May 4, 2003
By BILL KELLER
In each of the major cities of Pakistan, you can find a strange monument depicting a saw-toothed mountain and a poised missile.
The mountain is a peak in the Chagai Hills, in whose granite depths Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests five years ago. In the Islamabad version of this tableau, which sits on a traffic island amid a congestion of garishly ornamented trucks, three-wheeled taxis and donkey carts, the mountain is bathed at night in a creepy orange light, as if radioactive. The camouflage-dappled missile is called the Ghauri, and it has a range of about 900 miles. If the chronic tensions along the border between Pakistan and India should ever escalate to a nuclear war, the Ghauri would try to deliver at least one of Pakistan's warheads onto New Delhi. Lest anyone miss the point, the missile was named for a 12th-century Afghan warrior whose most memorable accomplishment was conquering part of India.
A couple of things about these odd shrines are worth considering. The first is the way Pakistan flaunts its nuclear potency in such a proud, even provocative public display. Traditionally most countries that possess nuclear weapons have maintained a discretion about them, befitting their stigma and mystique. Israel has never even publicly acknowledged the existence of its program, nor did the white rulers of South Africa before they quietly decided to dismantle their arsenal in 1989. Pakistan, too, used to be coy about whether it possessed nuclear weapons, but in the past few years the Pakistanis have decided that their weapons are more useful when brandished. Useful, first, in warding off the superior conventional army of India, but useful too as a nationalist proclamation and a beacon to Islamic pride.
A second salient fact about these roadside sculptures is that the Ghauri is, beneath its Pakistani cosmetics, a copy of a North Korean missile called the Nodong. A strong suspicion of American and Indian intelligence services is that Pakistan paid for this missile -- which can deliver a nuclear warhead -- in part by giving North Korea vital tidbits of information about the production and testing of nuclear explosives. Pakistani officials deny this categorically, but not very convincingly in the view of more impartial experts. (The father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan, is known to have paid at least 13 visits to North Korea.) If the suspicion is justified, then Pakistan -- which lives at the busiest crossroads of Islamic terror -- is the first nation to have bartered away nuclear weapons technology on the black market.
What Pakistan has unwittingly memorialized is a new nuclear era. A dozen years after the Soviet Union crumbled, nuclear weapons have not receded to the margins of our interest, as many expected. On the contrary, in this second nuclear age, such weapons govern our foreign policy more than they have in decades.
We have been slow to wake up to this new order, but now we are in it with a bang. We just fought a war that began as a drive to disarm one tyrant with nuclear ambitions and to demonstrate America's resolve to others. There are so many ways to think about the war we have just concluded in Iraq that it is easy to overlook this one: it is the most audacious attempt to change the rules of arms control in half a century.
Nuclear proliferation is at the heart of our confrontations with North Korea and Iran, two states for whom the message of Iraq was intended. Proliferation is a persistent irritant in our relations with Russia and China, has contributed to America's official disappointment with the United Nations and is intimately intertwined with the consuming issue of our time, terrorism.
The first nuclear age, which began over Hiroshima, eventually matured into a great standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite a number of nuclear near misses during that confrontation's first 20 years -- the Berlin showdown, the Cuban missile crisis -- the two rivals slowly brought their fearsome weapons under control and negotiated a protocol for living with them. During the same period, other potential nuclear states were restrained -- by treaties, by the threat of sanctions and other diplomatic pressures, by the superpowers' semi-monopoly on technology and by the fact that weak nations could huddle under the nuclear protection of one bloc or the other. The alliances, Soviet and American, had a strong interest in limiting the number of states with nuclear weapons, and they generally kept things in check. In its way, the cold war worked.
In hindsight, you could say that the closing act of the first nuclear age took place in January 1994, when Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited in the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was the last of the former Soviet states to relinquish its unconventional weapons, and probably the only one with the technological wherewithal to override Moscow's centralized control systems and become an overnight nuclear state. But at that time, possession of nuclear weapons was still understood as a serious impediment for a country seeking admission into the Western world. If you wanted to join the party, you checked your nukes at the door. The first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration bargained hard for the surrender of Ukraine's weapons, promising abundant financial aid and a military partnership that Ukrainians hoped would lead to American security guarantees.
