06/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Irrational Leaders and Nuclear Arms: A Response

Recently, I pointed out that the report of an FBI agent who interviewed Saddam for several months is very telling. It shows that policy makers and my colleagues are wrong when they argue that leaders of nations, such as North Korea and Iran, are rational, and hence can be trusted with nuclear arms. We are told that these leaders and others like them will never use such bombs because they are aware of the devastation which would soon follow. But, as detailed in the report, it turned out that Saddam greatly misjudged the situation he faced in 2003. His mistake did cost his country plenty, and he, of course, is not doing too well either. [previous post here]

In response to my short essay, several commentators pointed out that President Bush is the one who is irrational. However, this claim does not contradict my position; on the contrary, all it shows is that the world would be much safer if fewer nations had nuclear arms and if those who do have them gave up as many of them as we could induce them to.

Others claimed that I am trying to justify an attack on Iran. Actually, I argued the opposite. A lengthy quote follows (excerpted from my book, Security First, published by Yale University Press in mid-2007), which outlines how I believe we can come to terms with Iran without war and without more countries in the Middle East setting out to get nuclear weapons.

"As of mid 2006, the US has continued openly seeking regime change in both Iran and North Korea. We have long condemned the regime of the mullahs, barely acknowledged Iran's contributions to curbing Al Qaeda, and announced increased funding for Iranian groups that seek to undermine the mullah's reign. US opposition to Communist forms of government is well known and its condemnations of North Korea's violation of human rights could not be any harsher. In dealing with both nations, but especially with Iran, the military option for disposing of the regimes has repeatedly and often been discussed by the Bush Administration.

Both Iran and North Korea are reported to have sought non-aggression treaties or security guarantees from the West as part of a deproliferation deal. If these deals could be struck and faithfully carried out, they would in effect entail 'trading' deproliferation, verified by vigorous inspections and by denying these nations their own uranium enrichment facilities, with leaving their authoritarian regimes in place, subject only to internal challenges....

There is no way to determine a priori whether North Korea and Iran made these offers in good faith or merely to gain time in which to advance their nuclear programs. From their viewpoint, however, one can readily see why they would want such a deal. Both nations have military bases of the US and its allies on their borders. If the US and its allies were willing to remove these bases and provide international assurances that they would not directly attack these nations nor indirectly seek to subvert their regimes, one can see why these governments might consider an exchange of their nuclear weapons program for such guarantees. However, one can hardly expect them to seriously consider a deal that will also put the governing elites--and the form of regime they hold sacred--into play, which is exactly what regime change entails. It would be like demanding that Bush turn over the White House to Gore and replace the United States Constitution with the Shariah!

The implied deal I suggest, which would allow authoritarian regimes to be subject only to internal challenges in exchange for deproliferation and ending the support for terrorism, is less bitter than it seems. It would not mean that the West must engage in some kind of Faustian bargain and give up its liberal soul in exchange for security. Regime changes are coming on their own in Iran and in communist states--granted North Korea is lagging....

No matter how much money and effort the US and its allies expend, they could never make such nations into liberal democracies. As we have seen time and time again, the West can topple Saddam or the Taliban but it cannot install a regime that respects human rights and democracy in countries with little preparation for such polities. Hence, there is little to be lost and much to be gained by providing security guarantees and other international "rewards" in exchange for vigorous and verified deproliferation and the end of harboring, financing, and equipping Hezbollah and its ilk."

True, it may be tactically unwise to grant one's adversary what they most seek to gain with negotiations before the negotiations even start. Hence, one can fully favor the idea that the US should talk with its adversaries, but still leave the military option in the air--to be traded off during the give and take. One may well disagree with this tactic. However in either case, what we need is fewer nations with nuclear arms, not more wars.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations and The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). He can be contacted at