Hope Won’t Stop the Bomb

Jacques Hymans’ article “Botching the Bomb” (May/June 2012) is thought provoking, even if the only thought that comes to mind is one of bewilderment. His argument -- that those countries seeking nuclear weapons today face such enormous operational challenges that they may well fail -- is not totally without merit. Yet Hymans underestimates the incentives for states to push their nuclear programs through despite these problems and understates the capacity of dictatorships, in particular, to do so. 

The absence of effective management structures in authoritarian states might in theory lead them to botch their nuclear programs. But so far, it hasn’t. Hymans fails to provide a convincing example for his hypothesis. Sure enough, Iraq’s nuclear program was piling up costs, and Saddam Hussein’s frequent purges made advances more incremental than they would otherwise have been. Yet incremental as Iraq’s progress was, the regime did arrive at a crucial threshold, beyond which only military action could stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. What Hymans fails to recognize is that authoritarian systems can afford to spend large amounts of money on such programs and accept slow progress precisely because they are not held accountable.

But the real problem with Hymans’ line of argument is that it leads to deeply faulty policy prescriptions. He draws a comparison between Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other. But the bureaucratic capabilities of Iran far exceed those of Libya and Iraq combined -- hardly a forgivable omission given that Hymans’ thesis rests on the assumption that all authoritarian states share inefficient management procedures. In fact, Iran has proved time and again that it has learned from the experiences of Iraq and Libya. 

Moreover, Hymans’ idea that too much pressure on Iran might galvanize the dictatorship into overcoming its nuclear management and organizational problems is troubling. Hymans makes this argument on the premise that in the absence of international action, the organizational challenges of Iran’s program might prove too great to overcome. Therefore, he warns the United States against trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program through covert actions along the lines of the Stuxnet computer worm or through a potential aerial bombing campaign. But Hymans himself knows full well that even less capable states than Iran, such as Pakistan, have advanced all the way to completing their nuclear programs, however incrementally. And he cannot ignore that it was only international action -- diplomatic or otherwise -- that stopped the weapons programs of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. 

It is irresponsible to rule out preventive action based on the slight chance that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will fail on their own. Hope is not a strategy. 

Dustin Dehez 
Senior Analyst, Global Governance Institute

Hymans replies: 

Dustin Dehez explicitly accepts the validity of my article’s central point: bad internal management has had a debilitating effect on recent nuclear weapons projects. His objection to my thesis is that if states are allowed to keep plugging away at their nuclear projects, no matter how poorly managed they are, eventually they will succeed in producing the bomb. This argument misses the point: the policy debate on this issue centers not on the possibility of a state’s eventually developing nuclear weapons but on the likely time frame in which the state might do so. And in recent decades, those estimates have proved far too pessimistic, in part because the calculations have underestimated the extent to which bad administration bungles a nuclear program. 

Dehez repeats the old canard that after a decade of determined efforts, Iraq made it to the point where “only military action could stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Yet as I detailed in my article, Iraq’s attempts in the 1980s to enrich uranium on an industrial scale were largely unsuccessful. Iraq seemed close to a nuclear weapon at the time of the Gulf War only because France and Russia had handed it a significant quantity of highly enriched uranium reactor fuel for its civil nuclear program many years earlier. Moreover, even the 1990–91 “crash program” to repurpose that fuel for nuclear bombs was an organizational disaster that the regime itself appears to have quickly lost faith in, as evidenced by the callous decision to force its top scientists to remain inside their nuclear facilities as human shields during the U.S. air campaign. 

It is clear that Iran is further ahead in its nuclear work than Iraq was in the early 1990s. Still, for well over two decades, Iran’s nuclear output has consistently failed to live up to the claims of the country’s politicians and the best guesses of Western intelligence agencies. The most plausible explanation for Iran’s underwhelming nuclear performance to date is the rampant mismanagement visible throughout the country’s industrial economy. 

Dehez also claims that I understate the role that international action has played in curtailing the nuclear efforts of states such as Iraq and Libya. In fact, my article credits the international nonproliferation regime for slowing the spread of nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. But Dehez has something more radical in mind when he uses the term “international action.” His letter reflects the common assumption that the harder you try to stop proliferation, the more effective you will be. Therefore, if diplomacy fails to halt a state’s suspicious nuclear activities, impose sanctions. And if sanctions don’t do it, start bombing. But in fact, bombing can make a bad situation worse. The basis of the preventive-strike doctrine is only a faint hope that a few air sorties will cause would-be nuclear weapons states to abandon their national pride and bow down before the foreign devils. And to quote Dehez: “Hope is not a strategy.” That’s why I prefer analysis. 

Latest Commentary & News analysis