However, an attentive listener back then might have sensed that the old verities were beginning to lose their power. Ukrainian nationalists (including many Ukrainian-Americans) raised a serious clamor for retaining the weapons. Why should Russia, which has a history of throwing its weight around, be a nuclear power and not Ukraine? Who will take us seriously without the Bomb? Some of the diplomats who negotiated the end of Ukraine's nuclear interlude are not so sure that today their appeal would successfully withstand the riptide of nationalism.
The second nuclear age was heralded by a rumble under the Rajasthani desert in 1998, as India's newly elected Hindu nationalist government detonated five test blasts. Two weeks later Pakistan followed suit. India's tests were a declaration of national pride, a sign of anxiety about its rival China and a caution to Pakistan. Pakistan's tests were more simply reciprocal. Announcing them, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared proudly, ''Today, we have settled the score.''
Both countries were known to be developing nuclear weapons, but they came out of the closet brazenly. These were nuclear weapons with a regional agenda, unveiled with a populist flourish. And they had a religious subtext -- the Hindu bomb, the Islamic bomb -- that has become more acute as fundamentalists of the two religions gain ground in their respective countries.
India and Pakistan were, by many estimations, the forerunners of a new kind of nuclear power, ahead of the field but hardly alone. Iraq may be solved, but North Korea is regarded as already nuclear. Iran is believed to be moving rapidly toward acquiring nukes. Libya and Syria are watched with suspicion. Experts talk speculatively of the ripple effects -- of a nuclear Iran inspiring nuclear lust in Egypt, Turkey, even Saudi Arabia, of a nuclear North Korea prompting a breakout in Japan, South Korea, even Taiwan.
Long experience without catastrophic mishap has made us, perhaps, a little complacent about nuclear weapons. The Indian and Pakistani tests caused a media frisson and some halfhearted sanctions, but the sense of urgency quickly passed. They were just tests, after all, and half a world away, and everyone knows using nuclear weapons at war is -- the word is on every diplomat's save-get key -- unthinkable.
But each new country that gets nuclear weapons multiplies the potential for a war involving a nuclear state. And numbers are not the worst of it. The original nuclear era was primarily a boxers' clinch of two great industrial powers, each claiming to represent an ideology of global appeal. The second is about insecure nations, most of them led by autocrats, most of them relatively poor, residing in rough neighborhoods, unaligned with and resentful of Western power.
The arsenals of the first nuclear age were governed by elaborate rules and sophisticated technology designed to prevent firing in haste. Some of the newcomers are thought to have far less rigorous command and control, raising fears that the lines of authority could be abandoned in the heat of battle. The newer nuclear states, after all, are dealing with enemies close at hand -- minutes away by missile -- in conflicts that could unfold quickly.
Moreover, there is the danger of third-world weapons or weapons-grade material falling into the hands of terrorists -- the one enemy we know would probably not hesitate to use them. Sympathy for Taliban-style fanaticism thrives in the lower ranks of Pakistan's military, for example. American and Pakistani officials, and experts in rival India, say that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has Pakistan firmly under his control, but nobody imagines that the situation is foolproof. Or that Musharraf will endure forever.
''Then it's not a question of one or two warheads being diverted,'' said a senior administration official. ''It's a question of a couple dozen Islamic bombs.''
Even if a rogue state does not share weapons with terrorists, a nuclear Iran or North Korea or an extremist-led Pakistan could provide sanctuary to terrorists, and the United States might hesitate to pursue killers into a nuclear-armed refuge. Add to this the fear that emotional temperatures can spike when patriotism is tied up with national or religious identity. These are the same passions that have, at their worst, fed outbreaks of genocide, sectarian atrocities and suicide bombing. At the Wagha border crossing, where I left India for Pakistan, soldiers of the two countries stage a ritual every day at dusk. They shoulder rifles, compose their faces in warlike resolve and march straight at one another, stopping only when they are close enough to smell one another's breath. It is purely symbolic, but the symbolism is not abstract. India and Pakistan have fought three wars -- and India has mobilized for war twice in the past 18 months, following terrorist attacks by Kashmiri militants based in Pakistan.
In the first nuclear age, centered on Europe and the cold war, we were on familiar ground. The second, though, is happening across a swath of Asia and is steeped in historic grudges, suppressed national pride and regional ambitions that the West poorly understands, let alone controls.
Henry Sokolski, who was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's deputy for nonproliferation policy in the first Bush administration, recalls leaving office in 1993 brimming with optimism. Communism was dead. Rampant democracy and rising prosperity would dispel the appetite for these awful weapons. ''We had worked to end nuclear programs in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine,'' said Sokolski, who now runs a conservative antiproliferation center. ''It seemed all these countries were drifting away from tyrannical, authoritarian rule, and I thought: There's the formula! It's working!''
