The Rising East


Sunday, November 18, 2001

Emerging ‘Fire in the
East’ replaces old Cold
War nuclear threats

By the mid-1980s, many American and presumably Russian "nuclear theologians" doubted there would be a nuclear exchange between their respective nations. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, hundreds of war games and computer simulations since then, and the deterrence known as mutual assured destruction, or MAD, had made clear to both sides that no one would win a nuclear war.

As Harold Brown, President Carter's Secretary of Defense, wrote: "After a nuclear war, the living would envy the dead."

When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989 and the Soviet Union was dissolved shortly after, the Cold War ended. Arms control agreements started to take effect and the nuclear theologians who parsed the arcane doctrines of nuclear war thought the threat had receded even more.

Not so. Today, the world is confronted with a danger of nuclear assault that is probably more serious than at any time since 200,000 Japanese died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. William Perry, who was Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, has written: "Nuclear or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists or rogue states constitute the greatest single danger to American security -- indeed, to world security."

Perry, who has thrice served in senior positions in the Defense Department, said in the journal Foreign Affairs that "know-how for making nuclear arms is increasingly available on the Internet." Security controls on the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in a dozen nations have become uncertain. "The thriving black market in fissile material," he says, "suggests that the demand is high."

The latest to claim nuclear weapons is Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian mastermind of the Sept. 11 assaults in New York and Washington. He told a Pakistani journalist earlier this month that he might use nuclear weapons against America if the United States used them first. "We have the weapons as deterrent," he said.

The interviewer, Hamid Mir, asked: "Where did you get these weapons?" Osama bin Laden replied: "Go to the next question."

Five years ago, bin Laden's claim might have been brushed off as bravado. Today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he doubted that bin Laden had acquired the weapons. But he sounded not quite so certain as he might have five years ago.

At a special session on nuclear terror called by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in Vienna earlier this month, Charles Curtis, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. foundation, said: "There are good reasons to be concerned ... thresholds have been crossed ... we can now imagine our worst scenarios."

Among those fearful scenarios is that Pakistan, with all its political volatility, could fall under the control of an extremist Muslim regime. President Pervez Musharraf took some pains during his recent visit to the United States to assert that his nation's nuclear arsenal was carefully controlled.

A different kind of anxiety is directed toward India, which is that New Delhi's brief experience with nuclear arms may cause Indians to miscalculate. Where the Americans and Russians were separated by two oceans and caught in an ideological rivalry, India and Pakistan butt against one another in a rivalry that is almost purely emotional, upping the chances for an irrational decision.

Iraq had its nuclear facility bombed out by Israel in 1981 but rebuilt and, despite its defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, retains enough engineers to try to build nuclear arms secretly. Iran is also believed to be pursuing a secret nuclear program. Libya continues to show a desire to acquire at least a small nuclear stockpile.

North Korea supposedly halted its nuclear program in 1994 in exchange for a nuclear power reactor to be built by South Korea, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang, however, has denied almost every effort by the IAEA to inspect its nuclear facilities. Rumors abound that it has pushed ahead.

In a prescient book, "Fire in the East," Paul Bracken asserted that by 1999 "nuclear weapons had come back from the realm of the presumed dead."

Bracken, a strategic thinker who teaches at Yale, then produced a startling summary: "The world is in a second nuclear age, an Asian nuclear age."

It almost makes it seem as if President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who met last week to seek new arms agreements, have been overtaken by events in Asia.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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