200 days to produce it.”

Third, as a result of President Obama’s new policies, it won’t be just our worried allies who might move toward obtaining their own nuclear weapons, but our enemies as well. The United States has gone from something like 8,000 deployed weapons a decade ago to around 2,000 now. We are at present engaged in reducing another few hundred.

I haven’t heard anybody in Syria or Burma saying, “Hey, that means we will never need nuclear weapons.” There’s one thing Osama bin Laden has said that is true: When people look at a strong horse and a weak horse, they like the strong horse better.

From the standpoint of a Syria, Iran or North Korea, the fact that the United States is holding out the dream of zero nuclear weapons and forswearing modernization even as they progress toward their own weapons makes the U.S. look more like the weak horse.

For these reasons, I’m afraid that enemies of the United States, some of whom have relations with terrorist groups, will be more, not less, inclined to move toward obtaining nuclear weapons.

In my judgment, we are not being smart about proliferation by moving in the direction President Obama has taken. Proliferation is going to be more, not less, of a problem.

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