Are U.S. Government Efforts in Counterproliferation Counterproductive?


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 toincrease their budgets and functions–are attempting to grab their share ofan expanding pot of money allocated to battling this threat. Even theCommerce, Treasury and Agriculture departments are getting into the act.But citizens should not equate expanding government involvement with aneffective response to proliferation. At the news conference releasing thereport, leading members of the commission reportedly emphasized the need torein in the government’s woefully chaotic counterproliferation efforts. Infact, there are so many agencies involved that the Congress and theexecutive branch do not even know how much money is being spent oncounterproliferation. The panel argued, “the result is not onlyinefficiency and duplication but also potentially catastrophic delay” indealing with the implications of proliferation. In plain language that meansmore bureaucratic involvement might be counterproductive to a rapid responseto an attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction.

Among other recommendations to help contain this chaos, the commissionproposed creating a national director for combating proliferation–who wouldoperate within the National Security Council–to coordinate governmentcounterproliferation policy and programs and ensure the efficient allocationof resources.

Although it is laudable to increase interagency coordination so that thegovernment’s efforts in combating proliferation are more focused, it’s likeputting a Band‐​Aid on a bullet wound to the head. Any national directorwould find it difficult to coordinate the efforts of 96 agencies. Congressneeds to end the bureaucratic dash for cash and streamline thecounterproliferation effort by excluding unneeded agencies.

Of course, as the commission itself realized, governmental reorganizationwill not solve the proliferation problem. Bureaucratic remedies will merelygive the U.S. government some hope of responding to a crisis more quicklyand efficiently. And although the commission defines the government’s rolein combating proliferation as preventing or impeding rogue states orterrorist groups from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction,rolling back or effectively addressing proliferation when it occurs andresponding if the use of such weapons is threatened or carried out, thepanel failed to acknowledge government’s responsibility for acceleratingproliferation and for increasing the probability that a catastrophic attackwill occur.

The interventionist foreign policy that the United States pursues worldwideactually encourages the proliferation that the government claims to befighting. Chinese and Russian arms control negotiators recently argued thatNATO countries (led by the United States) were destroying nonproliferationefforts with their war in Kosovo. Those arms negotiators added that NATOshowed that it wouldn’t respect any country unless that nation possessednuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Russians are not engaged in idle chatter. When formerSecretary of Defense William Perry–acting as special envoy to PresidentClinton–pressured North Korean leaders to end efforts to develop long‐​rangemissiles and fulfill their promise not to produce a nuclear weapon, hereceived a stiff response. The North Koreans noted that if they foresworesuch weapons, the United States might accuse North Korea of human rightsviolations and begin bombing their nation into rubble–as the United Statesdid in Serbia. When an Indian general was asked what lessons he had learnedfrom the successful U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf War, he repliedthat one should not fight the United States without nuclear weapons.

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

Defense experts believe that the greatest threat to the United States fromproliferating weapons of mass destruction is posed by terrorist groups,because, unlike nations, they might not have a “return address” to whichdisproportionate retaliation could be directed. If terrorists obtainweapons of mass destruction, it will be difficult for the U.S. government todeter, prevent or mitigate such an attack–no matter how the bureaucracy isorganized. The best defense against attacks by terrorist groups is to lowerthe profile of the United States as a target. This goal can best beaccomplished by intervening in the affairs of other nations only in rareinstances when U.S. vital interests are at stake.

Ivan Eland

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