Disarmament Wars

NEW YORK – On April 13, Iran is scheduled meet with representatives of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – plus Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) in an effort to decide the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly preparing its third nuclear test, as if to provide a discordant sound track for the talks.

If the talks fail, and military action against Iran becomes more likely, no one should be surprised. Over the past decade, a new kind of war has been invented: a war designed to stop a country from obtaining nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The first “disarmament war” was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its goal, spelled out plainly by US President George W. Bush’s administration to the Security Council and the US Congress, was to destroy Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and production facilities. Of course, as it turned out, no such stockpiles or facilities were found, and the war proved to be an exercise in bloody futility.

This experience illustrates one of the great drawbacks of the use of force as a tool of disarmament. An attack must be timed to perfection, and it must be launched after the WMD programs are in operation and evident, but before they have produced any weapons. If the attack comes too early – or if, as in Iraq, the programs are not there at all – people will die for nothing. But if the weapons have already been produced, the attack could prompt their use and, possibly, counter-use by the invading party, leading, conceivably, to the world’s first two-sided nuclear war.