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August 25, 2011

Nukes and Dictator Survival
Posted by David Shorr

Gaddafi arab league 2 Last night the guest host of The Last Word Chris Hayes did an excellent segment with Steve Clemons on how the overthrow of Qaddafi will affect other despots' survival strategies with regard to nuclear weapons. Bear in mind that Qaddafi agreed in 2003 to hand over the entire contents of his budding yet substantial nuclear weapons program in exchange for being let out of the rogue state penalty box and bettering relations with the US and others.

Recent events raise some important questions. With the benefit of hindsight, should Qaddafi regret his decision to abandon the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal? If he had continued to develop n-weapons, would other nations have intervened militarily at the risk of nuclear retaliation? And if nukes offer a dictator the most reliable way to shield themselves, does the possibility of intervention create perverse incentives for him to build a nuclear deterrent? In other words, did the US and NATO just undercut their own interests in nuclear nonproliferation? [By the way, that TV screen shot above is from the 2008 broadcast of an eerily prophetic speech to fellow Arab League leaders on the threat of being ousted, a level of candor you just never ever see (h/t The Atlantic Wire).]

Without question, there are clear trade-offs in the choice between seeking the removal of a dictator versus making a deal with him. In the Last Word segment, Steve portrays it as a sharp-edged either/or choice for foreign policy -- and the world -- as a whole. As he sees it, giving dictators perverse incentives to arm themselves runs directly counter to global nuclear nonproliferation, and President Obama has stepped on his own previously wise nonpro policy with this Libya intervention. While I see the problem, I don't see it in such stark terms. 

Confronted with a potential new nuclear-armed nation, it's vital to have your priorities clear. Speaking of incentives, no government in the world would agree to bare all in a nuclear "full monty" if they suspect an ulterior agenda of deposing them from power. For a potential proliferator, the only reasonable basis for an agreement is to bolster the longevity of their own governmental regime by emerging from international isolation and rejoining community of nations. In other words, if the US wants to remove the nuclear threat, it must be willing to tolerate the dictator. 

In the case of Libya in the early 2000s, the Bush Administration rightly pushed Qaddafi for a policy-change of verifiable disarmament -- with no hint that they would continue to treat a disarmed regime as a pariah. It's interesting to read Elliot Abrams last February in the Wall Street Journal, given that he's better known as favoring regime-change in other cases, recount the Bush Administration's rationale for treating nuclear weapons as the greater danger. For Greg Scoblete of RealClearWorld Compass Blog, that begged the question of why Bush didn't apply the same reasoning to Iran? Iranian leaders had little incentive to reach a nuclear deal with Bush when there were so many signs of an underlying objective of regime-change. And thus when the Tehran regime came under severe pressure after the June 2009 elections, the Obama Administration was at pains to cordon off the nuclear talks from the legitimacy question because of how the matter had become blurred under Bush.

With such strong arguments, then, for rewarding good nonproliferation deeds by bad leaders, why is it still okay sometimes to seek their removal. First, because the nuclear-arsenal-as-deterrent-shield isn't the rogue leader's only incentive calculation about nuclear weapons. If a government is clearly a high-value target for regime-change, then a deterrent could be crucial for survival. If an autocrat is relatively unlikely to be overthrown, however, then the international isolation, diplomatic pressure, along with any economic sanctions take their own toll. 

Second, I think we can differentiate between renegging on our end of the bargain as distinct from the other guys nullifying it. It's the same issue as with Egypt last winter: how far do the decades-old Camp David obligations extend, as a sclerotic elite continually resists reform and loses all legitimacy? Returning to the humanitarian premise of the intervention -- Qaddafi's threatened brutality against Benghazi -- we don't need to give dictators carte blanche in order to preserve the right nonproliferation incentives. If a de-nuclearized despot wants to stay in the international community's good graces, and thereby fend off forcible regime change from the outside world, all he has to do is refrain from mass atrocities. The emerging international norm of the Responsibility to Protect says that the very sovereignty of a government is contingent on exercising such self-restraint; so is any nuclear deal.


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