A Nuclear Blunder?

George W. Bush has said it often enough. The No. 1 security challenge for America post-9/11 is to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes. In a landmark speech at the National Defense University in February 2004, the president called for a toughened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other new initiatives. "There is a consensus among nations that proliferation cannot be tolerated," Bush said. "Yet this consensus means little unless it is translated into action."

By action Bush meant the hard work of diplomacy, John Bolton, the president's point man on nuclear arms control, told Congress a month later. For one thing, America needed to lead an effort at "closing a loophole" in the 35-year-old NPT, Bolton testified back then. The treaty's provisions had to be updated to prevent countries like Iran from enriching uranium under cover of a peaceful civilian program--which is technically permitted under the NPT--when what Tehran really sought was a bomb, according to the administration.

But if the NPT needed so much fixing under U.S. leadership, why was the United States so shockingly unprepared when the treaty came up for its five-year review at a major conference in New York this month, in the view of many delegates? And why has the United States been losing control of the conference's agenda this week to Iran and other countries--a potentially serious setback to U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran?

Part of the answer, several sources close to the negotiations tell NEWSWEEK, lies with Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control. Since last fall Bolton, Bush's embattled nominee to be America's ambassador to the United Nations, has aggressively lobbied for a senior job in the second Bush administration. During that time, Bolton did almost no diplomatic groundwork for the NPT conference, these officials say.

"John was absent without leave" when it came to implementing the agenda that the president laid out in his February 2004 speech, a former senior Bush official declares flatly. Another former government official with experience in nonproliferation agrees. "Everyone knew the conference was coming and that it would be contentious. But Bolton stopped all diplomacy on this six months ago," this official said. "The White House and the National Security Council started worrying, wondering what was going on. So a few months ago the NSC had to step in and get things going themselves. The NPT regime is full of holes--it's very hard for the U.S. to meet our objectives--it takes diplomacy."

Diplomacy is just a fancy word for salesmanship--making phone calls, working the corridors, listening to and poking holes in opposing arguments, lobbying others to back one's position. But "delegates didn't hear a peep from the U.S. until a week before the conference," says Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There's no sign of any coordinated U.S. effort to develop a positive program." One diplomat involved with the conference agrees. "There were a number of the issues Bush raised in his February 2004 speech that needed to be taken up here, like the establishment of a special committee at the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] to go after [treaty] noncompliers. But painfully little has been done on that a year later."

A spokesperson for the NSC referred all questions about Bolton and its own role to the State Department. Asked to respond to the criticism, a State Department official denied that the United States had been unprepared for the conference or was underplaying it. He said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn't attend because she was caught in between back-to-back foreign trips to Latin America and to Russia. Bolton himself was preoccupied with his Senate confirmation, and Robert Joseph has yet to be confirmed as Bolton's replacement as undersecretary, the State official said, adding, "We had several prep conferences for the NPT."

Bolton, who faces a scheduled confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, has been savaged by critics in recent weeks over his alleged manipulation of intelligence, his sometimes tempestuous efforts to sideline officials who disagreed with him, his statements under oath and other complaints. Throughout the Bolton controversy, his backers in the Bush administration have argued that though he may need better people skills, he has been very effective as a public official. Yet some critics of Bolton say that his alleged mishandling of the NPT conference and other initiatives show that he has sometimes botched the administration's business as well.

Bolton, for instance, often takes and is given credit for the administration's Proliferation Security Initiative--an agreement to interdict suspected WMD shipments on the high seas--and the deal to dismantle Libya's nuclear program (a deal that Bolton had sought to block). But the former senior Bush official who criticized Bolton's performance on the NPT conference says that in fact Bolton's successor, Robert Joseph, deserves most of the credit for those achievements. This official adds that it was Joseph, who was in charge of counterproliferation at the NSC, who had to pitch in when Bolton fumbled preparations for the NPT conference, as well. Bush, in his February 2004 speech, also sought to give new powers to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which enforces the treaty. But Bolton, says the former Bush official, "focused much more time and attention trying to deny Mohammed elBaradei a third term" as head of the IAEA. The effort failed, and it was considered another international humiliation for the United States. (Ironically, elBaradei has been one of Washington's chief allies at the NPT conference, pushing for parts of the Bush agenda.)

Critics of Bolton acknowledge that even in the best of times the ongoing NPT review conference--which lasts for a month--is a "painful mess" at which little of substance is achieved, as one international diplomat involved puts it. And today the negative sentiment against the United States is so strong, one Bush official said, that "not even Metternich could win an agreement here." Mitchell Reiss, the former policy-planning chief at State, says that "one of the real challenges is trying to persuade the non-aligned movement [a caucus of non-nuclear developing countries] that nonproliferation is not a gift to the United States, but that it's fundamentally in their national-security interests."

Still, in past decades Washington has signaled its seriousness about the NPT by sending heavy hitters--Vice President Al Gore went in 1995, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. At the '95 conference in particular, Washington won kudos for leading the fight to extend the NPT's life.

The NPT, perhaps the most successful arms-control treaty in history, has been in effect since 1970. It permits the already declared nuclear states--the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China--to keep their nuclear arsenals while forbidding such weapons to everyone else--as long as all parties strive "in good faith" to achieve nuclear disarmament and the non-nuclear states get access to civilian nuclear power. The treaty has 188 signatories and only a few detractors, among them North Korea and potentially Iran (Israel, Pakistan and India also refuse to sign.) But in recent years the "loophole" in this grand bargain has become more apparent: the treaty contains worrisome ambiguities that may allow states like Iran to legally pursue a nuclear arms capability disguised as a civilian program.

All signs are that by the end of the month, that loophole will remain. The Bush administration has achieved, for the moment, a united front with France, Germany and Britain in seeking to pressure the Iranians to open up and cease uranium enrichment. But now the administration finds itself outflanked at the conference as it seeks to win a wider international consensus in favor of a hard line against Iran. Bush officials have said that if they must eventually confront Tehran, they want to correct the unilateralist mistakes made in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Yet in the last week, as the conference began, the United States found it had to concede a key point on the agenda. It had to drop its demands for a veiled reference to the threats from rogue states and terrorism since 2000, including the covert development of an Iranian nuclear program. Talks have been all but paralyzed since, to the point where the delegates can't even agree on a basic agenda for the conference.

Iranian officials at the conference say they are happily signing onto the agenda of the "nuclear have-nots" led by the non-aligned movement, which insists the United States and other nuclear states hold to their side of the NPT bargain. This includes supplying civilian nuclear technology and committing to an eventual dismantling of their nuclear arsenals. It is this agenda, one Iranian official involved in the discussions told NEWSWEEK, that is likely to dominate the meeting "despite the U.S. attempt to divert attention by focusing on Iran."