Friends with Benefits

No, Mr. President, it's not OK if our allies get nuclear weapons.

Barry O. is going to talk about nuclear weapons again. Someone sober up the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference -- think of it as Davos for people who love armored formations -- Vice President Joe Biden indicated that the president would use the forthcoming State of the Union address to advance "a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles, and secure nuclear materials."

The trope of Joe Biden indulging in all manner of low-class pleasures is now firmly established thanks to the tireless efforts of the Onion. I couldn't read that passage of his speech without imagining Biden riling up the crowd before some especially awful hair metal band takes the stage: ARE YOU READY FOR SOME BARACK OBAMA? I CAN'T HEAR YOU!

Obama will say all the right things, of course. He'll probably declare victory on his campaign promise to secure all vulnerable fissile material during his first term. He may call on the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. If he's feeling it, he may threaten to take negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material out of the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament. Finally, he might also say a few words about the administration's increasingly poorly named 90-day Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, which the administration started in the summer of 2011.

As the president surveys the landscape of all things nuclear, it would be nice -- well, I would appreciate it, at any rate -- if he said a few words about what may turn out to be the most consequential decision he makes in his second term: How he plans to respond to nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.

Oh, he'll say something, of course. Obama will surely express the normal platitudes about not "accepting" nuclear weapons in either country, offering an outstretched hand if they would only unclench their fists, yada, yada, yada. But there is one subject that no one in his administration is willing to touch, unless they stumble into it sideways before apologizing and moving on. The interesting question isn't how to stop North Korea or Iran, but how we manage the inevitable pressures from our friends and partners to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities in response.

One of the oldest problems in the book on nuclear weapons is the so-called "Nth country" problem -- the simple idea that each new nuclear state inspires or terrifies yet more to join the club. It's worth taking a moment to reflect on U.S. nonproliferation policy and how we've dealt with this problem throughout the nuclear age.

One of the simplest questions I get asked when I give talks to a general audience is this: Why is it OK for the United States to have nuclear weapons, but not Iran or North Korea? It's a good question and the answer matters a great deal.

The initial U.S. position on the spread of nuclear weapons was basically, "It's good when our friends do it, but bad when our enemies try." The early history of U.S. approaches was a mixture of efforts to preserve a nuclear monopoly and, when that failed, proliferate selectively to our friends. The United States helped the United Kingdom build nuclear weapons, it stationed its own nuclear weapons overseas as an advertisement for the wonders of nuclear deterrence, and it pushed NATO towards accepting something called the Multilateral Force whereby U.S. nuclear weapons would be stationed on NATO ships with multinational crews. If you've ever seen Cédric Klapisch's L'auberge Espagnole, it would be like that -- but with nuclear weapons. The Italians even outfitted a cruiser with launch tubes.

The real problem in the early nuclear age was encouraging states to get into this ghastly business in the first place. One of the clearest statements of this line of thinking was offered by a Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger: "One of the chief tasks of United States policy in NATO, therefore, is to overcome the trauma which attaches to the use of nuclear weapons and to decentralize the possession of nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible." And you thought Ken Waltz was the only person who thought like that!

Eventually, the idea of selective proliferation gave way to a slightly more reasonable approach. As China neared its first nuclear detonation in the early 1960s, the U.S. foreign policy elite went into a minor panic. (Quivering hands must have dropped countless cucumber sandwiches on Mr. Pratt's parquet.) All the usual approaches were considered -- but they seemed especially ridiculous when transplanted to Asia. Actual policy proposal: Help India build a nuclear weapon to counter China! Eventually, as in the case of most knotty problems, a commission was formed. Lyndon Johnson asked Roswell Gilpatric, a former deputy secretary of defense and shall we say "man about town," to look at the problem.

Unlike most commissions, this one produced something useful. (I'll give you a minute to recover.) The Gilpatric Report figured out what I take to be the central fact of the nuclear age: that nuclear weapons pose a shared danger to all countries -- this, only two decades into the nuclear age. Narrowly speaking, the commission observed, if both the United States and Soviet Union encouraged their friends to acquire nuclear weapons, pretty soon everyone would have them. That would be unwelcome. So, despite our deep ideological differences, the superpowers had an incentive to cooperate. The Gilpatric Report laid out a sensible set of nonproliferation measures that the United States might pursue with the Soviet Union, including treaties against proliferation, nuclear testing, and the production of fissile material. Fifty years later, we're still working on Roswell Gilpatric's list of recommendations.

