The Nuclear Bluffers

Can tyrants win by pretending they're worse than they really are?

By Kenneth Adelman
Kenneth Adelman, a U.N. ambassador and arms control director under President Reagan, is co-host of TechCentral Station.com, an online think tank.

Los Angeles Times

October 22, 2004

Throughout history, world leaders have hidden their treaty violations and lied about it. No surprise there. But Saddam Hussein broke new ground in the world of strategic gamesmanship when he hid treaty compliance and lied about it.

It may sound weird, but the Duelfer Report documents that the weird was true. Since the 1991 Gulf War, Hussein actually complied with the U.N. resolutions that prohibited him from producing weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, he brazenly acted as if he were violating those resolutions.

It was the mother of all deceptions, and he succeeded nicely (until the moment he was overthrown, that is). We never, for a moment, suspected he was a clandestine complier.

Such behavior may seem inexplicable. Persuading the world's only superpower that you are not only a psychopath but that you are armed with the most dangerous weapons imaginable (when in fact you're not) seems, at the very least, counterintuitive.

But not so fast.

Instead of clinical psychologists, perhaps Hussein would be better analyzed by nuclear strategists. Because he may have created a stunning, new nuclear strategy.

After all, if a Third World country cannot be a nuclear power, there might be some value to being a nuclear bluffer. This might work almost as well — and without the cost of buying all those centrifuges and aluminum tubes clandestinely, and without the mess of dealing with dangerous uranium and plutonium.

Like a nascent nuclear power, a nuclear bluffer (or a nation that bluffs about having chemical and biological weapons) can frighten its neighbors, thereby deterring any aggression on their part (which is, after all, a key objective of nuclear strategy). It can reap gobs of attention on the world stage. It can encourage the richer countries to offer aid, nonaggression pacts and increased trade — if only the errant country would forgo the nuclear option (which, in fact, it isn't really pursuing).

Look at North Korea. It's a failed state by any measure, and it would receive about the same amount of attention as Burkina Faso if not for its nuclear program. Pyongyang's building and exporting medium-range missiles was bad enough.

But its nuclear program jumped this despotic nation to the top of foreign policy priorities. Envoys from the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea arrive on a regular basis to beg this pipsqueak country to be their negotiating partner.

That North Korea has an active nuclear program is deemed fact. U.S. intelligence reckons it already has a handful of bombs.

But, then again, we were convinced of Iraq's nuclear program too. How do we really know? Could it be that Kim Jong Il is nothing but a shrewd nuclear bluffer, like Hussein?

After all, North Korea is the most shrouded, secretive state on Earth, where facts about even the most mundane aspects of life are kept secret. It's to be expected therefore that the country's nuclear program — a subject that is shrouded even in the most open of countries — would be an especially dark hole. Especially because North Korea's program violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Yet on April 23, 2003, a top North Korean official — the aptly named Li Gun — took aside our assistant secretary of State, Jim Kelly, to "blatantly and boldly" announce that North Korea had at least one nuclear weapon, according to news reports. Li Gun popped the big question — "Now what are you going to do about it?" — and boasted that his guys would "prove" they had such weapons "soon." Well, that was a year and a half ago. Nothing more has been proved.

But the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and South Korea continue dangling aid, trade, contacts and other stuff before North Korea for nuclear cooperation.

Could North Korea be a clandestine complier — not a nuclear power but a nuclear bluffer?

I suspect not. Moreover, I wouldn't want to take the risk of presuming these villains were bluffing when they were actually proliferating. But even I have to wonder.

These tyrants — Hussein, the leaders of North Korea, the leaders of Iran — often seem like kids in their "terrible twos." They like all the attention reaped from bad behavior, more than any reward they'd reap from stopping such behavior.

But under our new theory, perhaps these adults aren't really bad at all. They're just acting as if they were being bad. Then how should we deal with them?

As you can see, this new nuclear strategy swiftly gets mind-bending.

But don't all nuclear strategies? It's no more mind-bending than Robert McNamara's Mutual Assured Destruction (a.k.a. MAD), which presumed that the Cold War nuclear standoff was a good thing because neither Russia nor the United States would dare attack the other for fear of ultimately annihilating itself. Just wait until game theorists model a world of six or more nuclear bluffers. Hussein — the first and trickiest of clandestine compliers — may rejuvenate the field of nuclear strategy, just when we figured it had played out its last mind games.