Non-Proliferation, the Arab Spring, and Bin Laden: Why Nuclear Weapons may be a Good Idea for Dictators
by Mark Munson
The events of 2011, including the rapid spread of democratic social movements in the Middle East and the dramatic death of Osama bin Laden in a US special operations raid, provide insight into the state of global non-proliferation efforts and why possessing the nuclear option may seem even more rational today for the world's dictators than in the past. The continued security relevance of nuclear weapons to states has been identified by figures as varied as AQ Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, and Bing West, former Reagan administration Defense Department official and author, who both recently argued that there would have been no military intervention against a nuclear-armed Libya (Khan presented his views in a May Newsweek column, West at a Center for New American Security conference in June).
Libya: Muammar Gadhafi today likely regrets that he shut down Libya's nuclear program in 2003. Gadhafi's retreat on WMD followed the invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's ouster, and was the culmination of a process of normalization with the West and the international community. This act and others, such as accepting responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, resulted in Libya being removed from the US list of states supporting terrorism and opened up Libya to the global economy, especially improving ties with Italy, whose firms secured lucrative contracts in the Libyan energy sector and also received significant investment from the Gadhafis. The West was quite comfortable with Gadhafi continuing to run an oppressive dictatorship as long as the money flowed and he no longer supported international terrorism.
However, in light of the growth of a grass-roots Libyan opposition inspired by the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the continuing existence of a government led by an unstable tyrant —to unleash the full violence of his armed forces against civilians proved unacceptable the international community. With even states such as Saudi Arabia and UAE supporting Arab League calls for a no-fly zone (while they were simultaneously sending troops to Bahrain to crush another democratic uprising), the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing armed intervention to protect the Libyan rebels. While Gadhafi's resume as a bad actor is so extensive that some NATO member states would have felt pressed to conduct strikes against even a nuclear-armed Libya, it is highly likely that Gadhafi may regret his rapprochement with the West and feel that nuclear weapons would have shielded him from outside intervention and allowed him to crush the rebels in Benghazi.
Syria: The response of Bashar Assad' government to demonstrations calling for a democratic Syria has been violent and repressive, with thousands dead and many more detained across the country. As far as is known publicly, the Syrian nuclear program ended in 2007 when the Israeli air force destroyed what has since been described as a nuclear reactor by the IAEA. Initially following Syrian protests earlier this year, Syrian Baathists were safe from outside intervention, ironically in part due to the Arab spring. With the future security policies of a democratizing Egypt unclear, the relative stability of an Assad-led Syria may have been comforting to other regional powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. As the death toll mounts in Syria, however, the likelihood of intervention from a neighbor such as Turkey increases. Regardless, the options available to a non-nuclear Syria's neighbors are greater than they would have been if the 2007 Israeli strike against the Al-Kibar facility had never taken place.
Iran: Iran's nuclear program continues despite its being signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To date, multi-lateral diplomatic efforts have failed to stops Iran's nuclear efforts, and it is unclear whether they will ever succeed. The democratic risings of the Arab world have likely reaffirmed the importance of nuclear weapons to the mullahs, especially in light of NATO attacks against Libya and the continuing echoes of Iran's own democratic protest movement following the 2009 election. In fact, Iran's government has cracked down even more harshly against its own opposition following the events in Tunisia and Egypt. If anything, looming over efforts to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program voluntarily are threats that it could be subject to strikes similar to those executed by Israel against Iraq's Osiraq reactor in 1981 and Syria in 2007, reaffirming the validity of implementing a nuclear capability before it can be eliminated.
North Korea: North Korean leaders took the opposite course of action from Libya following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, re-energizing the pariah state's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, seeing them as a shield against potential attack. Of particular recent interest, the November 2010 revelation that North Korea possessed nuclear enrichment facilities that were much more substantial than previous assessed by nuclear monitors nearly coincided with attacks against South Korean-held islands along the Northern Limit Line. This muscular and aggressive policy may be attributed to the 2010 announcement of Kim Jung-il's son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. A North Korean nuclear arsenal is likely viewed as a pillar of regime survival and an integral component of any campaign to ensure the succession of Kim Jong-il's son.
Pakistan: Pakistan's nuclear program exemplifies its strained civil-military relations. Pakistan's history is full of instances in which the generals have not allowed the state's civilian leaders to have any control over national security policies. While the debate still rages over exactly what the Pakistani government knew regarding the location of Osama bin Laden, it is quite plausible that his hiding place in Abbottabad was another secret withheld from civilian leaders by some element of the military or security services.
What is clear is that Pakistan's military leaders have lost significant face following the US raid, either because they deliberately hid bin Laden for years (during which Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists had waged a deadly campaign against Pakistan's own citizens), or because of the Pakistani military's inability to defend its own sovereign airspace and territory against outside intervention or aggression. India's army chief has even piled on, claiming that India could also carry out similar raids against Pakistan.
Pakistan's military has historically portrayed itself as the institution ensuring the existence of the Pakistani state. A military that has demonstrated that it is either incapable of defending against outside aggression (by the US, or more importantly, India) or complicit in the sheltering of the world's most wanted man, may be forced to rely even more on the existence of its nuclear arsenal as the guarantor of Pakistan's survival.
Despite the many positive geopolitical developments of the last several months, current events do not bode well for the continued spread of nuclear non-proliferation as a global norm. States which do not comply with non-proliferation are either actively rewarded (this includes the US acceptance of India's nuclear program), or have not faced outside intervention (North Korea, Iran). States such as Libya that have played by the rules were easily thrown aside when their behavior was viewed as unacceptable by the international community. The pursuit of nuclear weapons still seems like an attractive course of action for authoritarian rulers.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson currently serves as the Intelligence Officer for Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR. He has previously served onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2) and at the Office of Naval Intelligence.