Outside editorial: Our only chance is to halt spread of nuclear arms

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2007

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

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Trivia question: When was the last time the United States came within two minutes of a nuclear attack? If you guessed sometime around the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, think again. It was 1995, when Russia mistook a Norwegian rocket test for a U.S. submarine-launched missile. Luckily, decades of well-practiced safeguards averted disaster.

Today, those safeguards offer much less comfort because nuclear-weapons technology is spreading to countries with minimal appreciation of concepts such as restraint and mutually assured destruction.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is in a state of military emergency. Iran is on the brink of attaining nuclear bomb components, and Western proliferation experts say Saudi Arabia probably will follow suit. Nuclear-armed Israel recently attacked a Syrian site rumored to contain some kind of nuclear facility.

On this side of the globe, it wasn't until 1997 that Brazil ratified the international Non-Proliferation Treaty and formally ended its nuclear arms race with Argentina. Even so, Brazil's leaders haven't quite let go of the dream. In 2003, the candidate who became Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, expressed what many in developing countries feel about the shortcomings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: "If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?"

In January, former Sen. Sam Nunn and former Cabinet secretaries George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and William Perry called for reviving the goal of universal nuclear disarmament. That audacious idea, first proposed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, deserves serious consideration.

These are not the musings of crazed leftist peaceniks. They are some of the most level-headed, conservative and pragmatic leaders of modern times who, coincidentally, helped bring about another once-inconceivable achievement: ending the Cold War.

Today's world is hardly safer because the Cold War is over, nor is it getting easier to convince countries with nuclear aspirations that they shouldn't head down that road. As long as Israel has the bomb, Iran will want one. And when Iran gets it, Saudi Arabia will want one.

For the United States, the nuclear deterrent is growing weaker because the rogue elements most likely to attack us are less afraid of American retaliation. A nuclear counterattack by the United States is not feasible against an amorphous, non-state actor such as al-Qaeda.

Coercion did not work to make North Korea disarm, and it shows little promise against Iran. What does work is negotiation - provided we have something to put on the table that countries like Iran can take seriously. And that's where the idea of global nuclear disarmament merits discussion. With so many enemies in the world, the United States has the most to gain by calling for the start of an international dialogue to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race.

We're not naive enough to think the world will suddenly engage in a group hug, sing Kumbaya and immediately disarm. But only fools and madmen would argue that today's gradual spread of nuclear weaponry is somehow the solution to making the world a more stable place.

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