The optimists were soon disillusioned, with regard to both the proliferation of democracy and the proliferation of weapons. With the demise of the two big alliances, countries that had existed in the shadows of the superpowers were left to settle their own scores and to see to their own security.
For India, which conducted a nuclear test in 1974 but left the program on idle, the end of the cold war meant a rising profile for China, a longtime antagonist -- and a nuclear power. China, in turn, was helping arm Pakistan. And in this newly disordered world, nuclear weapons were a way to announce that India intended to be a player. ''Whatever Indians say officially, there is a status attached to the bomb,'' said Kanti Bajpai, a political scientist and nuclear critic, when I rode out to see him on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. ''The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are all nuclear powers.''
For an authoritarian regime with designs on its neighbors -- Iraq, say -- nuclear weapons could prevent the United States from coming to the rescue of allies. ''It is a real equalizer if you're a pissant little country with no hope of matching the U.S. militarily,'' remarked one Bush administration official. ''What if Milosevic had had nuclear weapons during the Kosovo crisis?''
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of an international best seller on the Taliban, argues that some autocrats sought nuclear weapons not to protect their countries but to secure their own holds on power.
''In the 90's, it became an issue of regime preservation and survival,'' Rashid said over tea at his home in Lahore. Outside, hired men carrying automatic rifles guarded the driveway, the price Rashid pays for speaking as freely as he does. ''Many of the Muslim states were client states of one bloc or another. Suddenly the props that the ruling elites leaned on are gone.''
These autocrats dared not risk their authority by opening up their societies. Some looked instead to nuclear weapons as a way of demonstrating their own importance to the fate of the nation.
''Yes, Pakistan had the India problem, but one of the big justifications to go nuclear was that somehow going nuclear would free us of any other obligation to our own people,'' Rashid asserted.
Another reason nuclear weapons spread was that they could. In the first nuclear age, the secrets and ingredients of bomb-making were closely held. But the end of the cold war choked off political support for controls on the export of sophisticated technology and made borders more porous. In the second nuclear age, globalization seems to have made nuclear weaponry just another unsavory but probably uncontainable technology, like Internet porn. Poor countries can even finance their nukes by exporting other military material, as North Korea has done.
''Demand creates the market,'' George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, told Congress in February, and ''knowledgeable nonstate purveyors'' are increasingly available to supply it, leapfrogging the tedious pace of old-fashioned nuclear programs. ''The 'domino theory' of the 21st century may well be nuclear,'' Tenet said.
Many critics, especially abroad, say the U.S. has played midwife to the new nuclear age by a lack of vigilance bordering on complicity. We may not be a peddler of nuclear weapons technology or a flouter of international protocols. But we are guilty of hypocrisy, bad example, permissiveness and carelessness. In the world's graduation from the first nuclear age to the second, we have been a great enabler. The United States has tended to look the other way when nuclear offenders happened to be useful allies. This is inarguably the case in Pakistan. We made little effort to shut down Pakistan's nuclear program during the 1980's, when the Pakistanis were valued partners in aiding Afghanistan's insurgency against the Soviet Union. We knew China was selling missiles to Pakistan, but we were also courting China to offset the Soviets.
Although we have leaned recently on President Musharraf to make sure Pakistani nuclear capabilities stay home, we are reluctant to lean too hard, because he is now an indispensable ally against terrorists. ''We are doing pretty much what we did in the 80's,'' conceded an American official who deals with South Asia. ''The exigencies change, but the dilemma is still the same. You need Pakistan for some reasons, and therefore you cut the Pakistanis more slack than is prudent.''
Whether this is bad policy or just playing the hand history deals is a hard question. It is easy to say we should get tough on countries that fail to toe the line on proliferation, but how tough is enough? Do we crack down on Pakistan to the point where we endanger Musharraf, and get a new Taliban in his place?
Some of our nuclear worries have grown because of a simple lack of attention. In 1994, President Clinton signed an agreement to supply North Korea with energy if it stopped reprocessing nuclear fuel into bomb-grade material. The deal averted a showdown, but afterward the Clinton administration -- diverted by other problems and intimidated by Congressional critics who said the deal was a sellout -- let things slide. Now, nine years later, the problem is back to haunt us.
Bush officials love to castigate Clinton, calling his North Korea deal appeasement. In fact, the agreement could have been a successful first step in defusing a North Korean threat, but it became an excuse to kick the problem down the road.
''The United States has trained Iranian engineers at M.I.T., winked at Israel and certainly in the case of North Korea prevaricated and not paid enough attention,'' said Sokolski, the former Defense aide. ''Is it all our fault? No. But no American administration has done enough, not by a long shot.''
he world of people who worry about nuclear weapons for a living is divided into two hostile camps, which sometimes seem more absorbed in fighting each other than in containing the spread of nuclear weaponry. The traditional arms controllers are advocates of treaties, export controls, international agencies and sanctions -- an elaborate regime intended to avert the spread and use of nuclear weapons. They will tell you that arms control has worked, that the handful of countries we worry about as nuclear pretenders is the same handful we worried about 20 years ago. The number of nuclear states has held at eight (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan), plus, it is now presumed, North Korea. And several countries (Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan) have backed away. The arms controllers say that what is needed now is to shore up those multilateral disciplines, fortify their enforcement and restore the sense of taboo surrounding these weapons. At the heart of their argument is a conviction that nuclear weapons, per se, are a hazard of a unique kind, and that part of discouraging their spread is a willingness to reduce our own arsenals -- at least to minimal levels, and ideally, in some future verifiable realm, to nothing.
Opposing the arms controllers is a new and ascendant camp, which asserts that the old constraints have broken down. Against the ineffectual diplomacy of traditional arms control, they offer a relatively coldblooded self-interest and confrontation most fulsomely demonstrated by the invasion of Iraq, although the menu of options includes surgical intervention, blockades, economic sanctions and the purely political muscle of public exposure and brutal candor.
In the nuclear world, traditionalists talk about ''nonproliferation.'' The new school prefers the more muscular term ''counterproliferation,'' which refers to a subset of activities involving the military. It should not surprise you to learn that under President Bush, the White House office responsible for these issues has renamed itself to incorporate the word ''counterproliferation.'' Iraq was the first ''counterproliferation'' war.
There are serious tactical differences within the administration about how thoroughly to purge the legacy of old-fashioned arms control. But the senior policy makers in the area of arms control -- at the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House -- are pretty uniformly of the diplomacy-has-failed school. The principal players, like Under Secretary John Bolton at State, Under Secretary Douglas Feith and Assistant Secretary J.D. Crouch at Defense and Robert Joseph, who runs the nuclear franchise at the National Security Council, have voluminous records as fierce critics of the arms-control gospel from their days on the outside.
The counterproliferationists put little faith in treaties. Last year they successfully discarded the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibited weapons to shoot down incoming missiles for fear that this kind of defense would ignite a new arms race. The White House has sworn that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would do what its name suggests, will never be ratified. As for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970 and is supposed to limit the spread of nuclear technology and material, the administration accepts it as a bequest from the past but regards it as pointless. Only those who find it in their interest to obey will do so, Bush officials say, and the rest will cheat.
To the counterproliferators, the main problem is not nuclear weapons; it is bad regimes armed with nuclear weapons. Treaties and test bans, they say, limit the behavior of only the kinds of law-abiding people who obey treaties -- people like us. Thus the administration opposes any treaties that might inhibit us from developing new additions to our nuclear arsenal. And counterproliferators insist on our right to explore new species of nuclear weaponry, like precision-guided bunker-busters to cope with defenders who have buried their defenses under thick layers of concrete.
The logic at times resembles the tautology of an N.R.A. bumper sticker: If nukes are outlawed, only outlaws will have nukes. The Bush policy is to worry about the outlaws rather than the nukes.
In the world of nuclear affairs, they are the party of new ideas. The first was missile defense, reviving the Reagan-era scheme to intercept incoming ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads by using killer rockets, lasers and other devices. Since abandoning the A.B.M. treaty last year, the administration has raced to deploy the first antimissile batteries, even before demonstrating that they are reliable. Missile defenses are generally presented as the answer to a rogue nuke from a regime like North Korea or a missile obtained by terrorists. But their actual purpose is more complicated. What missile defenses are supposed to do is give America greater freedom of action as it goes about the missions it sets for itself -- protecting allies, for example, or disarming new threats. In theory, missile defense means a thug with a nuke cannot hold us at bay.
Since the administration pushed forward with deploying the shield, other countries have begun approaching us to help them introduce missile defenses against nuclear neighbors. Officials in Japan, rattled by North Korea's nuclear threat, have accelerated talks with the U.S. about installing missile defenses. India, too, has proposed that America help it obtain antimissile batteries -- either Israel's Arrow or the American Patriot. The Defense Department has supported this proposal, seeing India as a counter to the long-range threat of China. The State Department is reluctant, worrying that it will provoke Pakistan into a nuclear arms race or a domestic upheaval.
The second new idea on the Bush agenda is the one we have just witnessed, a greater willingness to use force either to pre-empt a threat before it becomes imminent or to reinforce a new, coercive diplomacy. Arms controllers tend to regard counterproliferators as unilateralists, carelessly provocative in their speech and quick to reach for a gun. Counterproliferators, in turn, paint traditional arms controllers as idealists and wishful thinkers. Neither side is entirely wrong.
n February, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, paid a visit to Iran. His trip attracted little attention in a world absorbed by the search for illicit weapons in Iraq, and his subsequent public statements were characteristically bland. He did not accuse the Iranians of anything. But what drew him there was powerful evidence for the counterproliferators' complaint that arms control is not working.
The essential bargain that induced nonnuclear states to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty was this: If you pledge to refrain from arming yourself with bad atoms, you will be rewarded with a supply of good atoms -- a peaceful nuclear energy program. Inspectors from the I.A.E.A. will drop by occasionally to make sure you stay within bounds -- that the nuclear fuel for generating electricity is all properly booked and sufficiently diluted. (The most difficult ingredient for a bomb maker to come by is not the design or the engineering; it is uranium or plutonium, distilled to a weapons-grade concentration.)
Under these ostensible safeguards, the Russians sold Iran a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor and helped install it in Bushehr. The Russians agreed to supply the nuclear fuel for the entire life of the reactor and to cart away the used fuel so it could not be reprocessed into something dangerous.
So ElBaradei must have felt some chagrin when, on Feb. 9, Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, disclosed that Iran had a little something going on the side. While the world was preoccupied next door with Iraq, Khatami offhandedly divulged that Iran had secretly begun building two plants for enriching uranium. After his visit, ElBaradei said that one plant was nearly ready for operation and that a much larger one was under construction.
The Bush administration is convinced that Iran has exploited the peaceful auspices of the Nonproliferation Treaty to shinny up the pole toward a nuclear-weapons program. Khatami's disclosure -- although accompanied by the ritual promises of purely civilian intentions -- is about as close to a confession as critics could want. It seems to confirm not only that the system can be circumvented, but also that the system actually gives would-be violators a leg up.
One American official told me that if the Iranians run the Bushehr reactor for five or six years, withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty (as North Korea just did) and route all their radioactive material through a reprocessing plant, they would end up with enough radioactive material to build something like 100 nuclear weapons. And this is not a problem that would necessarily be solved by regime change. In Iran, which lives in a hostile neighborhood and retains more than a little Persian pride, the reformers seem just as dedicated to a nuclear future as the mullahs.
The administration's solution, so far, is to lean hard on the Russians (as President Clinton also did, to little effect). The Bush officials hope the new disclosures will finally embarrass the Russians into clamping down. They also hope the Iranians and their sponsors will take the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as fair warning.
''I think the presence of 200,000 American troops on their border for X period of time may tend to concentrate their attention,'' observed a senior American official.
The ElBaradei visit also illustrates a second congenital flaw in the nonproliferation regime: enforcement depends almost completely on the cooperation of the suspects. The International Atomic Energy Agency, created at the United Nations in the 1950's to manage the distribution of nuclear materials, was born toothless. President Eisenhower wanted the agency to retain strict control of material and conduct intrusive inspections. The Soviet Union, India and France wouldn't hear of it. ElBaradei's minions cannot pop a surprise inspection. They go where they can persuade the inspected countries to let them go.
ElBaradei, upon learning that Iran had a parallel nuclear processing program growing in secrecy, could do little more than plead with the culprit for additional inspection authority that would ''enable us to provide more comprehensive assurances'' that Iran's program is just intended to produce electricity. Iran promised to think about it.
Another way in which the nonproliferation rules work against their professed intentions is illustrated by Pakistan. Like India and Israel, Pakistan is an outlier, a nuclear country that never signed the treaty. The five nuclear powers that signed are obliged to have no hand in the nuclear programs of these outsiders, lest we confer legitimacy.
But the biggest fear in Pakistan is not that its program might be legitimized. It is that Pakistan's nuclear weapons may be vulnerable -- to precipitous use in a conflict or to acquisition by terrorists.
Thus it might be a good idea for the U.S., which has abundant experience helping Russia lock up its nuclear material against diversion, to help Pakistan do the same. But the treaty forbids even this benign form of cooperation.
Despite the treaty, one U.S. official who deals with South Asia told me, the administration has offered to help Pakistan impose more sophisticated controls on its nuclear program, like ''physical safeguards'' to lock down sites where fissile materials are kept.
''We've entered a dialogue,'' the official said. ''We'll figure out how we come to terms with our conscience later.''
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba's office in the headquarters of the Japanese Defense Agency is furnished with dozens of meticulous replicas of Japanese warplanes and battleships displayed in glass cases. Although Japan technically does not have an army, a navy or an air force, this is scale-model testimony to the fact that it actually has one of the world's largest military budgets. Thanks to the nuclear tantrums of North Korea, Ishiba's collection is likely to grow.
Could it grow to include Japanese nuclear weapons?
Even to suggest such a thing causes media hyperventilation in Japan, the only country to have had its citizens incinerated by nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is backed by strong public opinion. North Korea's flamboyant withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty, however, raised the prospect of a hostile and unstable regime holding nuclear warheads just an eight-minute ballistic-missile flight from Tokyo. And some Americans in the neoconservative choir that accompanies the Bush administration have been advocating a nuclear Japan as a countermove to North Korea.
When I visited Tokyo in March, to see if I could glimpse a nation with the first inkling of an urge to get in the nuclear game, the defense minister and everyone else I talked to, including the most hard-line nationalists, said it is not about to happen. Even Shingo Nishimura, a staunch parliamentary militarist who was described to me as ''the Richard Perle of Japan'' (he was once fired from the cabinet for lamenting Japan's nuclear impotence), said he does not favor Japan producing nuclear weapons. What he advocates is the United States stationing a battery of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Japan, under American control, and even that is viewed as a fringe opinion.
But not all the ripple effects of nuclear proliferation are nuclear. The convulsions over North Korea have given a serious boost to the idea of Japan collaborating in the American missile defense system. That standoff has also prompted a discussion of whether Japan might even need the ability to ''pre-empt'' a North Korean attack.
Shortly before I visited Ishiba in March, he suggested that if the North Koreans seemed poised to attack Japan, Japan would have the right to launch a pre-emptive attack. This set off a very Japanese cycle of hand-wringing. What did he mean by that? Would it violate Japan's Constitution, which takes ''defense'' extremely literally? Did it reflect doubts about America's commitment to defend the islands?
Between draws on a smoke-ender nicotine inhaler, Ishiba explained to me that, alas, Japan does not have the ability to pre-empt anything. Its F-15 fighters cannot make it to North Korea and back without refueling, and Japan has no refueling planes. Nor does it have the precision-guided weapons to take out enemy silos once they got there.
''There are some Japanese who are surprised that while spending the world's second-largest military budget, Japan still does not have any capability of that kind,'' Ishiba lamented. You can expect to see refueling planes and precision munitions on Japan's next defense shopping list.
The defense minister said that if he had the requisite hardware, he could conceive of striking North Korea only in response to an imminent threat -- if, as he put it, North Korea vowed to turn Tokyo into a ''sea of fire'' and then began fueling its missiles. But by then it would probably be too late to do anything about it.
It was hard to tell whether this pre-emption talk was a tentative step toward a more assertive Japan or a devoted client's nod to the Bush doctrine or simply a shrewd politician grabbing a chance to expand his budget. Maybe all three.
The idea of nuclear pre-emption did not begin with the Iraq war. Robert Litwak, director of international studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has found five earlier instances when states seriously considered using military force to prevent the spread of unconventional weapons. President Kennedy contemplated a preemptive strike on China's nuclear facilities before its first test explosion in 1964, but decided America could cope with a nuclear China. Israel in 1981 bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, enduring much criticism but setting back Saddam's nuclear program significantly. The 1991 gulf war plan targeted Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, although it was a secondary motive for the war. President Clinton thought hard about taking out North Korea's nuclear facilities in 1994, but instead managed to negotiate his way out of what advisers feared would be a new Korean war. And U.S. cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, ostensibly linked to production of nerve gas -- a claim that has been disputed.
