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Moral Hazard

How conservatism leaves us vulnerable to nuclear terrorism.

Existential Crisis

DEMOCRACY HAS BECOME George W. Bush's reflexive answer to terrorism. Before the wreckage left by the July 7 bombings in London had even cooled, he broke from the G-8 summit in Scotland to explain how we would defeat the perpetrators of such attacks: "We will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate." Four days later, he elaborated, "Today in the Middle East, freedom is once again contending with an ideology that seeks to sow anger and hatred and despair. And, like fascism and communism before, the hateful ideologies that use terror will be defeated by the unstoppable power of freedom and democracy." This, of course, was not a new interpretation of the war on terrorism for the president, who, in his second inaugural this January, actually elevated democratization to the level of grand strategy, saying, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." A resounding sentiment--one that has provided the president with a powerful foreign policy narrative and convinced voters last November that, despite the tragedies of the Iraq war, he can best protect our national security. Yet the notion that we should defend ourselves chiefly by spreading democracy seems less than reassuring on the heels of the July 7 attack. After all, the four bombers who struck London were British--residents of one of the world's oldest and most stable democracies.

The war on terrorism is, at some level, a war of ideas: To the extent that we can substitute democracy and liberal values for autocracy and Islamic fundamentalism, we will probably improve our security--and we should therefore try to do so. But freedom--as Richard Haass, Bush's former director of policy planning at the State Department, has written--is not a doctrine. That is, the spread of freedom cannot be our guiding principle in the war on terrorism, because the spread of freedom cannot protect us from all terrorist threats, particularly the immediate ones. In fact, in the short term, democratization appears to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, terrorism. The case in point is, of course, Iraq, which, according to the National Intelligence Council, now serves as a training and recruitment ground for the next generation of jihadists--its popularly elected government notwithstanding. Even nations that successfully transition to democracy can breed terrorism: As former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has written, "In Indonesia, which just achieved its third democratic transfer of power since Suharto's rule ended in 1998, the jihadist movement is growing stronger, as it is in other Asian democracies. In Algeria, free elections in 1990 and 1991 resulted in victories for those who advocated a jihadist theocracy." Even if the president's assumptions about the pacifying effects of representative government are correct, democratization is a long-term process, taking years, decades, even centuries. Bush doesn't dispute this; in his second inaugural address, he said that spreading freedom would be the "work of generations."

Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time--not when the next terrorist attack could be nuclear. According to a recent survey conducted by Senator Richard Lugar, proliferation experts believe on average there is about a 30 percent chance of a successful nuclear attack somewhere in the world within the next ten years. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has put the odds of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil by 2010 at 50 percent. Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, has put the odds at better than half within ten years. Unlike an attack with a conventional weapon--or even a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon--a nuclear bomb has the potential to radically alter the U.S. economic and political landscape. Although we think of the September 11 attacks as having "changed everything," they did not. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, but the political and economic fabric of the country was not torn apart. Clearly, our foreign policy underwent a massive shift, but day-to-day life in the United States proceeds much as it did on September 10, 2001.

That would not be the case if the next terrorist attack were nuclear. A ten-kiloton bomb detonated in a U.S. city would immediately kill tens of thousands--perhaps hundreds of thousands--of people. A plume of fallout would waft from the site of the explosion, sickening and killing thousands more and contaminating 3,000 square miles of land. Hundreds of thousands of people would need to be evacuated. The infrastructure damage would be enormous: Everything within a half-mile radius of the explosion would be flattened; beyond that, buildings still standing would be mere shells, their facades stripped. The immediate economic damage--the damage from the "hole in the ground," as one expert put it to me--could total $500 billion. But the greater cost would come from disruption to the national and international economies. Combined with the blow to U.S. productivity from lives lost, the cost of an attack would total trillions of dollars. No other terrorist incident could do that much damage. Indeed, of 15 scenarios discussed in a 2004 report by the Homeland Security Council--including terrorist attacks with chemical, biological, and radiological weapons--only a nuclear attack is certain to require years of recovery time. This leads to a simple conclusion: In the near term, the war on terrorism--whatever else it is--should first be a war on nuclear terrorism.

