The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, February 28, 2005

One Way Traffic

Declassified documents in the National Security Archive provide a fascinating picture of Pakistan's meandering progress toward its own nuclear capability.
One of the major issues that President Carter had campaigned on was the problem of nuclear proliferation. After he came to power, the Pakistani nuclear program remained worrisome, as indicated by Secretary of State Vance, who... hoped to encourage Pakistan to cancel or postpone its reprocessing project. As he noted, one problem was a pending deal with the French for a reprocessing plant at Chashma; the French wanted to disengage from the contract and were already dragging their feet on it. Another complicating factor was China, which was starting to offer fuel services and technical assistance... In any event, when it was evident that the Pakistanis were pushing the French to make good on the reprocessing contract, Carter and his advisers had decided that Islamabad was going too far. In September 1977, without invoking the Symington amendment, the administration cut off military and economic aid to Pakistan.
Hey, the French look like the good guys here:
Later in 1978, when the French drastically slowed down work on the Chashma plant, the Carter administration restored aid to Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Pakistanis pursued alternative strategies for acquiring nuclear fuels leading Carter to formally invoke the Symington amendment in the spring of 1979 and cut off economic and military aid for the second time.
But the Soviet threat was the overriding concern:
Pakistan headed the list -- the "makingsā€¦ of another Indian disaster" -- and Van Doren reviewed efforts at "slowing down the process", the impact of the Symington amendment, the implications for global nuclear commerce, and apparent Israeli consideration of military action against Pakistan. The United States itself had not discussed "preemption plans." Van Doren also reviewed China's ambivalence: on the one hand, he did not believe they were doing anything to "help" with Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, but on the other hand, Beijing was advising the United States to help Pakistan against the "Soviet peril" and refrain from punitive action: "cutting off your nose to spite your face." When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December the Carter administration would decide that Beijing's advice was correct. In the light of the invasion, Pakistan looked more like an ally than a wayward client and the administration approved an indefinite waiver of Symington amendment sanctions so long as Pakistan did not actually test a nuclear weapon.

Let's review the bidding, then. The United States provided military and economic aid to both Pakistan and its main enemy, India (also to its other major neighbor, Iran). This was not quite as stupid as it looks at this remove, but was due to the continual pressure of the Cold War. When Pakistan's progress toward nuclear capability was too apparent or its steps too aggressive, this aid could be cut off; but its resumption would always be on the table (to preserve America's negotiating position against a potential Soviet offer) and no stronger countermeasures would be considered (note that the U.S. had not even discussed "preemption plans").

In this environment, forward progress would be interspersed with American-enforced periods of idleness, but Pakistan drew inexorably closer to nuclear capability. Probably it was not in America's power to stop them at the time without substantial negative effects on other fronts. However, the lesson is that "slowing down the process", or even stopping it, can only be a stopgap. If we are to prevent proliferation, we must force would-be nuclear nations to move backward, away from the weapons they covet.

This seems to me the greatest flaw in the current negotiations with Iran; even a diplomatic victory would only buy time, until the vigilance of Europe wanes. Only the Bush Administration's "unilateral" determination has kept the hope of backward motion alive. And make no mistake; backward motion is needed, in Iran and elsewhere.