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Debate This: The Collapse of Bush's Nuclear Strategy

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This article was co-authored by Joe Cirincione and Jon Wolfsthal

It is not just U.S. economic policy that is in crisis. News from Iran and North Korea this week highlights the collapse of US efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month that the Bush administration will leave the global nonproliferation "situation . . . in far better shape than we found it." Would it were true. The next president will inherit a far more dangerous nuclear world than that President Bush found in January 2001.

Every proliferation danger take on by the Bush administration, with the sole exception of Libya, is worse today than when President Bush took office. North Korea and Iran have advanced their nuclear programs far more than in previous administrations; thousands of Russian nuclear weapons remain ready to launch on 15 minutes notice; the global levees built over the past 40 years to hold back a nuclear flood are at the breaking point; and the threat of nuclear terrorism is more dire than ever. A bipartisan panel concluded this month that seven years after 9/11, the government has made only limited progress toward preventing a nuclear, biological or chemical terrorist attack.

Serial Failure

In 2001, North Korea had perhaps enough material for 1-2 nuclear bombs and its nuclear program was frozen in place. Today, North Korea could have up to a dozen nuclear weapons, Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 and now claims it is a nuclear weapon state. Previously encouraging negotiations to re-freeze the program are again faltering from mismanagement.

In 2001, Iran had no centrifuges producing enriched uranium, was at least a decade away from any nuclear weapon capability and was hemmed in by the successful U.S. policy of dual containment (over Iran and Iraq). Today, Iran has 6000 centrifuges and is developing the means to produce nuclear weapons. America is bogged down in Iraq while Iran is on the march.

In 2001, the risk of nuclear terrorism was serious. Now it is even more severe. Efforts to secure and eliminate nuclear weapon and materials from terrorist theft in Russia and other nations are behind schedule. Al Qaeda is as strong or stronger than seven years ago.

In 2001, nuclear-armed Pakistan was actively exporting nuclear technology. Secretary Rice claims Pakistan's smuggling is over but there is scant evidence to back up this claim. The network continues importing to supply Pakistan's nuclear program, and the suppliers in many foreign countries are still free to supply others. No senior figure has been punished and US officials have never even questioned the head of the ring, A.Q. Khan. Worse, Osama bin Laden now lurks inside a destabilized Pakistan, ready to pursue nuclear assets should the government splinter.

Passing the Nuclear Buck

The record of failure includes multilateral efforts. The Bush administration's abandonment of key treaty obligations and contempt for binding agreements has left the global nuclear regime in tatters. Discord between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states has never been worse. No progress has been made on verifiable agreements to end the production of nuclear materials for weapons and to ban nuclear tests for all time. The US-Russia START arms reduction treaty will expire next year, leaving no verifiable, binding agreement in place for the first time since before détente in the 1970s. The administrations claims as its biggest "success" a sweetheart deal with India that aids that country's nuclear bomb program but undercuts broader nonproliferation efforts.

The core of the Bush doctrine was the idea that military-backed regime change was the way to prevent proliferation. Iraq was the first application of this strategy and its most devastating failure. This has stayed the hand of those who would repeat the strategy with Iran and other countries. Indeed, the he greatest successes of the administration have come where Secretary Rice broke from this strategy. Libya abandoned its nuclear program only when - over the opposition of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - direct negotiations were used to change a regime's behavior rather than force a change in the actual regime. The total failure in North Korean policy was reversed in 2006 only after Rice convinced President Bush to negotiate with Pyongyang, a process they are now bungling. But beyond these two cases, any progress--let alone successes--are hard to find.

With time running out, President Bush has passed the nuclear buck to his successor. With common sense and a clear understanding of what went wrong with the Bush policy, perhaps he will do better. He can't do much worse.

Joseph Cirincione is President of Ploughshares Fund and Jon B. Wolfsthal is Senior Fellow at CSIS. They are the authors of Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats.