Bombs, away

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 16, 2005

SINCE 9/11, THE FADING FEAR of a nuclear war with Russia or China has been supplanted in many American minds by a new nightmare: what terrorists could do with a nuclear bomb. Now the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Mohamed ElBaradei, has proposed a sane way to think about — and work to prevent — that unfathomable threat.

ElBaradei shared the prize with the group he heads, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's chief nuclear watchdog. His speech, which managed to be both idealistic and pragmatic, deserves a wider audience.

ElBaradei began by noting that the five greatest threats to world peace are interrelated: poverty, infectious diseases and environmental degradation; armed conflict; organized crime; terrorism; and weapons of mass destruction. Injustice and inequalities of wealth and opportunity fuel not only wars, crime and terror, he said, but also the drive by poor and insecure nations to develop nuclear weapons to protect themselves or project their power. "With globalization bringing us ever closer together," he warned, "if we choose to ignore the insecurities of some, they will soon become the insecurities of all."

Yet efforts to keep nuclear material out of the hands of extremists are only half complete, he noted. He reiterated the now-familiar arguments for tightening controls over nuclear material and improving verification. Finally, he called for a global effort at disarmament — a priority the Bush administration has been dodging. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, he said, there are still 27,000 warheads among the eight or nine nations that have nuclear weapons — and world leaders still have just 30 minutes to decide whether to retaliate against a nuclear attack.

Outside the White House, the debate over the U.S. policy on nuclear weapons has been joined. Robert S. McNamara, secretary of Defense during the Cuban missile crisis, says the United States should end its Cold War reliance on nuclear weapons as a tool of foreign policy. Like several retired generals before him, McNamara argues that nuclear weapons are useless in fighting terrorism or rogue states and that their dangers (accidental use, potential diversion) now outweigh their benefits.

McNamara may overstate the case. And ElBaradei, ever the diplomat, is no nuclear abolitionist. Still, his call for the nuclear weapons states to reduce the strategic importance of their weapons was plain. "How do we create an environment," he asked, "in which unclear weapons — like slavery or genocide — are regarded as a taboo and a historical anomaly?"

It's a challenge for us all. But ElBaradei deserves credit for asking the right question.