News from the Bush School

An Alternative to War:  WMD Counterproliferation in Syria

December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013

Joseph Cerami

The partnership between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is promising, says a Texas A&M University national security professor. History, however, shows that strong international leadership, interagency collaboration and Congressional oversight are key for the plans to work.

After the Cold War, thousands of “loose nukes” remained in the former Soviet Union. Joint efforts between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate them were very successful, says Joseph Cerami, a senior lecturer at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, named for Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) who sponsored the 1992 initiative during the George H.W. Bush Administration, were designed to secure and dismantle WMDs in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“The Nunn-Lugar programs were, and continue to be, effective because they were cooperative U.S.-Russian efforts, with strong U.S. executive, bureaucratic and Congressional leadership,” says Cerami, who specializes in policymaking and leadership studies. “In particular, if you want an effective U.S. policy over the long run, you have to have Congress involved. Also William Perry, Clinton’s secretary of defense, was very effective and fully engaged; he took numerous trips to the former Soviet Union to oversee implementing the policies.”

In Cerami’s book “Leadership and Policy Innovation – From Clinton to Bush: Countering the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” he studied the policy effectiveness of the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and their Secretaries of Defense, in providing innovative policies for countering nuclear WMD proliferation. In addition to analyzing Nunn-Lugar, Cerami examined two other counterproliferation programs: the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework and U.S.-U.N efforts in Iraq after the First Persian Gulf War.

Cerami argues that where Nunn-Lugar succeeded, efforts in Iraq and North Korea mostly failed. “Under Nunn-Lugar, the role of engaged congressional leadership and oversight is more pronounced than in either the Agreed Framework or the Iraq case,” he writes in the book.

Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea pledged to dismantle their nuclear reactor that was suspected of being part of a covert nuclear weapons program. In exchange, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and others were to build two “light water,” proliferation-resistant, nuclear power reactors.

“The negotiations were a success,” Cerami says, “and the diplomats involved worked effectively in producing the agreement. There were good intentions and a “framework,” but no effective follow-up. No one rose up within the U.S. Senate or Department of Defense to champion the efforts. You have to have champions for major policy implementation, such as Perry, Lugar and Nunn.”

He says North Korea did put one reactor out of action as agreed, but, “they had a separate program they didn’t tell us about. We know now that they have enough nuclear material to make bombs, but not the delivery capability. Nevertheless, North Korea is the most unpredictable regime on the planet.” He contends the framework would have been helped by stronger inspection efforts as well as more engaged administration officials, diplomats and Congress members to continue negotiations and strengthen the agreement over time. He adds that since the framework collapsed, there has been no progress in halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile development.

Cerami’s third case study involved counterproliferation efforts in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) during the Clinton Administration and continuing into George W. Bush’s first term, which resulted in the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, but failed to uncover any nuclear WMDs.

The professor says two U.N. inspection teams looked for WMDs in Iraq, the first led by Ambassador Richard Butler right after the Gulf War, “but Hussein kicked them out in ’98,” he says. “The second team was led by Hans Blix (from 2000 to 2003), former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both U.N. inspections teams did their job remarkably well under very difficult conditions.”

One of the problems, Cerami contends, was that the Bush administration didn’t let the Blix team finish their inspections. “It seems reasonable to have waited for the inspectors to have completed the work,” he notes. “They were reporting that they couldn’t find any WMDs, but they weren’t able to complete inspections of all of the suspected sites. The backdrop was the failure with North Korea − that there were reasonable expectations that Saddam Hussein’s regime was able to hide their weapons from the U.N. and the U.S. Especially after 9/11, we didn’t want to be fooled again.”

Cerami, a retired Army colonel who taught at the Army War College and at West Point, says many would now argue there was a rush to war with Iraq without enough evidence of WMDs. “What I said at the time was that I’m was skeptical and I think the case needs to be stronger,” he recalls. “Blix was asking for more time and he should’ve gotten it. There wasn’t an imminent threat at the time. Hindsight is 20/20; it’s easy to say now ‘we should’ve known.’ But war should have been the last resort.”

In examining counterproliferation efforts during the Clinton and Bush terms, Cerami concludes there was an overall decline in effective policymaking, except in the case of Nunn-Lugar. Overall, he finds in the North Korea and Iraq cases, there were significant gaps in pursuing counterproliferation policy initiatives.

In future policymaking, Cerami says he hopes to see collaboration with academia. “There are good ideas in the academic community that policymakers can draw on and those academics need to be consulted when major policies and decisions are being made,” he notes.

Innovation in policymaking is critical, he says, explaining, “The landscape of national security changed after the Cold War and again after 9/11. Today we have concerns about WMDs in terrorist hands, cyber security, biological weapons, border security and other emerging threats. Policymakers must be innovative in developing and implementing new approaches as these new threats evolve.”