ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The nuclear threat to democracy

So, what about those nukes?

The administration says it hopes to put Pakistan on a path to democracy. But Washington’s actions show it does not want to go so fast that nuclear control becomes a casualty. So President Bush was on the phone to General Musharraf on Wednesday to press for the patina of a return to democracy: He said General Musharraf must shed his title as army chief, hold parliamentary elections early next year, and find a way to work with Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader with whom the United States has urged him to share power. The general promised to hold elections by February, but the crisis was far from over.

“The nightmare scenario, of course, is what happens if an extremist Islamic government emerges — with an instant nuclear arsenal,” said Robert Joseph, a counterproliferation expert who left the administration this year. John R. Bolton, the former United Nations representative who has accused Mr. Bush of going soft on proliferation, said more bluntly that General Musharraf’s survival was critical. “While Pervez Musharraf might not be a Jeffersonian democrat,” Mr. Bolton said, “he is the best bet to secure the nuclear arsenal.”

Americans might feel better about the arsenal if they knew how big it was — or even where the weapons were stored. Pakistan has done its best to keep that information secret.

There are also more than a dozen nuclear facilities, from fuel fabrication plants to laboratories that enrich uranium and produce next-generation weapons designs, that Al Qaeda and other terror groups have eyed for years. How safe are they? [complete article]

See also, Pakistan nuclear security questioned (WP) and Suitcase nukes said unlikely to exist (AP).

Editor’s Comment — How safe are they? This is currently Washington’s most vexing question. Indeed, as the New York Times presents it, the issue of nuclear peril is now being spun in such a way that we are meant to fear that Pakistan is such a dangerous place that it’s not safe enough for democracy.

So, when we pose the question, how safe are they?, we don’t pause to consider what should already be obvious: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are already in the wrong hands. General Musharraf isn’t “indispensable” because, as John Bolton claims, “he is the best bet to secure the nuclear arsenal.” He’s immovable because he has no intention of letting go of the keys to his power. As Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark note, the Bhutto deal that Musharraf backed out of amounted to little more than the appearance of a transfer of power. In the secret negotiations prior to her return, Bhutto:

…agreed to an unprecedented compromise, ceding, should she win [upcoming elections], the foreign, military, internal and external security as well as Pakistan’s WMD portfolios to Musharraf. That left her with only a handful of power-light cards to play, while still giving the military a veneer of legitimacy.

But in Pakistan, nothing is agreed until it actually happens. And Musharraf backtracked as soon as Bhutto returned to the country Oct. 18.

Fueled by a potent mixture of patronage, tribalism, backstabbing, side dealing, blackmail and straightforward medieval feudalism, politics Pakistan-style makes Washington and London look like a pajama party. And Bhutto’s return to Pakistan was spectacular as well as murderous. It began with two ear-splitting bangs, the first when two explosions blew up her motorcade in Karachi, killing 145 and injuring hundreds more, and the second when Bhutto aides accused agents allied to the country’s pervasive intelligence establishment of arming the suicide bombers.

Bhutto swiftly picked herself up and dramatically began to galvanize support, with Pakistanis previously indifferent or critical of her embracing her high-profile return – a breath of fresh air after the vacuum of almost a decade of military repression.

Realizing this momentum could help her overwrite the power-ceding deal that had brought her home, Bhutto upped her campaign, bringing Pakistani politics to the boil. She condemned the country’s extremist groups and religious parties. She accused the government of manipulating them. An editorial in Pakistan’s Daily Times noted: “Ms. Bhutto arrived, not carrying flowers but a bunch of accusations.”

This was what Musharraf most feared.

Fears about the future of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are legitimate, but the presumption that they are currently in safe hands is fanciful.

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3 thoughts on “ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The nuclear threat to democracy

  1. Jay

    This is ignoring the elephant-god in the room. Breaking it down:

    1) Missile flight times from India to Pakistan are minutes at best.
    2) India is full of polytheists.*
    3) Muslim extremists take hating polytheism very seriously.

    Washington might reasonably favor Musharraf simply because the Indians are used to him. If control of Pakistan’s nukes becomes uncertain, then India may get a very twitchy hand on its own nuclear trigger.

    * Granted, many Hindus will say that all of Hinduism’s gods are reflections of one god. Extremist Muslims may not be convinced.

  2. Jay

    Pakistan is made up of Indian Muslims who decided that they couldn’t live with all the Hindus. Also, the Hindu population of India, especially the BJP and associated movements, have often been provocative or violent toward Muslims.
    The big question for an Islamic government in Pakistan is its position on nuclear weapons. Muslim authorities are divided on this; the Iranian supreme jurisprudent holds that nukes are forbidden by Islam because of the inevitable civilian casualties. But given how much of Pakistan’s national pride is tied up with the nukes, it’s likely that an extremist government would hold that nuclear weapons are permissible for jihad. That’s a lot scarier.

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