It has become all too clear, however, that this is a war the Bush administration is spectacularly ill-equipped to fight, handicapped as it is by a worldview that revolves around our enemies' intentions rather than their capabilities. Democratization is a strategy to change the behavior of our enemies by draining them of hatred. But we cannot fully erase hatred, and Bush's "hope and compassion" are thin defenses against a nuclear weapon. A better tack would be to strip our enemies of the ability to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place--a difficult goal, but an achievable one, given that there is a finite amount of the fissile material needed to make nuclear weapons and that, by themselves, terrorists can't produce more. Alas, the very ideology that has led Bush to embrace democratization has also mired him in a nonproliferation strategy that emphasizes regime change while eschewing diplomacy. The administration is consumed by the idea that the character of states is of primary importance to U.S. security. This ideology, this conservative fixation, explains why, for much of Bush's presidency, his administration focused on Iraq to the exclusion of North Korea and Iran. It explains why Bush stood by while Pyongyang moved to produce enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons. It even explains why he has acted so slowly in securing the hundreds of tons of vulnerable nuclear material in Russia. Indeed, an examination of the Bush administration's ideology shows that, not only has it made some bad decisions for U.S. security, but that it is constitutionally incapable of making the right ones.

Intentional Foul

TO MOST AMERICANS, it is self-evident that George W. Bush understands the significance of the nuclear threat. It was Bush, after all, who, just months after the September 11 attacks, declared Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil," because they were "seeking weapons of mass destruction" and "could provide these arms to terrorists." It was Bush who argued, in his June 2002 West Point graduation speech, that "the war on terror will not be won on the defensive," because "containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." It was Bush who elevated preemption to the level of doctrine in his National Security Strategy, because, "in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world's most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather." And, of course, it was Bush who said in October 2002 that we needed to confront Iraq lest Saddam Hussein "be in a position to threaten America ... [or] to pass nuclear technology to terrorists." But, if Bush truly understands the significance of the nuclear threat, then why did he focus on Iraq and ignore Iran and North Korea, which, as of late 2002 and early 2003, clearly posed greater nuclear dangers?

In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a group opposed to Tehran's ruling mullahs, announced that Iran was covertly building uranium-enrichment facilities near the towns of Arak and Natanz. Then, in December, a Washington-based nonprofit announced that analysis of photos and satellite images of the sites confirmed the group's claims. In February 2003, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami acknowledged that Iran was building facilities that would enable it to control the entire nuclear fuel cycle--from uranium-mining to enrichment to reprocessing--meaning it would be able to produce fissile material for weapons. And, several weeks later, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) sent to inspect Natanz were reportedly shocked to discover more than 100 functioning centrifuges and parts for hundreds more. Also in February 2003, the Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that Tehran could have an atomic bomb by the end of the decade--about the same time the intelligence community thought Saddam could. What's more, the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, released in March 2003, concluded that "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2002."

North Korea presented an even clearer threat. When Bush took office, North Korea was already thought to have one or two bombs' worth of plutonium, and, in October 2002, just two days before Bush gave a major speech calling the threat from Iraq "unique," North Korea reportedly told an American official it had a secret--and illicit--program to enrich uranium. Amid the diplomatic fallout from that admission, Pyongyang restarted a nuclear plant and a reprocessing facility that had been shut down by a 1994 agreement with the United States. By the time the United States invaded Iraq, North Korea was in a position to produce four to six bombs' worth of plutonium within six months. Though it had few terrorist ties, it had a known history of exporting weapons technology to countries like Pakistan.

In other words, while Iraq was merely suspected of having a nuclear program that would take years to produce a nuclear weapon, North Korea, a known weapons proliferator, had a nuclear program that could produce plutonium for weapons within months; and Iran, whose terrorist ties were more extensive than Iraq's, was clearly on the cusp of producing fissile material. Yet, while the president and his advisers were warning of impending Iraqi mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, they dismissed the notion that the situation in North Korea was a crisis, and they ignored Iran. They went to war even after, on March 7, 2003, iaea chief Mohamed ElBaradei reported, "After three months of intrusive inspections, we have, to date, found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq." While hawks in the United States clamored about the danger from Iraq's weapons, the inspectors on the ground in Iraq were telling us there were none. This judgment was confirmed after the war by the U.S. Iraq Survey Group, which concluded, "Iraq did not possess a nuclear device, nor had it tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991." From a nuclear security perspective, then, the decision to invade Iraq looks horribly misguided.