Litwak told me he intended his research, published in the winter issue of the quarterly Survival, as ''an antidote to both right-wing triumphalism and left-wing hysteria about pre-emption. The bottom line is, it is an instrument of policy, but not a silver bullet. ''
That is exactly the reality the Bush administration has run into in North Korea. While the Pentagon has a contingency plan to bomb the country's nuclear facilities, and it could become a serious option, a senior official told me, ''Nobody's really seriously arguing that within the administration -- that we should do it soon, anyway.'' The North Korean leader may just be crazy enough to respond by raining artillery shells on the metropolis of Seoul, or lobbing a missile at Japan.
So, what does a counterproliferation strategy for North Korea look like? I asked two Bush officials, both senior enough to have a say in what the administration ultimately decides. The first official argued that the best way to deal with North Korea is to encircle it, cut off all aid and wait for Kim Jong Il to fall. Buying his disarmament with food and oil, even if Kim was willing to bargain, would just perpetuate the regime and would be ''morally repugnant,'' he said. And the administration is pretty sure Kim will not bargain away such a powerful weapon.
''If we could have containment that's tailored to the conditions of North Korea, and not continue to throw it lifelines like we have in the past, I think it goes away,'' said this official. ''It's a bankrupt economy. I can't imagine that the regime has any popular support. How long it takes, I don't know. It could take two years.''
And what is North Korea doing during that time?
''I think it'll crank out, you know, half a dozen weapons a year or more. We lived with a Soviet Union that had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, including thousands of them pointed at us. We just have to cope.''
I recounted this fatalistic view to officials in Asia and to American experts, and most were horrified. As they pointed out, it has some rather serious holes. First, North Korea, unlike the Soviet Union, will sell anything to anybody for the right price. Second, a collapsing North Korea with nukes may not be as pretty a picture as my official informant anticipates. Third, if this collapse means a merger of the peninsula into a single, unified Korea -- that is, if South Korea becomes a de facto nuclear power -- that will bring little joy to Japan or China. The second American official I spoke to agreed with his colleague that the Bush policy should include economic sanctions, and that a failure of the regime would be a desirable goal. But he was uneasy with the idea of letting North Korea's nuclear arsenal grow until the day of collapse. Before that would be tolerated, the administration would take a closer look at a military strike. ''The only acceptable end state,'' he said, is ''everything out.''
Toleration of a nuclear North Korea, he said, would send a message to the Iranians and others: ''Get your nuclear weapons quickly, before the Americans do to you what they've done to Iraq, because North Korea shows once you get the weapons, you're immune.''
I asked this official whether he would favor letting nuclear weapons fall into the hands of friendly countries in Asia. After all, say some of the most ardent hawks, there are no bad weapons, just bad regimes. Some say this would produce a grand strategic result: China, which they see as America's most likely threat in the long run, encircled by nuclear-armed allies of America. We could even bring home our troops and let our friends police the region.
The official weighed his answer for a minute. ''I notice a lot of my friends are saying, By God, give them to the Japanese, give them to Taiwan,'' he said. ''I'd rather not. My ideal number of nuclear-weapons states is one.''
Within the Bush administration, that official's comments represent the sober (and, at least for now, prevailing) view. We want nukes out of the hands of bad guys, and we are not yet proposing to give nukes to good guys. To critics, though, including much of the world abroad, that last sentence also reflects a frightening arrogance. My ideal number of nuclear-weapons states is one. Why is the ideal number not zero?
Nuclear weapons have always been more about psychology than about war. The power consists in having them, not in using them. A sense of awe, mingled with something like shame, characterized the first nuclear era. Previous American presidents at least paid lip service to the ultimate dream of a nuclear-free world -- and some, notably Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, seem to have genuinely believed in it.
The stigma attached to nuclear weapons had real power. Kenneth Watman, chairman of the war-gaming department at the Naval War College, told me that throughout the cold war he observed or read about innumerable simulations of crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In almost every case, the actors portraying the decision makers balked at using their nuclear weapons. Even in a game, even with their backs to the wall, even players who were foaming at the mouth held back, Watman said. ''It's the pure lunacy of it. The disproportion between ends and means.''
Watman says he believes this important psychological threshold has lowered since the Indian and Pakistani tests in 1998, when the rest of the world could not muster a strong response. Some say the Bush administration is further eroding the sense of taboo by advertising its
of new nuclear gadgets, by scorning treaties aimed at preventing bigger and more modern nuclear arsenals, by insisting on the right to test, by dreaming aloud of an American monopoly.