I don't want to oversell how dramatic the shift in U.S. policy was after the Gilpatric Report. This isn't a Hollywood movie. Henry Kissinger didn't slap his forehead and say "Oh, vat an ass I've been," although that certainly would have been appropriate. The Nixon administration, for example, agreed to seek ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) -- but only on the condition that we never, ever ask any of our friends to sign it, least of all the West Germans. Privately, the Nixon administration accepted Israel as a sub rosa member of the nuclear club and initiated a robust program of nuclear cooperation with France that might have seemed at odds with our newfound interest in nonproliferation, if it hadn't been kept secret for a couple of decades.

The NPT has plenty of flaws. It was, among other things, about 20 years too late -- but better late than never. By 1970, five states already had tested a nuclear weapon. The treaty recognized this reality, striking one of many bargains: no more nuclear weapons states, with those already in the club agreeing to good-faith efforts toward disarmament. The deal isn't fair -- life, you may have noticed, is like that -- but it was the only deal possible and better than none at all. People who talk about an NPT 2.0 are either fools or on staff at the Physics Research Center in Tehran. This is the best deal we're getting; we need to make it work.

Despite a cottage industry of claiming the NPT is doomed, the treaty has done rather well in several respects. Over time, nonproliferation became the norm for U.S. policy. We did eventually encourage and, when necessary, strong-arm our friends into signing the treaty, halting nuclear weapons programs in places like Australia, Sweden, South Korea, and Taiwan.

We've gotten to the point today where there does seem to be something untoward about building nuclear weapons, with proliferation at the moment largely occurring among states that are relatively isolated within the international community. Advocates of the NPT like to mention John F. Kennedy's remark that, without action, 15 or 20 or 25 states might acquire nuclear weapons by 1970. The number gets the headlines, but it's worth looking at the intelligence estimate his comment was based upon. The 15 or 20 or 25 states included all the states that could build nuclear weapons. Noticeably absent are many of today's problem children. Where the NPT succeeded was in limiting proliferation to the hard cases -- whether we call them pariahs, rogues, or states of concern. That is no mean feat. When military dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil ended, so did their nuclear weapons programs. When South Africa gave up apartheid, it also gave up the bomb.

At the same time, the norm against proliferation is something we must work to maintain. That cottage industry I derided -- and of which I am part -- is necessary. Left to their own devices, most diplomats, regionalists, and politicians would fatally compromise the nonproliferation regime with ever more exceptions and excuses. The United States has never made nonproliferation its top priority. At best, it's one of many interests -- and often the losing one. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, so the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations looked the other way while Pakistan built nuclear weapons with Chinese assistance. There is a special place in nonproliferation hell for the George W. Bush administration, which hijacked the nonproliferation agenda as an excuse to invade Iraq and then, in some misguided geopoliticking, sought a waiver (or blew a gaping hole) for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, making India the only country in the world eligible for nuclear imports without the obligations that would come with joining the NPT. Mr. Obama, despite his lofty nonproliferation rhetoric, has been as willing as any other president to bend the rules for his friends.

Which brings us back to his State of the Union address. After declaring all that "vulnerable" fissile material secure and reminiscing about the good old days in Prague, Mr. Obama will have to say something about North Korea and Iran. He'll take a swipe or two -- more in sadness than anger -- at their intransigence. But what he really ought to do, and what would be hard, is to talk about how he'll respond when our friends want to start down the same road.

North Korea is about to test a nuclear weapon for the third time. The usual types in South Korea and Japan have made all manner of irresponsible statements. Negotiations with Iran are going nowhere. Whether or not you believe that Iran's program is paused, as I do, Tehran's neighbors are also sounding worried. Our friends aren't going to ask for the bomb directly, at least not at first, but they've already started asking if, perchance, we might not bend the rules a little here or there. Maybe, they ask, we could agree to let them develop longer-range ballistic missiles, or would we mind if France sold them really great cruise missiles? Or borrow the plutonium out of the reactor fuel we sold them? Or spin a few centrifuges?

