In a column in this morning’s LA Times, Commentary magazine essayist Gabriel Schoenfeld (who we last saw here, misunderstanding Al Qaeda’s use of media), attacks widely respected arms control expert Joe Cirincione for Cirincione’s skepticism of a Syrian nuclear weapons threat. Schoenfeld writes:
Interviewed by Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker after the [September 2007] Israeli raid, Cirincione was emphatic: “Syria does not have the technical, industrial or financial ability to support a nuclear weapons program. I’ve been following this issue for 15 years, and every once in awhile a suspicion arises and we investigate and there’s nothing. There was and is no nuclear weapons threat from Syria.” […]
Cirincione has admitted that he got it wrong, explaining that the evidence “seems strong” that Syria was building a reactor and that no one can bat 1,000.
The way Schoenfeld writes it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there actually was a nuclear weapons threat from Syria. And, of course, that’s the point. This is the sort of alarmism in which Schoenfeld regularly trafficks. But the thing is, Joe Cirincione is right: There was and is no nuclear weapons threat from Syria. In late April, the Bush administration revealed intelligence indicating that Syria was “within weeks or months” of completing a nuclear reactor. And a nuclear reactor is not a nuclear weapon. The Washington Post’s William Arkin pointed out that “Even if Syria managed to complete a plutonium production reactor, and then managed to operate it for the months would be needed to manufacture the materials it needed, and then managed to machine that plutonium, and then design and fabricate a nuclear weapon, many months if not years would go by. Such a program would be detected, proven and probably thwarted by the international community.”
A new report from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies was also “dismissive of Syria’s nuclear prospects, [and] said it made little sense for the country to secretly build nukes when it already had an arsenal of chemical weapons.”
This is not to downplay the threat of nuclear proliferation. But those interested in dealing seriously and productively with the problem (as opposed to, ahem, laying the groundwork for a war with Iran) should understand that the record of the Bush administration on proliferation has been, like the rest of Bush’s foreign policy, disastrous. As Joe Cirincione himself wrote in May 2006:
The [Bush] administration’s counter-proliferation strategy has made these [nuclear] dangers grow, not shrink. Proliferation problems over the past five years have gotten worse, not better. Most of the construction and development of Iran’s nuclear program has occurred since 2000. The same is true in North Korea. In the past three years, while we have been bogged down in Iraq, North Korea has pulled out of the agreement that had frozen its plutonium program, gone from enough material for perhaps two bombs to an estimated ten bombs worth, withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared itself a nuclear-weapon state. U.S. policy has completely failed to stop either country’s efforts.
The unfortunate reality is that the sort of complicated diplomatic work involved in protecting America from loose nukes is generally irrelevant to conservatives’ conception of national security, which is more about identifying new enemies, and then bombing them, and later, attacking liberals for having been right about what a stupid plan that was.
While it’s gratifying to see some of our conservative friends develop, at long last, an interest in accuracy, if Gabe Schoenfeld is truly interested in sounding the alarm on experts who have been proven repeatedly and monumentally wrong, he could probably start with his fellow Commentarian Max Boot, who — after warning of Saddam Hussein’s “top-of-the-line weapons of mass destruction” — has been declaring victory in Iraq since December 2003. Then Schoenfeld can stop by Norman Podhoretz’s office and see if Norm’s figured out what a Kurd is. Then Schoenfeld can move on to the various experts employed by the network of conservative think tanks, magazines, and vanity publications — many of whom, like Boot, now work as advisers to John McCain’s presidential campaign — whose countless distortions and deceptions helped to get the United States into Iraq, and now endeavor to keep us there.
But that’s only if Schoenfeld is genuinely interested in accuracy, and not just talking trash.