Commentary

Are U.S. Government Efforts in Counterproliferation Counterproductive?

By Ivan Eland
July 28, 1999
Not surprisingly, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction recently reported that “the US Government is not effectively organized to combat proliferation.” The commission found that the spread of such weapons (nuclear, biological and chemical) to rogue states and terrorist groups “pose a grave threat to the United States” and “define a chilling new reality for our country.” But the panel noted that “many separate government agencies that have overlapping jurisdiction” are involved in combating proliferation. According to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the vice chairman of the commission, 96 agencies are pursuing counterproliferation efforts.

The bureaucratic feeding frenzy is on. Government agencies—always out to increase their budgets and functions—are attempting to grab their share of an expanding pot of money allocated to battling this threat. Even the Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture departments are getting into the act. But citizens should not equate expanding government involvement with an effective response to proliferation. At the news conference releasing the report, leading members of the commission reportedly emphasized the need to rein in the government’s woefully chaotic counterproliferation efforts. In fact, there are so many agencies involved that the Congress and the executive branch do not even know how much money is being spent on counterproliferation. The panel argued, “the result is not only inefficiency and duplication but also potentially catastrophic delay” in dealing with the implications of proliferation. In plain language that means more bureaucratic involvement might be counterproductive to a rapid response to an attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction.

Among other recommendations to help contain this chaos, the commission proposed creating a national director for combating proliferation—who would operate within the National Security Council—to coordinate government counterproliferation policy and programs and ensure the efficient allocation of resources.

Although it is laudable to increase interagency coordination so that the government’s efforts in combating proliferation are more focused, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound to the head. Any national director would find it difficult to coordinate the efforts of 96 agencies. Congress needs to end the bureaucratic dash for cash and streamline the counterproliferation effort by excluding unneeded agencies.

Of course, as the commission itself realized, governmental reorganization will not solve the proliferation problem. Bureaucratic remedies will merely give the U.S. government some hope of responding to a crisis more quickly and efficiently. And although the commission defines the government’s role in combating proliferation as preventing or impeding rogue states or terrorist groups from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction, rolling back or effectively addressing proliferation when it occurs and responding if the use of such weapons is threatened or carried out, the panel failed to acknowledge government’s responsibility for accelerating proliferation and for increasing the probability that a catastrophic attack will occur.

The interventionist foreign policy that the United States pursues worldwide actually encourages the proliferation that the government claims to be fighting. Chinese and Russian arms control negotiators recently argued that NATO countries (led by the United States) were destroying nonproliferation efforts with their war in Kosovo. Those arms negotiators added that NATO showed that it wouldn’t respect any country unless that nation possessed nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians are not engaged in idle chatter. When former Secretary of Defense William Perry—acting as special envoy to President Clinton—pressured North Korean leaders to end efforts to develop long-range missiles and fulfill their promise not to produce a nuclear weapon, he received a stiff response. The North Koreans noted that if they foreswore such weapons, the United States might accuse North Korea of human rights violations and begin bombing their nation into rubble—as the United States did in Serbia. When an Indian general was asked what lessons he had learned from the successful U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf War, he replied that one should not fight the United States without nuclear weapons.

U.S. meddling in foreign conflicts also increases the prospect that proliferated weapons will be used against the United States. According to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, terrorism is the most important threat the United States and the world face as the 21st century begins. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has noted the increased risk that such groups will obtain and use weapons of mass destruction. In a December 17, 1998, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing entitled “Does U.S. Intervention Breed Terrorism: The Historical Record,” I catalog at least 63 terrorist incidents that were retaliation for U.S. interventions overseas.

Defense experts believe that the greatest threat to the United States from proliferating weapons of mass destruction is posed by terrorist groups, because, unlike nations, they might not have a “return address” to which disproportionate retaliation could be directed. If terrorists obtain weapons of mass destruction, it will be difficult for the U.S. government to deter, prevent or mitigate such an attack—no matter how the bureaucracy is organized. The best defense against attacks by terrorist groups is to lower the profile of the United States as a target. This goal can best be accomplished by intervening in the affairs of other nations only in rare instances when U.S. vital interests are at stake.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.