The reason for Bush's poor judgment is that, despite his public pronouncements, nuclear weapons were not his priority; regime change in Iraq was. This goal was not, as some critics have claimed, merely a function of the long-standing Iraq obsession some of his officials evinced; it was a function of the ideology that drove the Bush White House. Conservatives start with the premise that states (as opposed to, say, international institutions or even terrorist groups) drive international behavior. So, after the September 11 attacks, they argued that the best way to fight terrorism was to fight the regimes that support it. As then- Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said on September 13, 2001, fighting terrorism "is not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism." Insofar as nuclear terrorism goes, there is a lot to be said for focusing on states: Producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon requires such extensive infrastructure that only states can do it; so, if you can stop them from giving nuclear material to terrorists, you can stop nuclear terrorism. Alas, the White House's state-centrism did not yield a focus on rogue states' capabilities, but rather on their intentions. Bush officials wanted not simply to defang enemy regimes, but to change them--to end them, as Wolfowitz said. This preference for regime change as post-September 11 strategy is the natural outgrowth of the conservative belief that the moral character of a state should determine how the United States engages it, or whether it does so at all. As Dick Cheney once put it, "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." Negotiating with monstrous regimes like Saddam's is considered appeasement, making force the preferred method of dealing with them--an instinct that dovetails nicely with conservatism's post-Vietnam concern with rebuilding the U.S. military and reasserting U.S. primacy.

For conservatives, then, Iraq--an odious regime that was susceptible to change because of its military weakness--was the most logical target for action. Iran and North Korea, by contrast, while hardly paragons of liberalism, did not spark the same moral outrage in conservatives that, say, Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds did. Moreover, a case could be made that regime change in Iraq could spark regime change elsewhere in the Middle East--a case that could not be made for North Korea. And, finally, Iran and North Korea posed far more substantial military challenges. Iran, in the words of Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, has "three times the population, four times the landmass, and five times the problems" as Iraq. North Korea has a million-man army, and U.S. war games suggest that combat with the North could leave hundreds of thousands of Americans and South Koreans dead. Ridding the world of a monster via regime change thus became its own goal, irrespective of the threat to U.S. security. The danger--or lack thereof--from Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction was almost beside the point. As Wolfowitz admitted to Vanity Fair in May 2003, the WMD argument that Bush made was one of convenience: "The truth is that, for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction."

UNFORTUNATELY, REGIME CHANGE was not only the administration's preferred end in Iraq, but its preferred means everywhere else, as well. If negotiating with evil regimes equals appeasement, then diplomacy to resolve rogue-state nuclear threats is out of the question. But, aside from military action, conservatism suggests few courses of action, and, with the bulk of our combat forces tied up in Iraq, forcible regime change was not an option in North Korea or Iran. So, not only did conservatism lead us to war against a nation that was not threatening us, it paralyzed us from dealing with those nations that were.

From his first days in office, Bush refused to engage North Korea. In March 2001, he announced that he would not continue talks begun by the Clinton administration with Pyongyang to end its missile program, saying he had "skepticism" about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. A senior American official told journalist James Mann that the administration didn't want to deal with North Korea because it wasn't a democracy. As Mann explains in his book Rise of the Vulcans, for the Bush administration, "[n]o deal was better than one that didn't work or one that helped keep a brutal regime in power." That attitude was only reinforced once North Korea admitted its uranium-enrichment program. For three months, the Bush team simply refused to talk to Pyongyang. Indeed, as was recently reported by journalist Don Oberdorfer and former U.S. Ambassador Donald Gregg, it spurned a direct offer from Kim to Bush that read, "If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non-aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century." When the United States did eventually sit down with North Korea, it would do so only if China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea also participated in six-party talks, so that it could not be seen as giving in to North Korea's request for bilateral negotiations. And, for more than a year, it refused to address any of North Korea's concerns, instead simply repeating over and over that Pyongyang needed to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program before the United States would engage. In fact, the administration routinely went out of its way to insult North Korea, for no discernable reason other than to prevent diplomatic progress. (It is not a stretch to think that one of the reasons the six-party talks resumed this week after a yearlong lull is that Bush started referring to North Korea's leader as "Mr. Kim," instead of "pygmy" or "tyrant.")

Which is not to say the Bush administration has no strategy--it's just not a very good one. Both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney have suggested that economic pressure could force Kim's downfall--i.e., nonmilitary regime change. As a Bush official told The New York Times' Bill Keller in 2003, "If we could have containment that's tailored to the conditions of North Korea and not continue to throw it lifelines like we have in the past, I think it goes away." But regime change via containment is a long shot. The North Koreans have endured 50-plus years of U.S. sanctions, and even the fact that millions of North Koreans are starving or severely malnourished has done little to destabilize the government or weaken its negotiating position. As Nicholas Kristof of the Times recently reported from Pyongyang, "The central paradox of North Korea is this: No government in the world today is more brutal or has failed its people more abjectly, yet it appears to be in solid control and may even have substantial popular support." The Bush administration has been hoping the Chinese, on whom the North Koreans depend for food and energy, would be willing to cut off aid, but Beijing fears instability on the Korean Peninsula more than it fears a nuclearized North.

