If it had been even a primitive nuclear weapon that hit the World Trade Center three years ago, hundreds of thousands of people would have died instead of fewer than 3,000, and the free society we enjoy almost certainly would have been a casualty as well. In the shock of that moment, the Administration probably would have created a national network of detention camps for suspected terrorists, and military retaliation might have included the launch of nuclear missiles with the capability of killing millions. All of which is exactly why it was so terrifying to read in an investigative article in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday that our "allies" in Pakistan, who have done so much to spread nuclear weapons technology in recent years, are still capable of doing so.
"Senior investigators said they were especially worried that dangerous elements of the illicit network of manufacturers and suppliers would remain undetected and capable of resuming operations once international pressures eased," The Times reported. The article dissected the inability of investigators worldwide to fully penetrate the illicit nuclear weapons bazaar, which was run until last year by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Khan is currently under the protection of Pakistan's military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, the same man who pardoned Khan and refuses to allow foreign investigators to speak with him. Yet it was Musharraf whom President Bush spent the weekend praising and accommodating.
As the Times article made clear, what "officials call the world's worst case of nuclear proliferation"--in which sophisticated nuclear technology was supplied to Libya, Iran and other rogue nations--never would have been possible without the support of the Pakistani military. This is the same complex and powerful organization that made Pakistan a dictatorship in a 1999 coup by Musharraf. Yet within two years of this coup, Bush dropped US sanctions against Pakistan, showing clear disregard for international nonproliferation restraints. The rationale then and now was Pakistan's alleged support in the "war on terrorism" after 9/11.
And despite the exposure of the Khan black market ring, nothing has changed: In a White House meeting Friday, Bush honored Musharraf--who since seizing power has purged his country's Supreme Court and rewritten its constitution--as a "courageous leader."
The Administration again hastened to explain that Musharraf was vital in the three-year effort to capture Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," as Bush frequently has proclaimed. How embarrassing then, when hours later Musharraf conceded in a Washington Post interview that bin Laden's trail had grown completely cold but that the arch-terrorist is still very much alive and functioning.
Musharraf complained that attempts to pin down Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda operatives had been seriously undermined by what he politely called "voids" in US troop commitments to the area, which are equal to a mere 15 percent of the US forces in Iraq. The US strategy instead has been to rely on Pakistan's military to trap bin Laden, a dependence that Bush Administration officials have cited while refusing to pressure for access to Khan.
Musharraf complains that calls for international access to Khan show "a lack of trust" in Pakistan, but his real problem is the scientist's enormous popularity as the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb program. Khan "has been a hero for the masses," said the general who has survived several assassination attempts and faces the possibility of a revolt if he tilts too far toward the West.
Meanwhile, Bush is so eager to cater to Musharraf that he is even championing the dictator as key to the creation of a democratic Palestinian state "that is truly free. One that's got an independent judiciary; one that's got a civil society; one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists; one that allows for dissent; one in which people can vote. And President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective."
What balderdash. None of those conditions of a free society exist in Pakistan, nor are they likely any time soon in US-occupied Iraq.
Yet while we chase the chimera of democratizing the Islamic world through the use of force, the true cost of this crusade can be measured by our indifference to our original justification of the Iraq invasion: stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
And there's no margin for error here. Next time the terrorists could take Manhattan and a whole lot more.