Trying to follow the U.S. policy on the proliferation of nuclear weapons is like watching a three-card monte game on a city street corner. Except the stakes are higher.
The announcement Friday that the United States is authorizing the sale to Pakistan of F-16 fighter jets capable of delivering nuclear warheads -- and thereby escalating the region's nuclear arms race -- is the latest example of how the most important issue on the planet is being bungled by the Bush administration.
Consider this dizzying series of Bush II-era actions:
We have thrown away thousands of Iraqi and American lives and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars after crying wolf on Iraq's long-defunct nuclear weapons program and now expect the world to believe similar scary stories about neighboring Iran.
We have cozied up to Pakistan for more than three years as it freely allowed the operation of the most extravagantly irresponsible nuclear arms bazaar the world has ever seen.
We sabotaged negotiations with North Korea by telling allies that Pyongyang had supplied nuclear material to Libya, even though the Bush administration knew that the country of origin of those shipments was our "ally," Pakistan.
Now, Lockheed Martin has been saved from closing its F-16 production line by the White House decision to lift the arms embargo on Pakistan and allow the sale. The decision, which ends a 1990 embargo put in place by the president's father in reprisal for Pakistan's development of a nuclear arsenal, is especially odd at a time when we are berating European nations for considering lifting their arms embargo on China.
The White House says the F-16s are a reward to Islamabad for its help in disrupting terrorism networks, despite a decade of Pakistan's strong support of al-Qaida and the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Yet Pakistan's ruling generals could be excused for believing that Washington is not seriously concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. How else to explain invading a country -- Iraq -- that didn't possess nukes, didn't sell nuclear technology to unstable nations and didn't maintain an unholy alliance with al-Qaida -- and then turning around and giving the plum prizes of U.S. military ingenuity to the country that did?
Even as the Bush administration continues to confront Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program, Islamabad has admitted that Pakistani nuclear weapons trafficker Abdul Qadeer Khan -- the father of his nation's nuclear bomb -- provided Iran with the centrifuges essential to such a program. Further, new evidence reveals that Khan marketed to Iran and Libya not only the materials needed for a nuclear bomb but the engineering competence to actually make one.
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf insists Khan was running his nuclear smuggling operation under the radar of the military government that brought Musharraf to power. And although this is a highly implausible claim given the reach of the military's power and the scope of the operation, the White House has found it convenient to buy it hook, line and sinker -- all the better to remarket Pakistan to the American people as a war-on-terrorism ally.
While Pakistan was receiving such heaping helpings of benefit of the doubt, North Korea became the Bush administration's scapegoat for the rapid nuclear proliferation happening on its watch, according to The Washington Post. "In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya," wrote the Post. "But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction." Sources told the paper that "Pakistan's role as both the buyer and the seller (of uranium hexafluoride) was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington's partner."
One result of the United States shortsightedly pulling this fast one has been the collapse of multilateral nonproliferation talks with Pyongyang. Yet in the long term, the cost is much greater: a dramatic erosion of trust in U.S. statements on nuclear proliferation.
From Iraq to Iran, North Korea to Pakistan, the Bush administration has pulled so many con jobs that it is difficult for anybody to take it seriously. Unfortunately, though, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is as serious as it gets.