The administration's response to critics who question containment's efficacy is the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a loose federation of countries who cooperate to interdict illegal weapons transfers at sea. The problem, of course, is that PSI does nothing to prevent the North from producing fissile material in the first place (as it apparently continues to do), building nuclear weapons, and mounting them on ballistic missiles. Moreover, given that a weapon's worth of plutonium can weigh as little as nine pounds, and, given that neither China nor South Korea has agreed to participate in the program, PSI offers little reassurance that terrorists could not procure a North Korean nuke.

Bush's approach to Iran and its nuclear threat seems depressingly similar. His administration has refused to negotiate with Tehran, though it belatedly (and skeptically) endorsed talks being conducted by the British, French, and Germans aimed at mothballing the more dangerous elements of its nuclear program. The preferred U.S. approach has been to seek Security Council sanctions to better isolate Iran in the hopes of changing its behavior or forcing its government out of power. As with North Korea, however, it remains unclear how this would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or providing nuclear material to terrorist groups in the interim. (Indeed, even in the long run, regime change seems an unlikely solution, given that Iran's liberal activists seem as wedded to the country's nuclear program as its hard-liners.) The apparent reason for not engaging Iran is the same as that for not engaging North Korea: It is an enemy regime that oppresses its people. When, in January, Senator Joseph Biden asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearing whether she would support a verifiable deal that got rid of Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, she demurred: "Oh, I think we would have to say that the relationship with Iran has more components than the nuclear side." What components could possibly be more important than nuclear weapons issues? According to Rice, human rights--that is, the moral character of Iran's government.

Indeed, even the administration's one rogue-state proliferation success shows how its fixation on regime change impedes our foreign policy. On December 19, 2003, the Libyan government announced that it would give up its unconventional weapons programs and submit to international inspections. In return, the United States and Britain lifted sanctions that had been in place since Libyan operatives assisted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The success was the product of years of talks, whose turning point was the German and Italian seizure of a ship, the BBC China, carrying nuclear centrifuges to Libya from the network run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. (Although Bush officials long credited PSI for the seizure, State Department and foreign officials now admit the operation had nothing to do with the initiative.) The deal almost fell through, however, because John Bolton, then Bush's top arms control official, reportedly insisted in talks that Washington's ultimate goal was regime change in Libya. Fortunately, according to Newsweek, high-level British officials intervened, asking the State Department to pull Bolton from the U.S. delegation and reassuring Muammar Qaddafi that policy change, not regime change, was the goal. Left unchecked, the administration's ideological impulses would have scuttled the negotiations. Libya is, in other words, the exception that proves the rule: Conservatism is constitutionally incapable of effectively fighting nuclear terrorism.

Capability Gap

WOULD-BE TERRORISTS can get their hands on fissile material or a nuclear weapon from two sources: a rogue-state government or a state where nuclear materials are poorly secured and thus susceptible to theft. Experience suggests that pairing diplomacy with the threat of military force can successfully deal with the first--provided we focus on the material and weapons, not the regime itself. In 1994, for example, the Clinton administration successfully locked down North Korea's plutonium production. The previous year, the iaea had become suspicious that two North Korean nuclear energy facilities were being used to produce fuel for an atomic bomb in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But, when the iaea requested special inspections of the facilities to assuage its concerns, Pyongyang refused, sparking an international crisis. Responding to that crisis, the United States negotiated directly with Pyongyang while simultaneously building up U.S. forces in South Korea. President Clinton appeared willing to strike the North, but he was also willing to buy it off if that would work. It was this iron-fist-velvet-glove approach that eventually led North Korea to sign the Agreed Framework, which froze its plutonium-producing nuclear program. The Clinton team's engagement was a superb example of coercive diplomacy. Even the fact that North Korea eventually cheated on the agreement by starting a parallel program to enrich uranium does not change the fact that it made the world safer for eight years. The Bush administration's disgust with Pyongyang's behavior is understandable, and its reluctance to engage may be morally satisfying, but, pragmatically, the standard for arms control agreements ought simply to be that we gain more from them than we lose. The Agreed Framework met that standard.

