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To stop a nuclear terrorist
the West must give up
its nuclear weapons



November 30, 2001

LONDON - There are no points awarded for having seen this truck coming down the road. I first wrote about the likelihood of a group with no address getting its hands on a nuclear weapon in my column in the International Herald Tribune in 1975.

Likewise, those liberals who worried out loud for years about Afghanistan first being armed and then left to rot by the West or pointed out the dangers of letting the structures of the Soviet Union collapse without sufficient economic aid to ease the transition in a sensible and organised way, have gained precious little kudos with public opinion at large.

We are compelled to stand aside whilst the hardliners call the shots. If they go wrong and provoke a coup d'etat in Saudi Arabia or cause Pakistan's nuclear weapons to fall into the wrong hands or leave a residue of Arab hatred far deeper than existed before September 11th that combines to push Yasser Arafat aside in Palestine and supplants him with a militant leadership which will stop at nothing to destroy Israel, we will have had as much influence on the course of events as Bertrand Russell did languishing in jail for conscientiously objecting to the madness of the First World War.

But stop. I want to say one thing that I hope the conservatives might listen to because it is in their own interests as much as it is everyone else's. It is one minute to midnight but as long as it is true, as the CIA believes that it is as of this moment, that no terrorist group has yet manufactured a nuclear weapon there is still something that can be done. It is not to build an anti-missile defence, because as William Perry, the former U.S. secretary of defence argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a terrorist group is not going to use ballistic missiles to deliver its weapons. Neither is it to go to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein has as much interest as does the West in keeping the ultimate weapon out of the hands of uncontrollable, free-lance, terrorist groups that could decide from one day to the next that he is an apostate too.

It is to do more of what the Bush administration has already started to do - and which the Clinton administration miserably and unforgivably failed to do, so insouciant was the ex draft dodger about the danger of nuclear weapons- which is to unilaterally start to nuclear disarm. And then with the money saved launch a mammoth search operation to uncover and safeguard every bit of fissile material in the world.

At the summit with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, earlier this month President George Bush made the right first step. He announced a mammoth cut in nuclear weapons and asked the Russians to match it without a laborious treaty process. This indeed is the only way it can be done when time is so short. But the logic of his nuclear unilateralism needs to be followed through. If, indeed, as Mr Bush argues, Russia and the U.S. are no longer enemies, why do they need to point nuclear weapons at each other? The U.S. does not point them at Canada.

Let us get to the point. They are dangerous because an accidental or unauthorised launch is always possible and, as General George Lee Butler, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command in charge of America's nuclear forces, has argued, they are not needed because in reality they are not useable. And above all they destroy the most powerful argument against proliferation: that they are too dangerous for other nations to possess.

But what to do about those that already have got them? Let us not be so pessimistic. As Mr Perry reminds us, since the end of the Cold War four nations - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and South Africa - have given up their sizable arsenals and two others, Argentina and Brazil, have terminated their nuclear weapons programs. North Korea for its part has agreed to a nuclear freeze.

China in all likelihood would give up its nuclear weapons if Britain and France did. India probably would if China did and Pakistan would then be in no position to hold out. Israel would probably be the hardest nut to crack but if this move is combined with a massive effort by the U.S. to settle the Palestinian issue, which we know from Camp David is within the realms of the possible once Arafat knows the Israeli prime minister is strong enough to deliver on a deal (which Ehud Barak manifestly wasn't), then Israel can be prevailed upon to nuclear disarm too.

The money - and the energies - liberated must be spent on funding the cash-starved Russian nuclear industry both to disarm and to take better care of its fissile material, for that is clearly where the black market originates. Beyond that the missing material has to be tracked down before the clock hits midnight. Every sane nation has to be enlisted to mount the greatest police operation the world has ever seen. The combination of moral sanction set by a heroic, but nonetheless self-interested, example and the combined thoroughness of the world's police forces might yet save New York's Grand Central Station from a nuclear bomb left in a suitcase.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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