''In the cold war, they were viewed as weapons of last resort,'' said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who is one of his country's most articulate disarmament advocates. ''Now they are viewed as a means to fight wars. This is the final nail in the coffin of a nuclear-free world. What kind of message is that sending to the rest of the world?''
This is not the view of traditionalists alone. Henry Sokolski, a critic of the way the Nonproliferation Treaty has been implemented and a supporter of President Bush, says the cavalier attitude of some in the administration on testing, new battlefield nukes and international agreements is dangerous. Sokolski argues that nuclear weapons are like the slave trade -- an evil that transcends the sovereign rights of states, and one that should be battled by all means. Several Bush hawks have picked up the slave-trade analogy and used it to argue, for instance, that we have a right to intercept weapons traffic on the high seas. But Sokolski says some that administration officials miss the point. As long as the U.S. exempts itself from the opprobrium bestowed on nuclear weapons, it will lack the moral authority to bring the rest of the world along.
''Ultimately, like slavery, you have to be willing to argue against it wherever it is -- including getting away from our own reliance on it,'' he said.
Paul Bracken, a Yale political scientist who set out to define the second nuclear age in a prescient book published four years ago, ''Fire in the East,'' began as a scholar of military strategy, but got bored with the subject and added a second career as an expert in global corporate strategy. He still teaches political science at the Yale School of Management, and when I called him at his campus office not long ago, he sounded exasperated at the polarization of the debate over nuclear proliferation. He agrees with the Bush hawks that the old arms-control regime has become increasingly irrelevant, and he regards the war in Iraq as ''the most important arms control action in 50 years.'' Yet he agrees with the traditionalists that the administration hawks fail to understand the dangers of overheated rhetoric and the real value in arms-control diplomacy. Neither side, he says, seems able to climb up from its ideological trench.
''We had a nonproliferation regime that worked into the 90's, and then failed,'' Bracken said. ''How many other government programs can you point to that worked for 25 years? If I can find a new arms control that works for 25 years, and then fails, I will break open the Champagne.''
What might a new arms-control regime look like?
In the first nuclear age, the Americans and the Soviets studied each other intensely, negotiated constantly and over time learned to communicate their intentions clearly. The new players are more mysterious to us, and the administration sometimes seems more inclined to moralize about them than to study them and their motives for seeking to go nuclear. We know little, for example, about how North Korea's leader thinks, and even Iran -- which is both more accessible and more complicated than North Korea -- is regarded in some parts of Washington as a cartoon evil.
A new arms-control regime might begin by assessing the motives that tempt states to go nuclear, and then figuring out how to remove the temptation. It would necessarily be more engaged, less smug and more versatile. Some potential nuclear states might be amenable to swapping their weapons programs for a chance at prosperity. Some might respond to assurances that they will not be attacked, backed up by security guarantees or new alliances the U.S. would foster. Arms controllers are mostly dogmatic in their rejection of missile defenses, but it's worth studying whether missile defense -- which may or may not ever be useful to protect America from a nuclear attack -- could be useful in some regions to persuade potential nuclear states that they can live without these weapons.
Some countries could lose interest in nuclear weapons if we played a more active role in defusing the regional grievances that keep them on edge -- notably the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few will prove incorrigible, at which point we choose between containment and forcible disarmament.
The administration is clearly right that a new arms control cannot rest entirely on the illusory safety of talks and treaties and U.N. resolutions. The autocrats most likely to be dangerous to us if they get nuclear weapons are the leaders least likely to care about staying in the good graces of the ''international community,'' whatever that is. A new arms-control regime should distinguish among threats and offer a menu of options appropriate to the danger, from inspection to coercion. It would draw on military pressure and economic sanctions, along with the softer diplomacy that the counterproliferators scorn. It would not disdain international agreements but would demand smarter treaties, backed by intrusive inspections and rigorous enforcement.
And it would accept the solemn responsibility -- a particularly American responsibility -- to restore the special stigma of nuclear explosives. The destructive power of these weapons is unique and breathtaking, and almost impossible to confine to military targets. Chemical and biological weapons, horrible as they are, cannot match them as agents of catastrophe. A strategy that focuses exclusively on regimes and not on weapons themselves has several flaws, and the most obvious one is this: when regimes change, weapons remain.
Bill Keller is a Times columnist and a senior writer for the magazine.