Accuracy in Media

Event Summary/Commentary

As the war on terrorism, nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, and the American election season march on this fall, we hear next to nothing regarding a still-unresolved, but major, international dilemma: Who bears the burden of proof with regard to nuclear proliferation? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) functions as the “verification authority” for the Global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), yet its purpose and efficacy is often misunderstood and/or exaggerated. There is widespread disagreement as to whether NPT members themselves or the IAEA inspectors bear responsibility for proving or disproving adherence to the treaty.  These and other important nuclear issues were addressed on September 28 at the American Enterprise Institute’s panel entitled “The International Atomic Energy Agency: The World’s Enforcer or Paper Tiger?”

John R. Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, delivered the keynote address and repeatedly stressed his administration’s desire to avoid politicization of the IAEA and to keep other similarly specialized agencies from being relegated to the status of mere “forums.” In other words, such specialized agencies as the IAEA have inherently narrow focus, so the tendency to automatically lump them into broader discussions (usually implying that they’ve erred somehow) risks neutering the few but well-defined purposes they do possess. Only one of the six functions of the agency is to “establish and administer safeguards designed to ensure that special fissionable and other materials? (are) not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.” The other five functions relate to the peaceful application of nuclear energy, nuclear safety, and facility procurement. Bolton pointed out the tension within the United State’s view of atomic policies and the IAEA, which is underscored by Iran’s defiance of IAEA inspectors and North Korea’s refusal to participate in the six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program until after the American presidential election in November.

Following Bolton’s remarks, Joshua Muravchik of AEI moderated a panel composed of Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, and Mark Groombridge of the U.S. State Department. The panelists hammered out some remarkably divergent interpretations of the agency. Cirincione characterized the IAEA as an agency that has been “schizophrenic from birth,” yet he claimed that it has had some successes. Milhollin referred to it as “a historical relic” and “an international entity whose official mission is proliferation.”

Cirincione was sharply critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and concluded that “the lesson of the 2003 Iraq war is that the (IAEA) inspectors were working?IAEA intelligence was better than U.S. intelligence.” Furthermore, he declared that the ongoing difficulty in gaining North Korean participation in the six-party talks on that country’s nuclear program is “not an institutional but a political problem,” one of “credibility and trust.” Cirincione concluded that the Bush administration has failed to command a level of credibility sufficient to convince the North Koreans to comply with IAEA inspectors, and that the administration has done little or nothing about nuclear developments in Iran and North Korea. Regardless of any “credibility and trust” problem, Cirincione’s logic in linking that credibility deficit to North Korea’s violation of the NPT and continuing refusal to cooperate in negotiations is unclear.

Mark Groombridge, who serves as Bolton’s principle advisor on Asian affairs, disputed Cirincione’s claim, and pointed to the “serious, rigorous diplomacy” in which he has personally participated. The other panelists and the audience appeared unmoved when Groombridge produced his frequent-flyer card from his back pocket, apparently to serve as evidence of the various diplomatic travel he has executed. Certainly a great portion of American negotiations with North Korea has occurred behind closed doors and through back channels, but Groombridge provided too little specific information beyond the almost-reflexive praise for his administration to actually clarify much.

Milhollin stated his conclusions on the weakness of the IAEA, saying that “inspectors are meant to verify statements,” so if you’re inspecting a country that’s lying, it won’t work. “You must create an incentive to tell the truth.” He claimed that the IAEA’s only “accomplishments” have occurred in circumstances where countries have actually admitted their breach of the NPT.

On U.S. handling of Libya, another subject that gets surprisingly little air time?Milhollin referred to the track Libya has taken as a “model” for other countries and Cirincione praised the U.S.’s “creative and flexible handling” of Libya.

These experts’ divergent opinions on the effectiveness of the IAEA and the U.S. role in nuclear non-proliferation efforts certainly demonstrated Bolton’s remark regarding the continuing tension among American views of atomic policies. One can only hope that this tension will be resolved sooner, rather than later, and proactively, rather than reactively.

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