Not for nuclear weapons, of course! Oh, no, no, no. Did you mention hedging? I didn't mention shrubbery. Topiary is an interesting hobby, don't you think?

There is every temptation to respond to these hard cases by making more exceptions. They are our friends. None of them has had active nuclear weapons programs for at least 20 years. (You did what in 2000? Never mind, we're good.) Historically, the United States helped build the norm against proliferation by making it clear to some of our friends that the choice was between nuclear weapons and an alliance with the United States. Today, Seoul or Riyadh might reasonably conclude that the formula works in reverse: Would Washington abandon an ally over an act of proliferation? What are a few nuclear weapons among friends, anyway? What if they keep it on the DL?

At some point, the exceptions will destroy the rule. Having five nuclear weapons states was a necessary compromise, but a compromise all the same. The holdouts of the 1970s were toughies. Israel already had built nuclear weapons by 1970, but just not tested them -- isn't that better than overtly joining the club? India tested in 1974 when the treaty was still young, claiming its nuclear test was a "peaceful nuclear explosion." Pakistan couldn't sign because India wouldn't. After India tested again in 1998, we simply had to "deal with the realities" of India's de facto nuclear weapons possession in seeking special treatment for New Delhi at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And so on, and so on.

Every single one these exceptions made perfect sense at the time. And that's the problem: so will all of the exceptions that Barack Obama's national security teams asks him to make in the next four years. Do we put nuclear weapons back into South Korea? Consent to their reprocessing of American-made spent nuclear fuel? Sell the Jordanians, Saudis, or Emiratis who knows what? Each of these decisions will represent a perfectly sensible opportunity to strengthen relations with a key partner at only a small cost to the broader nonproliferation regime as a whole. We'll tell ourselves that the harm we do pales in comparison to harm already done by North Korea or Iran. This will be true, but will be beside the point. The aggregate wisdom of the foreign policy community, over time, will doom the regime as a whole.

I don't think the administration sees it this way, which worries me. A certain administration official derided some of the people critical of their nonproliferation policies -- okay, me -- as nonproliferation "purists" because we believe that the rules ought to be applied in a consistent and impartial manner to our friends, as well as our enemies. Worrying about special pleading, however, doesn't make one a "purist." It makes one aware that the legitimacy of any international regime is a fragile thing. It makes one careful not to let too many small changes accumulate catastrophically. The diplomat's preference to treat every case as sui generis amounts to having no rule at all, save that of the jungle. Yet if there is one realization of the nuclear age, it is the law of the jungle is simply too dangerous in a nuclear-armed world. That is the logic behind Kennedy's fear of 25 nuclear-armed states. And behind Gilpatric's conclusion that "the spread of nuclear weapons poses an increasingly grave threat to the United States." And it was, I thought, the logic behind why Barack Obama stated his "commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

We must have rules, even for our friends. We have enough exceptions already.

Library of Congress/Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense

National Security

Buzz Bomb

Why everyone's wrong about Assad's zombie gas.

Since the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad began to totter, the nonproliferation community has been waiting to see if he will unleash what is believed to be a large stockpile of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin, and mustard gas. The possibility that Assad might use chemical weapons is widely regarded as a possible trigger for U.S. intervention. In December, President Obama warned Assad of "consequences" in the event Syria used its chemical weapons. A few days earlier, Hillary Clinton warned that the United States was "certainly planning to take action" in the event of "credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people."

So, what makes for "credible evidence"? Enter Josh Rogin, reporter at Foreign Policy, who published a pair of stories detailing a State Department cable regarding possible chemical weapons use by Syrian forces in Homs. An administration official described the cable as having "made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23."

The implication, obviously, is that the "compelling case" is the "credible evidence" that should prompt Washington to rethink its policy limiting itself to "non-lethal" aid to Syrian opposition forces and take action. A reconsideration might be in order, though not for the reason you think.

For starters, somehow, no one has bothered to mention that Agent 15 doesn't exist.

