The Lesson the U.S. Is Teaching the World in Libya

In all the discussion about the current U.S. bombing of Libya, something important has gone almost unnoticed -- the lesson the United States is teaching the government of every country on earth.
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In all the discussion about the current U.S. bombing of Libya, something important has gone almost unnoticed -- the lesson the United States is teaching the government of every country on earth. That lesson is: no matter what, no matter the inducements or pressure, never ever give up chemical weapons or a nuclear weapons program. Doing so will not ensure that the U.S. does not attack you -- on the contrary, it will make it much more likely.

The U.S. already delivered this lesson very powerfully in 2003 by attacking Iraq, a country which had no biological or chemical weapons or nuclear weapons program after 1991, twelve years earlier. Moreover, according to the CIA's 2004 WMD report, Saddam Hussein had begged the Clinton administration for better relations, promising that it would be Washington's best friend in the region bar none. In fact, Iraq said that if it had a security relationship with the U.S., it would be inclined to permanently discard even the ambition for WMD.

In Libya's case, Muammar Gaddafi announced in December 2003 that it was renouncing all WMD -- Libya possessed chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and a nuclear weapons program -- and invited international inspectors to certify its compliance. The U.S. declared that this "demonstrates that, in a world of strong nonproliferation norms, it is never too late to make the decision to become a fully compliant NPT state," and that Libya would be "amply rewarded." From the perspective of many governments, Libya is now receiving its reward, in the form of hundreds of Tomahawk missiles and the likely downfall of the regime that agreed to disarm.

Every government on earth has different factions with different views of the best strategy to deal with the world, factions that constantly battle each other for supremacy. Whether or not Iran has an active nuclear weapons program (it's still the official position of the U.S. intelligence community that it does not) we can be sure the Iranian faction that wants nuclear weapons has been tremendously strengthened by the attack on Libya. And the faction that believes Iran would be safer without nuclear weapons is much weaker, and in fact is probably being ridiculed for its embarrassing naiveté.

Something similar is going on inside the North Korean government. Anyone within the regime who's been pressing for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is now in a much worse position.

But here's what no Americans know: the current attack on Libya is not an unforeseen glitch in our efforts to get them to disarm. Instead, it was the explicit policy of the U.S. to get countries to disarm so that we would be able to attack them.

This may sound ridiculous to many Americans. After all, no president ever puts it like that. Instead, they say: our enemies must disarm because they threaten the precious lives of our citizens! But in fact when talking to each other, U.S. government officials say it over and over again: we don't oppose countries like Iraq, Libya and Iran having WMD because we're scared they're going to attack us with them. Instead, we oppose them having WMD because that would allow them to deter us from attacking them.

For instance, here's a little-noticed January 2001 memo by Donald Rumseld just after he became Secretary of Defense:

Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis...

[U]niversally available [WMD] technologies can be used to create "asymmetric" responses that cannot defeat our forces, but can deny access to critical areas in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia..."asymmetric" approaches can limit our ability to apply military power.

And here's a September 2002 speech by Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and author of the 2002 National Security Strategy, about the threat posed by Iraq. The threat was not that Iraq would attack us, but that WMD would make it possible for someone to deter us (and Israel):

I criticise the [Bush] administration a little, because the argument that they make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States...

Now, if the danger [from Iraq] is a biological weapon handed to Hamas, then what's the American alternative then? ... they now can deter us from attacking them, because they really can retaliate against us, by then.

This point was made over and over again in "Rebuilding America's Defenses," the infamous paper from Project for a New American Century. Page 6:

...the United States also must counteract the effects of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction that may soon allow lesser states to deter U.S. military action by threatening U.S. allies and the American homeland itself. Of all the new and current missions for U.S. armed forces, this must have priority.

Page 51:

When their missiles are tipped with warheads carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, even weak regional powers have a credible deterrent regardless of the balance of conventional forces.

Page 54:

In the post-Cold War era, America and its allies, rather than the Soviet Union, have become the primary objects of deterrence and it is states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea who most wish to develop deterrent capabilities.

In 2008, former senators Daniel Coats and Chuck Robb explained the problem in the Washington Post:

...Iran would not need to employ a nuclear arsenal to threaten U.S. interests.

Simply obtaining the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent...

And lead author of "Rebuilding America's Defenses," Thomas Donnelly -- a longtime member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment now working at the American Enterprise Institute -- also wrote a paper called "Strategy for a Nuclear Iran":

The surest deterrent to American action is a functioning nuclear arsenal...

To be sure, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a nightmare. But it is less a nightmare because of [a] high likelihood that Tehran would employ its weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups—although that is not beyond the realm of possibility—and more because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East.

That's why we pressed Libya to disarm -- not because of a threat to U.S. citizens, but because of the threat of a "constraining effect... upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East." And it worked: right now we can implement our strategy with far fewer worries.

So that's the lesson the Obama administration is teaching the world: listen to what U.S. officials say about their plans, and take it very, very seriously. Don't make the mistake that Iraq and Libya made and disarm—it's not a path to safety. Instead, it's the quickest route to your own destruction.

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