National Security Network

Nonproliferaton - A National Security Legacy of Failure

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Report 9 January 2009

President Bush President Bush's Legacy nonproliferation

“The greatest threat before humanity today is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons.” – President George W. Bush, February 11, 2004

After eight years in the White House, President Bush leaves behind a nonproliferation legacy marked by incompetence and neglect that has left America more vulnerable.  When the President came to office, North Korea had no nuclear weapons and Iran’s nuclear development was in its infancy. But Bush will leave office with North Korea having developed nuclear weapons and Iran rapidly developing its nuclear capabilities. The Bush administration slowed funding and pursued an ideological agenda that has undermined nonproliferation and arms reduction efforts with Russia. The Bush administration’s attempts at addressing nuclear terrorism have been similarly flawed.  While the President himself has called nuclear terrorism the most serious threat to the U.S., his administration has neglected warnings from think tanks, commissions, and members of both political parties, failing to shore up critical weaknesses identified by the 9/11 Commission that leave our country vulnerable to an unconventional nuclear attack.  Finally, President Bush’s policies undermined specific treaties and institutions as well as international consensus in favor of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.  Bush’s policies made the world more dangerous at home and abroad and endangered the nonproliferation regime, one of the most successful instances of international cooperation aimed at risk reduction. 

Little Progress in Reducing State-Based Nuclear Threats

“The gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology. Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination.” – President George W. Bush, September 9, 2002

Saber rattling toward Iran from the Bush administration has done nothing to halt Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Iran has drawn closer to reaching nuclear “breakout” capability, now operating as many as 5,000 centrifuges at its central enrichment plant in Natanz. Iran’s steady progress has led Mohammed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to call the last five years of efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions a “failure.” [AP, 11/26/08. LA Times, 12/06/08]

The Bush administration abandoned the Clinton-era framework for curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions; today North Korea has nuclear weapons.
  For the first 6 years of his administration, President Bush reversed the Clinton-era policy of engaging directly with North Korea – a policy that was working.  By the time the Bush administration had belatedly opted to re-engage, North Korea had developed enough material for approximately 10 nuclear bombs and even tested a device in 2006. [Washington Post, 10/9/06]

Insistence on Missile Defense has undermined vital cooperation on nuclear arms reduction.  The New York Times assessed that the Bush administration’s “relentless drive for missile defense” has “made Mr. Putin’s job even easier, feeding nationalist resentments.” Heightened animosity between the U.S. and Russia manifested itself this summer, when Russia pulled out of a critical nuclear arms control deal following the Russia-Georgia crisis. Yet the threat from ballistic missiles has, according to nonproliferation expert Joe Cirincione, “steadily declined over the past 20 years. There is no imminent, new ballistic missile threat. The threat from a North Korean or Iranian long-range missile is still largely hypothetical. The GAO reports that while there has been some progress [on missile defense], overall ‘costs have grown and less work is being completed than planned.’ In other words, we are spending more and getting less.” [NY Times, 8/11/08. Washington Post, 9/07/08. Center for American Progress, 5/8/07]

U.S. Remains Dangerously Vulnerable to Nuclear Terrorist Attack

Bipartisan Report: Bush administration has fallen short when it comes to protecting the nation from nuclear terrorism.  A bipartisan commission, led by Lee Hamilton, Warren Rudman, and Thomas Kean, gave the bush administration a C for its efforts to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism. [Partnership for a Secure America, 8/25/08]

Lack of Bush administration urgency to reduce threat of nuclear terrorism has made attack “more likely than not.” A report by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism found that the U.S. has not treated the threat of nuclear terrorism with sufficient urgency, a course, which if continued, makes it “more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.” [Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, 12/08]

Bush administration intransigence has even undermined its own attempts to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.  In 2003, the Bush administration introduced the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) intended to combat the illegal transport of nuclear devices at sea.  But by refusing to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, they failed to provide the legal basis for the type of intervention that the PSI demands, undermining its own initiative. [Larry Korb, 1/04/05]

Bush Administration Has Repeatedly Scuttled Attemps to Strengthen Nonproliferation Regime

“We need a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world. To do so, we must move beyond the constraints of the 30 year old ABM Treaty. This treaty does not recognize the present, or point us to the future. It enshrines the past. No treaty that prevents us from addressing today's threats, that prohibits us from pursuing promising technology to defend ourselves, our friends and our allies is in our interests or in the interests of world peace.” – President George W. Bush, May 1, 2001

The Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  In 2001 the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to build a missile defense system, a move that “has already provoked Russia to increase its nuclear capabilities and may well provoke China to do the same.” [Center for American Progress, 8/9/04]

Withdrawal from Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty sent a dangerous signal to the rest of the world.  The Bush administration made clear that it had “no intention of seeking ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” a move that helped to “paralyze one of the most hopeful products of the post-World War II era: the global arms control and disarmament movement.”  [San Francisco Chronicle, 4/06/03]

President Bush’s support for tactical nuclear weapons has further undermined the legitimacy of the nonproliferation regime. The Bush administration has continually sought funds to develop tactical nuclear weapons or “bunker busters,” a plan that Strategic Forces Chairperson Rep. Ellen Tauscher called "a waste of money on a weapon commanders in the field have not asked for,” which “may trigger a new global nuclear arms race.”[Washington Post, 2/09/05]

By stonewalling the 2005 review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Bush administration put global nonproliferation efforts in jeopardy. “Though President Bush has repeatedly declared that nuclear proliferation, including the risk of terrorists' obtaining a nuclear weapon, is the biggest single threat to the United States, the administration decided against sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the conference, leaving arguments to midlevel diplomats,” a move that helped doom the talks to failure. [NY Times, 5/28/05]