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A troubling lesson from Libya: Don't give up nukes

Qaddafi stopped his nuclear program. Would NATO have bombed if he hadn’t? Now, Iran watches as nonnuclear states are invaded and nuclear ones win favors.

By Reza Sanati / August 30, 2011


Of all the lessons to draw from the ignoble end to Muammar Qaddafi's brutal regime in Libya, the one about nuclear weapons proliferation is probably not the first tutorial that comes to mind.

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But you can believe it is not lost on countries that feel vulnerable, including Iran. And for the sake of global security, the international community must consider what it's like to be in their shoes.

The lesson is elementary. Eight years ago, Libya agreed to dismantle its infant nuclear program. More than five months ago, NATO began enforcing a no-fly zone in support of Libyan rebels. Would NATO have launched a bombing campaign against Libya if the unpredictable Mr. Qaddafi had possessed nuclear weapons?

Qaddafi's forceful downfall will make acquiring nuclear weapons all the more justifiable to states that feel threatened by outsiders. In turn, that will erode the vision of nonproliferation that held such promise in the post-cold-war era.

The zero-nukes goal promoted by President Obama is underpinned by the expectation that having nuclear weapons for security reasons is obsolete – along with the bipolar world of the cold war.

In reality though, the reason why countries seek nuclear weapons is just as resolute today as it was in the cold war.

Cold-war dynamics at work today

From 1945 to 1991, the preeminent source of security in international affairs was the nuclear bomb. The few nations that openly had credible means of delivery – the United States, the USSR, Britain, France, and China – successfully deterred physical aggression by another state against their homelands.

Their collective experience and the perceived frailties of those states not possessing the bomb eventually created the following narrative: Nuclear weapons provide security to states while the lack of them leaves a country vulnerable.

In this setting, two diametrically opposing trends were born. The first was driven by states that viewed their circumstances as so perilous that the only alleviating factor would be acquiring the bomb.

The second was the goal of states either already possessing nuclear weapons or firmly protected in a larger security organization (e.g., NATO) to prevent the spread of atomic weapons.


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