A similar focus on the weapons rather than the regime--on capabilities rather than intentions--might well have prevented the Iraq war. After all, coercive diplomacy worked there, too. The Bush administration simply failed to accept success. By early 2002, international weapons inspectors had not been in Iraq in over three years, and the widespread concern was that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his WMD programs. The Bush administration therefore began to pressure Iraq. In September 2002, the president addressed the United Nations, calling for a return of inspectors and compliance with U.N. resolutions. Four days later, Iraq announced that it would allow the return of U.N. and iaea inspectors. In October, Congress authorized the use of force, and, in November, Iraq actually let the inspectors in. After inspectors claimed, in January 2003, that Iraq was not cooperating and had not provided a full account of its weapons programs, the United States increased the pressure on Saddam by, among other things, having then-Secretary of State Colin Powell brief the United Nations the following month. Within weeks, inspectors were reporting increased compliance. With each increase in pressure, Saddam responded by allowing greater access, and, in March, iaea inspectors confirmed that they had unearthed no evidence of a nuclear program. At this point, a pragmatist would have concluded that invasion was not warranted--or, at least, that a reappraisal of the situation was--but, since Bush's true objective was regime change, the plans for war proceeded, and, on March 19, the invasion of Iraq commenced.

A terrorist could also acquire a weapon or the fissile material for one from states, such as Russia and Pakistan, with lax nuclear security. Alas, even in Russia, the Bush administration's focus on intentions has eclipsed the danger from capabilities. In the early '90s, Congress established and funded the Nunn-Lugar programs to dismantle nuclear weapons and secure fissile material in the former Soviet Union. After the September 11 attacks, one would have expected the administration to dramatically expand this program, since Russia, despite years of work under Nunn-Lugar, remained a potential Home Depot for nuclear terrorists, as a bipartisan commission chaired by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler put it in 2001. It did not. In fact, in the two years after September 11, Russia's nuclear material was secured no more quickly than it had been in the previous two years. Why such tepid support for a program The 9/11 Commission Report said was "in need of expansion, improvement, and resources"? Because many in the administration continue to view Russia as a strategic threat. Michael Nacht, an adviser to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency during Bush's first term, says that many Pentagon, White House, and intelligence officials believe Nunn-Lugar is "a subsidy to the Russians. ... All we're doing is freeing up funds that they would spend on [securing nuclear material], which they would then turn and spend on weapons programs." Weapons programs, that is, that could potentially threaten us. Once again, the conservative impulse to prioritize a state's intentions has prevented us from addressing its dangerous capabilities. Ironically, this impulse can have the same effect vis-a-vis countries the administration sees positively, such as Pakistan, whose nuclear behavior we tacitly sanction despite the danger that its nuclear weapons or fissile material could fall into terrorist hands.

PREVENTING TERRORISTS FROM acquiring nuclear material, however, will require more than securing existing fissile stockpiles--it will require revamping the NPT, which allows only five signatories (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain) to possess nuclear weapons but allows the rest to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium for peaceful purposes, such as generating energy. This provision is the back door that Iran and North Korea have exploited to advance their nuclear programs, and a politically diverse constituency--from Bush to Kofi Annan--agrees that the NPT needs to be strengthened or supplemented to prevent further abuse. Doing so, however, will take considerable political capital, because the 183 members of the treaty that are barred from having nuclear weapons must be convinced that they should consent to further restrictions on their nuclear activities. Unfortunately, not only does the United States not have the political capital to effectively make that case, it's not even clear the Bush team would spend it if it did.

The Bush administration, after all, does not believe in internationally binding commitments, particularly arms control treaties--another outgrowth of conservatism, which insists that any constraint on U.S. sovereignty necessarily harms U.S. interests. In 2001 alone, the Bush White House rejected a provision to enforce the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the possession of germs for offensive military use, even though it would have given us the ability to inspect suspicious facilities in other countries (and even though the prospect of germ warfare was made unpleasantly clear by the 2001 anthrax attacks). It repeatedly expressed its opposition to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, boycotted a meeting on its entry-into-force, and refused to consider ratifying it, while simultaneously urging other nations to maintain the worldwide moratorium on nuclear testing. It undercut a U.N. effort to restrict trade in small arms, which fuel Third World conflicts, even though the proposed measures were less restrictive than the domestic laws that regulate firearms in the United States. And it announced U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue a missile defense system that some experts said was not even ready for the testing prohibited by it.

