When Good Nukes Turn Bad: What Will Washington Do?

There are so many things to worry about or get indignant over that the United States’ agreement to help India build civilian nuclear-power plants didn’t get the attention it deserved. India, as its prime minister announced in 1998, is a nuclear power. It became one by secretly building a nuclear device and setting it off underground. American law forbids helping any nation that does that, but Condoleezza Rice and the administration have promised aid to India anyway.

The Bush people had two motives for this. They wanted India to vote in favor of the International Atomic Energy Agency referring the Iranian nuclear quarrel to the U.N. Security Council. Their other motive was China.

The administration is worried—as it should be—that the Iranians, who teeter-totter on the question of whether to build a nuclear device, will finally go ahead and make one. There is already one Muslim nation, Pakistan, with a bomb, and Washington doesn’t want another. (Apparently, a Hindu bomb is O.K.)

The U.S.-India trade worked this time, but the vote had little effect on the Iranians, save to inspire an announcement that they would discontinue construction on a $21 billion natural-gas pipeline to India if the Indians continued to vote against Iran. We shall have to wait and see whether the Indians will choose the pipeline over the American nuclear electrical-generation plant.

That there might be altogether too many atomic bombs in the world, regardless of the religious background of the nations having them, is not of great import in Washington. It’s bad guys with bombs we worry about. Good guys with them are cool. The hitch is that good guys do not always stay good, as was the case with Iran, which put its first foot on the path to nuclear power thanks to the United States, back in the days when the Shah ran the country from the Peacock Throne. Then the Muslims got power and the Shah got the boot—but the atomic plant was still there.

It wasn’t so long ago that India was not on the good-guys list. During the Cold War, India was neutral but leaning toward the Soviets. With the demise of communism in Russia and its former satellites and the rise of the terrorism problem, India signed up as a good guy. At the moment, Washington seems convinced that New Delhi will be on our side forever because of India’s nervousness about China—but forever can work out to be about eight or nine years in politics, national or international.

As of now, even with the bomb, India is not much of a threat, since its ability to drop it on somebody is probably very limited. In a pinch, it might be able to decimate Karachi or Islamabad in Pakistan, but its reach is no greater than that. Not that there’s much comfort to be derived from such a state of affairs, since the Pakistanis would probably be able to retaliate in kind, thanks at least in small part to the assistance we have provided them.

Things change. Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that thousands of Indians would be answering our telephones, much less that they would be writing our computer programs and transplanting our hearts? It wasn’t so long ago that we considered the whole subcontinent a hopeless basket case that would never be able to earn its living. Now others are wondering if the United States will ever again be able to earn as much as it spends.

It is safe to assume that the Indians will be adept at all aspects of high-tech warfare soon enough without our help. They are getting more than a sufficiency of assistance in this regard from the French and the Russians. In maneuvers with the U.S. Air Force, the Indians—flying the new Russian-made Sukhoi-30 MKI’s—came out ahead of American F-16s, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

This development should please Washington, inasmuch as it indicates that India can be a powerful ally in any showdown with China; whether it will be is another question. In the event that the United States finds itself in armed conflict with mainland China over Taiwan, the odds that India will jump in and fight with us can’t be much better than 50-50. Playing nuclear nicey-nice with India vis-à-vis China is a reversion to 19th- and 20th-century balance-of-power diplomacy, which didn’t work very well in the past and could be yet more catastrophic in today’s world.

The people who brought us Iraq are thinking along these lines already. Their seminars are hot at it, trying to determine the real size of Chinese military expenditures as they measure the threat from the potential new superpower. War is not yet in the air, but their apprehension verges on menace. If the terrorist threat were to abate, the warnings against Chinese power would reach earsplitting levels.

War, or even the breaking-off of commercial relations with China, would involve many hardships here. It would not be like Iraq, where we sent a couple of hundred thousand of our people to fight while the rest of us forgot about them and got on with the business of getting rich. Any severing of relations with China would bring with it empty shelves and bankruptcy for Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other major retailers who would have nothing to sell. Wal-Mart’s demise may be something of a blessing, but the rupture with China would leave us barefoot and naked. Considering all the things we no longer make but buy from the Chinese, it might be in our interest to stop growling at them. Of course, we could go back to trying to do for ourselves, but a nation as touchy-feely, sensitive and self-absorbed as narcissistic America is not a nation to sew its own clothes.

We, however, continue to make our own bombs. The National Nuclear Security Administration (they stick the word “security” in everything), the people who make the big boppers, are currently at work on a variety of new nuclear weapons (like the “bunker buster”) for “21st-century threats”—as if the almost $6 trillion spent on them already in the last century isn’t sufficient.

The push to augment what was supposed to be a diminishing inventory of nuclear weapons prompted Carol Giacomo to write in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “The formidable U.S. stockpile, and the highly visible role it continues to play in U.S. security posture, has done nothing to slow or reverse the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. To the contrary, the U.S. arsenal and the Bush administration’s plans for augmenting and enhancing it have been cited as justification by both countries for their aggressive and thus far unyielding postures.”

Somewhat more broadly, a policy that doesn’t aim for the complete dismantling of all nuclear weapons—including our own—has little chance of gaining the cooperation it must have to succeed. Even when the United States was much more dominant economically and politically than it is now, the rest of the world could not be persuaded to live with an American nuclear monopoly. There is some hope that all powers may be induced, under some kind of inspection system, to expunge all nuclear weapons; there is none that the world can be shaped so only we and our friends possess them.