In recent days and weeks, Libya, Iran, and North Korea have all signaled a new willingness to ease concerns about such programs and cooperate with the international community.
Libya, long on Washington's terrorist list and implicated in the bombing of a U.S. jetliner in 1987, has offered to disarm in exchange for a full normalization of economic and political relations with the West. Iran has agreed to cooperate with the United Nations on inspections of its nuclear facilities. And North Korea has made what it calls a "bold concession" by offering to freeze its nuclear-power program.
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cautiously welcomed the news from Tehran, Tripoli, and Pyongyang. "We've had a breakthrough now with Libya," he said. "A great deal of pressure has been put on Iran so that Iran has now signed the Additional Protocol of the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and has made certain other commitments to the international community. Iraq is no longer going to be a source of weapons of mass destruction. And I hope our colleagues in Pyongyang are watching all of this."
North Korea has offered to suspend its nuclear-power program and refrain from testing or making nuclear weapons. At an informal news conference at the State Department, Powell called that offer positive, interesting, and encouraging. He said he hoped it leads to a new round of six-nation talks on ending Pyongyang's suspected nuclear-weapons programs.
Meanwhile, Powell reiterated a pledge by President George W. Bush that the United States would take "tangible steps" to improve relations once Tripoli's weapons programs have been verified and dismantled. "The next step is to make sure we have a clear understanding of what Libya possesses, make sure it matches up with what we think they possess and what they tell us they possess," he said. "And they are very forthcoming to this point."
After months of secret talks with Britain and the United States, and a decade-long effort to restore its relations with the West, Libya last month said it would abandon all its unconventional weapons programs.
Powell said U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who follows issues of nonproliferation, will discuss plans for inspecting and disarming Libya with British officials in London later this week.
Tripoli's surprise announcement came in the wake of a new attitude in Tehran, which Washington has long suspected of seeking to use its burgeoning nuclear energy program to build weapons. After intense U.S. and European pressure, Iran has agreed to accept intrusive United Nations inspections of its nuclear facilities, to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
To some, the changed approach from these three countries should be seen as a victory for the Bush administration. Kenneth Allard is a former U.S. Army colonel and intelligence officer. He told RFE/RL that while the price in lives and suffering for the war in Iraq has been high, the potential payoff could be worth it.
"As high as those penalties are -- it tears me up every time I see one of those [soldier's] funerals here in Arlington -- on the other hand, you have removed two of the most worrying proliferators from the board: Iraq -- I never believed entirely in the weapons of mass destruction but I never believed that they weren't there either -- and, clearly, the case of Libya," Allard said.
Following the 11 September attacks on the United States, the administration singled out the nexus between rogue states and weapons of mass destruction as the chief threat to U.S. security in the new century.
Bush led the country to war with Iraq on the belief that President Saddam Hussein had deadly weapons that could someday be used against the United States or its allies.
An element of that argument was that toppling Hussein would send a clear signal to countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Libya that Washington means business when it comes to national security -- and that they would fair better cooperating with, rather than threatening, the United States.
So the recent turn of events would seem to prove the administration's strategy was, at least in part, a success. But not everyone is ready yet to celebrate in Washington. Analyst Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute believes that deep skepticism should greet the moves by Pyongyang and Tehran. "There is less here than meets the eye," he said. "There's a strong suspicion that the Iranians are simply stalling, that they're engaging in the same kind of phony cooperation with the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency as North Korea did in the early and mid-1990s."
Carpenter adds that North Korea's latest offer may in fact be no more than a proposal to return to the parameters of a 1994 agreement with Washington that froze Pyongyang's nuclear program -- except that this time the Stalinist state, after violating that deal, wants even more economic and security concessions from Washington.
Carpenter also points to the fact that while Washington appears to be having some success in slowing proliferation, the challenge of totally preventing the spread of such deadly materials is almost insurmountable.
A case in point is Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror but, at the same time, widely considered to be the world's top proliferator of materials and know-how for building nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration acknowledged yesterday that Libya, prior to having its change of heart, had obtained nuclear-weapons technology from Pakistan. But it insisted there was no sign of involvement from Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who has vowed that Pakistan plays no role in such activities.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it was possible that "rogue individuals" were hard to control in Pakistan. But he declined to confirm a report in "The New York Times" that Pakistan provided centrifuge-design technology that helped Libya advance toward a nuclear weapon over the last two years.
McClellan added that Washington is confident Musharraf will live up to his assurances on nonproliferation. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher echoed that message at a briefing, adding: "We also note that Pakistan has begun investigating and a debriefing of individuals who may have valuable information on some of the activities that have been reported and discussed. We think that again demonstrates that President Musharraf attaches a high priority to meeting his commitment."
But analysts say Musharraf, who has narrowly avoided assassination on two separate occasions recently, may not be in full control of his military and intelligence services.
Allard acknowledges that despite all the other recent positive news from the nonproliferation front, the administration is still a long way from seeing its vision of rogue states abandoning their deadly weapons program fully in response to U.S. pressure.
He said Pakistan remains the biggest concern, and that while Washington may dismiss Pakistani proliferators as "rogue individuals," the reality may in fact be different. "That's not the way they look upon themselves," Allard said. "You look at a character like retired General Mirza Aslam Beg, who is their former chief of staff. And even though he is out of power now and is a retired guy who enjoys the plaudits of his countrymen, he is constantly talking about the horrible oppression, enslavement, denigration of Islamic civilizations around the world. And they are very blunt about the use of nuclear weapons to reverse all those things."