So, when Bush decided that the United States needed to stop countries from legally developing nuclear technology that they could turn around and use in a weapons program, it was hardly surprising that he proposed voluntary restrictions instead of legally binding measures. Rather than trying to revamp the NPT or negotiate a new set of rules governing nuclear technology, he merely suggested that members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)--a loose consortium of 45 states who are supposed to coordinate their exports of atomic technology--more tightly restrict their sales. It wasn't a bad suggestion, just an inadequate one. After all, the NSG does not incorporate all nuclear suppliers--including countries like Pakistan that are known nuclear exporters--and compliance with its rules is optional, meaning that members can violate them with impunity, as Russia has done. Indeed, the Bush administration itself threatened to seriously undercut the NSG's authority last week when it agreed to export nuclear technology to India, one of the few states that doesn't belong to the NPT.

Even if Bush wanted to negotiate a binding agreement, however, it's not clear that anyone would go along. The only way that non-nuclear weapon states would agree to further restrictions on their nuclear activities is if the nuclear weapon states moved closer to disarmament, as the NPT requires. But that's not something the Bush administration is willing to do. In fact, it has spent the past four years actively undermining many steps toward the disarmament that the United States and the other nuclear powers agreed to in 2000. It has undercut the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as well as negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. And it has sought funding to research new and modified low-yield and bunker-busting nuclear weapons. Even the 2002 Moscow Treaty, under which the United States and Russia pledged to slash their deployed nuclear arsenals by several thousand weapons, allows the parties simply to take warheads off their missiles and store both, presumably for use in the future. That's why, at the most recent NPT review conference this May, a group of seven states known as the New Agenda Coalition (including several countries with close ties to the United States, such as New Zealand and Mexico) spoke of "increasingly widespread concern and impatience with the unsatisfactory progress being made toward nuclear disarmament" by the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain.

Not only does the Bush administration dismiss such criticism, it has refused to compromise on any of its positions--even if doing so would advance U.S. goals. As Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker explained to Arms Control Today in May, "We are not approaching this [NPT] review conference from the cynical perspective of, We are going to toss a few crumbs to the rest of the world, and, by doing that, try to buy goodwill or bribe countries into agreeing to the agenda that we think they should focus on rather than some other agenda." Of course, buying goodwill and bribing countries is not cynical--it's what diplomacy is all about. In other words, the Bush administration's ideology is such that, not only won't it negotiate with our enemies, it won't negotiate with our friends--even if it would improve our national security. So, if the United States wants to better protect itself, it needs to replace the ideology that's running our foreign policy.

FIGHTING NUCLEAR TERRORISM is a strategic necessity. But, if the Bush administration is constitutionally incapable of doing so because of its conservatism, then this strategic necessity effects a political necessity: the removal of Republicans from the White House. Conservative intransigence means that, if the Democrats don't take up the fight, no one will, and the country will remain frighteningly vulnerable. The irony, of course, is that Bush's reelection can be attributed to the American people's trust in him to keep them safe--a trust based largely on his belief that the character of states matters. After all, his emphasis on democratization covered up the evaporation of the administration's original casus belli in Iraq, and it provided an optimistic vision of the future in which the war on terrorism will be won by virtue of our virtue. Most important, his description of the war on terrorism as a battle between freedom and tyranny--a battle, in effect, between good and evil--appealed to the public's need for narrative in politics.

For Democrats to place nuclear terrorism atop the U.S. agenda, then, they will need to learn something about telling stories to the American people. Only then will the public comprehend the danger that the Bush administration has left us in and do something about it. After all, John Kerry was perceived as weak on national security, even though he proposed a raft of ideas--from one-on-one negotiations with North Korea to increased funding for Nunn-Lugar--that highlighted and addressed Bush's deficiencies. (He even went so far as to articulate a mantra: "No material. No bomb. No nuclear terrorism.") What Kerry lacked was not so much the guts of a good policy but the connective tissue that would have made it into a cohesive whole. He had foreign policies but no foreign policy.

Democrats need to transcend technocracy and articulate a worldview centered on our security. They need to describe America's immediate antagonist not as ideological, as the president has, but as technological. They must explain that nuclear weapons--not simply abstractions like tyranny or hate or evil--pose the greatest threat to the United States. And they must explain that, in contrast to Bush's fantasy, in which the earth is cleansed of evil, theirs is a story--all the more optimistic because of its realism--in which the concrete goal of securing and destroying fissile material can be accomplished through concrete steps. The themes are simple. The war on terrorism may be a war of ideas, but it is first a war of means. It is a war of intentions, but it is first a war of capabilities. It is a war against all terrorists, but it is first a war against nuclear terrorists. After all, the best stories are the ones in which the hero survives.

This article originally ran in the August 8, 2005 issue of the magazine.