Friday, February 13, 2004

Is the Proliferation Genie Out of the Bottle?

Steven den Beste at USS Clueless writes:

Is the proliferation genie out of the bottle? Wretchard thinks so. I'm not by any stretch happy with the current state of affairs but I don't think it's anything like as dire as Wretchard seems to. ... I'm afraid that Wretchard and his reader are engaging in the kind of worst-case fear-mongering that opponents of the invasion of Iraq engaged in last year, what with estimates of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths and millions of refugees, along with plague, starvation, stubbed toes, acne, and every other possible negative outcome they could imagine. I don't think Wretchard serves his position well by engaging in equal hype, because he actually has a legitimate point beneath this all with which I agree, one which might be ignored by a reader who doesn't take Wretchard's gloom-and-doom scenario seriously.

There are two issues: is a terrorist nuclear strike possible and how probable is it? President Bush seems to think it possible. At a speech last February 11 at the National Defense University he said:

In recent years, another path of proliferation has become clear, as well. America and other nations are learning more about black-market operatives who deal in equipment and expertise related to weapons of mass destruction. These dealers are motivated by greed, or fanaticism, or both. They find eager customers in outlaw regimes, which pay millions for the parts and plans they need to speed up their weapons programs. And with deadly technology and expertise going on the market, there's the terrible possibility that terrorists groups could obtain the ultimate weapons they desire most.

But as Steven rightly argues, it is fallacious to go from the mere possibility of an event to actively worrying about it. It is possible that an asteroid will wipe out the earth, but it is not so likely that it should concern us. There is no way to discover the explicit probability that President Bush assigns to the possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack, but one can implicitly gauge his level of concern from the steps he is taking to prevent it. Most notably, President Bush wants to amend existing international agreements in order to restrict the number of countries that can operate enrichment and reprocessing plants as well as revamp the IAEA. The amendments include disqualifying any suspect state from serving on the IAEA Board of Governors. What does this require? Article 7, paragraph 2 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons says:

Any amendment to this Treaty must be approved by a majority of the votes of all the Parties to the Treaty, including the votes of all nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty and all other Parties which, on the date the amendment is circulated, are members of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The amendment shall enter into force for each Party that deposits its instrument of ratification of the amendment upon the deposit of such instruments of ratification by a majority of all the Parties, including the instruments of ratification of all nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty and all other Parties which, on the date the amendment is circulated, are members of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thereafter, it shall enter into force for any other Party upon the deposit of its instrument of ratification of the amendment.

This is a serious diplomatic effort, requiring the approval of 93 countries (of the 185 signatories); a major expenditure of international and domestic capital in an election year with no assurance of success and indeed every prospect of rebuff. Without making too much of it, it seems fair to say that the President must think the threat is not only possible, but probable enough to make this effort. That means we are not talking about an asteroid strike. Of course, the mere fact that the President says so, or that he has been advised to say so by the Department of Energy or the CIA doesn't make it true. After all, he is in the middle of a political crisis over whether intelligence estimates of Iraqi WMDs were accurate or not. But the mere fact that he is making this claim about the danger of terrorist nuclear weapons in the context of his public pillorying over the threat of Iraqi weapons suggests he is either really worried or seriously mistaken.

Steven points out the issue of cost. He rightly says out that the US spent enormous sums to develop its nuclear infrastructure and that it is unlikely that any bunch of terrorists can duplicate it. But before we breathe a sigh of relief, let's remember how the Pakistani A. Q. Khan leveraged the market. Pakistan's nuclear weapons program utilized marginal cost acquisition strategies rather than building everything from scratch. Then he turned around and created value-added components and re-entered the market with his goods. He was creating a market in WMD industrial processes not in weapons. He wasn't selling fish. He was creating a fishing industry. Pakistan did not have to invest in uranium enrichment R&D to develop the technology from scratch. They stole it or bought large parts of it from a European firm called Urenco. They did not have to pay the capital costs of establishing Urenco, the Pakistanis merely had to pay the marginal cost of buying or stealing the technology. The factory in Malaysia which made centrifuge parts to the design was, according to press reports, already an existing precision machining company. The cost of the centrifuge parts would have been their marginal cost plus profit. When we come to the really hard item, fissile material, the story is the same. We recall that Total Cost(i)=Fixed Cost(i) + Variable Cost(i). So that for an existing facility capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade, there is an incentive to sell a quantity of product for so long as Price(i) > Variable Cost(i). When we buy a car, we don't have to build a factory. There only has to be a factory producing cars at a marginal cost less than what we are willing to pay. It is not the Manhattan Project in a cave we need to worry about, so much as the market in this particular product. As Dr. David Kay testified in connection with Iraq, while the infrastructure for WMDs was not there, there was danger all the same:

"In a world where we know others are seeking weapons of mass destruction, the likelihood at some point in the future of a seller and a buyer meeting up would have made that a far more dangerous country that even we anticipated."

Serious enough to invade. Incidentally, this is why John Kerry's "law enforcement" plus strategy for fighting terror is totally inadequate. If Steven is right and fissile material is the key, which it is, and if a country like North Korea decides to produce fissile material for sale, it will take more than law enforcement to stop them. It will take an act of war to keep them from doing it.

But returning to the issue of cost, the Pakistani nuclear development story shows how even a poor country can actually build the whole shebang on the relative cheap. And while it is true, as Steven says, that Saudi Arabia's income has "degraded immensely in the last 20 years and that their current income isn't enough to prevent internal unrest", the Kingdom is richer on a bad day than North Korea will be on its best day, and yet cost did not prevent Pyongyang from obtaining the bomb, or very nearly so.

There remains then, the issue of whether nations, even rogue nations, would give or sell bombs or components to terrorists. Or why, as Steven very reasonably asks, if Al Qaeda had fissionables, they haven't used them already. I too, was taught that states with WMDs would keep close custody of an item on which a large part of their power derived. Yet Saddam didn't behave reasonably.  He had no idea what he had in terms of WMDs.

Kay believes that post-1998 corruption and deception was so endemic in Iraq 's ruling circles and scientific community that Iraq constituted a major, growing danger. But the real danger was to Iraq itself. Saddam, according to Kay, was being massively deceived. Scientists would relate their progress in developing weapons and toxins, outline next steps, and ask for (and receive) money.

I think this is the weakest of Steven's otherwise strong arguments. One can't plan on an estimate of enemy intentions, especially when that enemy might be irrational. One must always plan on an estimate of enemy capabilities. And to reiterate, President Bush seems to think that terrorists could acquire those capabilities and that the probability is great enough to make a major effort to stop it. Personally, I plead innocent to "hyping up" the threat. Although our emotional reactions to the issue may differ, neither Steven nor the Belmont Club ever quantified our level of belief in a given probability of threat. And I believe it would be useless to try, given the uncertainty in the underlying variables. This is one argument which I sincerely hope to lose. Yet even if that meant that we would be safe for another 10 years, it would bring me little comfort. In that distant future my son will be 16 years old.