The 18th-century English wit Samuel Johnson was once heard to observe that nothing so concentrates a man's mind as the knowledge that he is to be hanged in a fortnight. Watching another get led up onto the gallows must surely elicit a like response — particularly for one who's quite as guilty as the condemned.
Such is the reaction the United States appears to have fostered in the mind of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi by launching Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As American precision-guided munitions began to destroy the command and control apparatus of Saddam Hussein's army and American armored columns began their inexorable drive toward Baghdad, Gadhafi made an overture to the United States and Britain that began nine months of top-secret diplomacy — a process that Friday culminated in an announcement that Libya had agreed to halt what has been revealed to be a well-advanced program to develop weapons of mass destruction and dismantle them under international inspection.
This is a splendid development, one that will defuse what could have evolved into a major threat to the Mideast region. Libya's nuclear program in particular has turned out to be much farther along than Western analysts had suspected: in one of two visits to Libya during the negotiations, weapons experts and intelligence officials were shown 10 nuclear-related sites, as well as centrifuges for producing the highly enriched uranium necessary for atomic bomb production. One British observer told reporters that while Libya had not yet made such a weapon “it was close to producing one.”
The Libyans also showed their visitors stocks of mustard gas, equipment for fabricating nerve gas, and missiles provided by North Korea. All will be dismantled under the new accord.
Revealing the agreement, President Bush implicitly urged other countries with WMD programs to follow suit.
“When leaders make the wise and responsible choice,” he said, “when they renounce terror and weapons of mass destruction, as Col. Gadhafi has now done, they serve the interest of their own people and add to the security of all nations.”
The president can take pride in this diplomatic triumph, which does indeed make for a safer world. But its lustre is tarnished by an action he took earlier this month: signing into law an energy bill that, according to Daniel Sneider of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, puts the U.S. “on the road to developing and eventually testing new nuclear weapons for the first time since the end of the Cold War.”
The bill funds research on “mini-nukes” — warheads with about a third of the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima during World War II — and “bunker buster” warheads capable of burrowing deep into the earth to destroy underground enemy targets.
Moreover, it provides money to refurbish the underground nuclear test site in Nevada, compressing considerably the time needed to resume such tests — which were halted in 1992.
Quite apart from the two-facedness of congratulating Libya for ending its nuclear program even as we take steps to revive our own, there are grave problems with these measures. First, should we develop these compact nukes — which add flexibility to our deterrent but are also tailor-made for terrorism — we can have no guarantee that others will not do likewise, either by stealing our designs through espionage or coming up with their own. (Recall that the Soviets got their bomb a bare four years after we developed ours.) Second, a “nuke lite” could lower the psychological barrier now barring use of the nuclear option, with consequences none can foresee.
The administration should heed its own exhortations and make its own “wise and responsible choice” — to turn off of this perilous road.