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.
Senior Analyst, Global Governance Institute
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.