Yep. Agent 15 is one of the bogus bits of intelligence that helped make the case for invading Iraq. Like many good fish stories, this one has a kernel of truth. A single document found by U.N. inspectors (at the infamous Chicken Farm, if you must know) mentioned something called "Agent 15." UNSCOM and others believed Agent 15 was a glycollate, related to laboratory experiments that Iraq admitted to with chemically similar incapacitants usually referred to as BZ or "buzz." But Iraq never produced BZ, Agent 15, or similar incapacitants.

"Agent 15" entered our collective lexicon in 1998, however, when the British announced they had "received intelligence, believed to be reliable, which indicated that, at the time of the Gulf War, Iraq may have possessed large quantities of a chemical warfare mental incapacitant agent known as "Agent 15." George Robertson, then defense secretary, described it as "one more filthy uncivilised weapon of war in [Saddam's] armoury." He warned that Agent 15 could result in: "dilated pupils, flushed faces, dry mouth, tachycardia, increase in skin and body temperature, weakness, dizziness, disorientation, visual hallucinations, confusions, loss of time sense, loss of co-ordination and stupor." In other words, it turns you into the stars of Absolutely Fabulous. (I've placed a copy of the MOD report on my blog, ArmsControlWonk.com.)

Robertson refused to divulge further details, claiming that the Ministry of Defense had yet to evaluate the report. In fact, he'd done quite enough. The always restrained British press went -- and I am going to use the technical term here -- apeshit. (My favorite headline: "Iraqi ‘zombie gas' arsenal revealed.")

The claim didn't stand up to scrutiny, even before the war. The United Kingdom doesn't seem to have asserted the existence of Agent 15 stockpiles after March 2002, which is about the time the CIA put out a fact sheet stating clearly that "Iraq never went beyond research with Agent 15." For all the bullshit reasons we invaded Iraq, Agent 15 was not one of them.

I don't want to spoil the ending if you still haven't gotten through Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, but we didn't find ­­any chemical weapons stockpiles in Iraq. No VX, no sarin, no Agent 15. The British government has not publicly revealed the source of the information, but one can get a flavor of the bum dope being peddled by Iraqi "sources" on chemical weapons from British and American reviews of the intelligence. Without naming names, these reports describe a litany of fabricators in surprising detail. (You want to read pp 100-101 of the Butler Report and pp. 126-130 of the Robb-Silberman Report.) In theory, this experience should be a cautionary tale.


Once "Agent 15" entered the debate, it stuck. It routinely appeared in laundry lists of Iraqi chemical agents from nongovernmental experts, presumably compiled by overworked interns. Eventually, there were reports of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah getting high on Agent 15 before battle. David Hambling wrote a hilarious, and appropriately skeptical, post about this silliness.

Now, to be clear: BZ is a real chemical incapacitant. The United States, the United Kingdom, and others stockpiled it. U.S. scientists discovered BZ in 1951, producing it as a byproduct of peaceful chemical production (though not in a pure or isolated form). Iraq did research on BZ, including importing a sample from Egypt. There is no evidence that Syria has a BZ program, which is probably why the National Security Council released a statement describing the allegations outlined in the cable as "not consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program."

Incapacitating agents, by the way, are not what one usually thinks of as "chemical weapons" -- nerve gas and the like. BZ and other chemical incapacitants arise out of the same deep well of craziness that led the government to develop LSD. The Chemical Weapons Convention largely dried up the crazy. We haven't seen something spectacularly stupid since 1994, when the predecessor of the Air Force Research Laboratory was considering a proposal to develop a chemical agent that would "cause homosexual behavior" in the hopes of adversely affecting "discipline and morale." Incapacitating agents like BZ are controlled under Schedule 2 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Schedule 1 is where are all the interesting things like mustard gas, sarin, and VX are listed. States do not even need to declare Schedule 2 chemicals if they are present in "low concentrations." In 2004, the states party to the CWC had a very boring, technical debate about when states should declare incidental production of BZ and two other Schedule 2 chemicals.

I don't want to minimize the dangers of incapacitating agents. As an impressionable research assistant at CSIS, I participated in a study on non-lethal weapons which made very clear that all "non-lethal" weapons can still kill some people, who react in all sorts of unique and individual ways. (There was a proposal for a sticky foam that would harden into something like concrete to immobilize rioters. It seemed like a really good idea -- for about 15 seconds, until someone asked how Han Solo breathed in carbonite.) At a simpler level, you can imagine the carnage if someone fired "just" tear gas into a nursing home.

