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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Lowering risks from WMD

LONDON -- The decision of the Libyan regime to declare and destroy its weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, is clearly beneficial to world peace and is a most welcome development. But we should beware claims by some Western leaders that this has come about because the Libyan dictator has seen what happened to Iraq and does not want to suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

We should also be wary of praising Moammar Gadhafi for "his courage" and "statesmanship." Let us rather recognize that he has shown that he is not the demented megalomaniac some observers thought but rather a realist who has at last recognized that his country is suffering from sanctions and isolation.

If his regime is to survive, the Libyan economy must be developed, and this requires Western capital and expertise that can only be obtained if he comes to terms with the countries that he has hitherto regarded as his enemies.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to visit Gadhafi in his tent outside Tripoli may have been necessary, but in view of the appalling human rights record of the undemocratic Libyan regime it has been widely criticized. Some see it as the price Britain must pay for the chance to win lucrative contracts in Libya; others argue that Britain won't be the first or the last to suck up to a dictator. Certainly French President Jacques Chirac has the reputation of being willing to forget principles in order to achieve commercial gains for France.

It would be a mistake to expect that the Libyan example will be followed by Iran and North Korea. Libya is a secular state and increasingly concerned about Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa, while Iran is still largely under the sway of conservative clerics who remain hostile to the United States and Western notions of human rights. Moreover, although Iran's economy and living standards could well benefit from Western investment and increased trade, there are no signs of an economic crisis.

Iran has, of course, noted the plight of neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan, but Iran fought a long and bloody war with Iraq and it had no love for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran regards Israel as its particular enemy and is concerned with the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East in possession of nuclear weapons. It knows that the Americans condone Israeli actions in Palestine and will not take any steps to persuade Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.

Israel is seen by the Americans as a democratic state. In their view, therefore, it can be trusted not to misuse its nuclear weapons. But this is not Iran's view. It sees the Americans as condoning human rights abuses by Israeli forces in their efforts to deal with suicide bombers and as unwilling to put pressure on Israel to accept a viable two-state solution to the Palestine problem.

American suspicions of Iranian nuclear intentions have been at least partly justified by reports from neutral inspectors. In view of past history, American reluctance to try to open a dialogue with Iran is understandable. But American rhetoric on the potential threat from Iran may lead to an increase in the threat rather than a decrease.

North Korea is again quite different. The North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il is inevitably, because of the country's self-imposed isolation, very ill-informed about the world outside. The rest of the world also lacks wholly reliable intelligence about North Korea's military and nuclear capabilities.

Some observers may be tempted to write off North Korean claims as either vain boastings or bluff, but none can afford to be complacent in the face of a nuclear threat, however slim the evidence of its existence. The likelihood of Kim following in Gadhafi's footsteps and unilaterally renouncing WMD is, to say the least, remote. The needs of North Korea are far greater than those of Libya, and the ideological obstacles to a deal are much greater.

The Americans don't like the idea, but there is a case for trying to bring North Korea out of its isolation by trying harder to develop a dialogue and inviting North Koreans to travel and see for themselves that the rest of the world is not bent on their destruction.

The extent to which Pakistan provided nuclear knowhow to Iran, North Korea and other countries may be known to Western intelligence services, but is not yet public knowledge. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear capabilities with neither country likely to give up its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

The biggest problem with eliminating WMD is the extent of proliferation thus far. The "have-not" states should not, in theory, be frightened of the states that have such weapons because they should trust in the protection of the United Nations, the allegedly good intentions of the one superpower and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. But since the Iraq war, which the U.N. was unable to stop, as well as understandable doubts about the good intentions of the major powers (especially demands for "regime change" in countries perceived as threats), it is inevitable that less powerful states are concerned about their future security.

There are no easy answers to the problems involved in eliminating WMD. The U.N. is not an ideal organization, although it is better equipped than the former League of Nations. Member states need to make a renewed effort to strengthen the U.N. and improve its enforcement capabilities. They must also try much harder to stop the trade in weapons systems.

The U.S., in particular, needs to be much less unilateralist and more multilateralist in its approach if it is to persuade world opinion that its intentions and policies will make for a more peaceful world. That means less silly political rhetoric about evil regimes, greater public sensitivity to other peoples and their cultures, and more evenhanded policies especially in the Middle East. This may be difficult to achieve in a presidential election year, but all friends of the U.S. must pray that, in the course of what looks like being a bitter electoral campaign, ill-judged comments on foreign policy issues will be kept to a minimum.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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