“Proliferation,” Via Meadia wrote in January 2010, “is not just a question of a few rogue states and terror organizations.” From nuclear bombs to Kalashnikovs, weapons are easier to find, simpler to design, build and operate, and deadlier than ever. Technological progress in a globalized world inevitably shifts powerful killing machines from wealthy armies to rogue terrorists. “Ratty bands of pirates and child soldiers in the hardscrabble boondocks can now get their hands on what, not very long ago, were the most advanced infantry weapons in the world.” Since Via Meadia wrote those words, grand acts of biological warfare and explosions of nuclear material have thankfully not come to pass. Yet the proliferation of weapons globally has escalated even as the scope of asymmetrical warfare has changed.Candidate Obama made the global elimination of nuclear weapons a big campaign issue: in 2008, he promised to “lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years.” He has done well on a number of fronts: The new START treaty with Russia mandates that both Washington and Moscow cooperate on reducing nuclear stockpiles and combating the spread of nuclear material and know-how. As a result of the Nuclear Security Summit, convened by Obama early in his presidency, various former Soviet states have made progress on removing nuclear weapons material from their soil.Yet the big nuclear question—Iran—is more pressing than ever. Obama has made it clear that a military option is still on the table. Israel has similarly not backed down. To what effect? Iran, despite sanctions and increasing political isolation, is barreling ahead with its nuclear weapons ambitions, according to the IAEA. The mullahs’ getting a bomb would cast a shroud over all Obama’s proliferation accomplishments to date, and the US is closer to having to make a fateful choice between war with Iran or accepting an Iranian bomb than it was in 2008.Would that Iran were the only nuclear-fueled headache for Washington. Pakistan keeps U.S. officials up at nights too. Its military leadership is constantly afraid that the United States will confiscate its nuclear weapons. The US, in turn, is afraid that militants or rogue elements within Pakistan’s armed forces will somehow get their hands on them. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder describe in a recent Atlantic article, this state of affairs prompts Pakistan’s nuclear watchmen to do extremely risky things to protect their stockpiles:
Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. Western nuclear experts have feared that Pakistan is building small, “tactical” nuclear weapons for quick deployment on the battlefield. In fact, not only is Pakistan building these devices, it is also now moving them over roads.
A non-democratic, anti-American country whose leaders have close ties with terrorists and a habit of defying international authorities on the sale of nuclear materials: this is our worst proliferation nightmare and it is angry and it is real. The Obama administration has been no more successful than its predecessor in dealing with a problem that gets worse over time.Proliferation is about more than just weapons of mass destruction. Small arms and small conflicts can be almost as devastating over the long haul. For one, small arms and explosives are more available and more prevalent in conflict areas than ever before. Worse, they’re durable, able to last through the ages. Functioning WWI-era Lee-Enfield rifles have been uncovered in Taliban weapons caches in Afghanistan. Properly maintained, these weapons are just as deadly as they were in 1915.The NATO intervention in Libya sparked fears about the security of Qaddafi’s weapons stockpiles. The Great Loon certainly did have a serious arsenal, including chemical weapons. Much of that has been secured, but, worryingly, weapons like portable surface-to-air missile launchers and rocket launchers have gone missing. While in many cases these pose no serious threat to a modern fighter jet, they could easily bring down a passenger airliner. Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda and their comrades in arms swarmed to the mayhem of post-Qaddafi Libya, on the lookout for all sorts of bargains and freebees. Keeping Qaddafi’s stockpiles under lock and key in the now-chaotic Libya will be costly. Since toppling the Great Loon, Libya’s tribes and factions are starting to turn on each other. If the violence spirals out of control, no one will have to go far to find guns and ammo.Proliferation is just as frightening an issue today as it was in January 2010. Via Meadia doesn’t think that will change anytime soon. The dream of nuclear disarmament is just that: a dream. On the proliferation issue, expect to whimper as we keep hearing more bangs.