But the allegation that Syria has used a chemical weapon isn't really about the dangers of BZ or incapacitating agents. It is really an argument about the Syrian government violating a norm that places them outside the family of nations and compels us to intervene. Sure you can torture people or shell their villages, but poison gas?

Not surprisingly, one finds plenty of evidence-less allegations of chemical weapons use by groups seeking to encourage foreign intervention. In July 1995, for example, the Bosnians alleged that Yugoslav forces gassed them with BZ -- at a time when the United States was still following Colin Powell's suggestion to let Bosnia burn. (A few weeks later Clinton would authorize an air campaign, Operation Deliberate Force, a decision Powell now says was the correct one.) Kosovar Albanians made similar allegations of BZ use in April 1999 during Operation Allied Force. There is not a lot of evidence for either claim and, to my knowledge, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has never charged any Serbs with regards to this. Perhaps it's too cynical to put allegations of chemical weapons use in the bin with bayonetting babies or dumping them out of incubators, but truth is the first casualty and all that.

Which brings us to the State Department cable. The United States does not have an embassy in Syria at the moment. The cable in question was sent from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which last I checked was in Turkey. So, who actually went to Homs to investigate these claims? According to portions of the cable reprinted by Rogin, a State Department "implementing partner" called Access Research Knowledge, using a local Syrian group called Basma, talked to three "contacts" in Syria. Stop me if you see where this is going.

We actually know a little bit about Access Research Knowledge (ARK) and Basma. Justin Vela wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled "Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns," which describes the two organizations:

ARK also provides funds and consulting to a new opposition media outlet founded by a group of liberal-minded Syrian activists called BasmaSyria.

A State Department spokesperson described ARK as "an implementing partner" of the U.S. nonlethal-aid program.

"ARK is currently undertaking activities to support the nonviolent Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society," the spokesperson said. "Project activities involving hundreds of beneficiaries have taken place in Syria and neighboring states since the onset of the Syrian crisis. It shares the inclusive vision of a future Syria for all Syrians where the rule of law is applied equally and the people of Syria are represented by a legitimate, responsive, and democratically elected government."

The activists themselves see the projects as a way to get their message out to the world more effectively.

"They are just helping us. We didn't study media; we didn't study photography," said an activist who works for BasmaSyria, which has distributed videos via YouTube, Facebook, and the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya since August.

To make it clear: These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda. Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use? (And don't get me started on these people diagnosing which chemicals were used based on grainy YouTube videos. Two words: Terry Schiavo.) Look, I am no seasoned intelligence professional. But perhaps this is not up to the standard set by Sherman Kent.

That is to say nothing of the leak. Let's face it: Leaks are often dissatisfied officials appealing a decision in the press. The Obama administration has clearly indicated that it does not think chemical weapons were used at Homs. Don't like the president's decision? Let me get you Josh Rogin's email.

Watching a U.S.-funded propaganda group "confirm" claims by Syrian opposition, I am reminded of the first rule of drug dealing: Don't get high on your own supply. (What? I saw Scarface.) The use of the non-existent Agent 15 moniker is too clever by half. What it tells you is that someone got on the internet.

I have no objection to the State Department or intelligence community making up terrible lies about Bashar al-Assad. Maybe we can dust off the old plan to film a Saddam-double screwing a rent boy. Or we can ring up Jerry Post to talk about Bashar's womb issues! All is fair in love and war.

And it may make humanitarian or strategic sense to intervene in Syria. The world would be a better place without the Assads, and vulnerable populations like the sick, elderly, and very young suffer and die disproportionately in protracted conflicts like this. One can certainly make a case for doing more than we are.

But we should not take a decision to intervene on the basis of the disinformation or propaganda we pay Syrian activists to create. I mean, imagine the consequences if the president were to order hundreds or thousands of U.S. servicemen and -women into harm's way to prevent an evil dictator from using weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be completely imaginary?

Oh, nevermind. When do we bomb Damascus?

-/AFP/Getty Images