Among other things, the United States went to war against Iraq, partly on grounds that its alleged weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable risk.
As it turned out, those weapons were never found. Carnegie President Jessica Mathews said that's why the authors of the new edition of "Deadly Arsenals" -- published yesterday in Washington -- tried hard to stick to the known facts on proliferation.
"If we have learned anything in the last few years, it's good to be as clear as we possibly can be about capability," Mathews said. "And, of course, I mean on both sides -- about not overestimating capability, but equally not underestimating capability."
The study's main authors, Joseph Cirincione and Jon Wolfsthal, said they are no longer using the term "weapons of mass destruction" because it combines very different threats. They said the term's repeated use before the Iraq war merged the real possibility that Iraq had chemical arms with the unlikely notion that it possessed a nuclear capability. Such misleading presentation, the authors argue, can lead to "flawed policy."
Cirincione said that getting the facts right -- particularly about nuclear proliferation -- is vital, since the stakes have perhaps never been higher.
"Iran's [nuclear] program has advanced. North Korea's program has advanced," Cirincione said. "We are securing nuclear materials at a slower pace than we were previously. We are reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons at a slower pace than we were recently. There is a growing lack of confidence in the viability of the entire nonproliferation regime."
Cirincione, speaking at the release of the book in Washington, underscored progress on proliferation in recent decades. For example, he said that while countries like Brazil or Libya once sought nuclear arms, they no longer do. He said the main threat is now mostly regional, confined to an "arc of crisis" from South Asia to the Middle East.
North Korea and, many believe, Iran are pursuing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the entire international nonproliferation regime is at risk, a fact that was underscored by a United Nations conference in March on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which failed to reach any substantive agreements.
Coupled with continued risks from aging nuclear stockpiles, as well as new threats of nuclear terrorism, Cirincione said the world is at a crossroads.
"We think we're at a very delicate moment in the proliferation dangers," Cirincione said. "We've referred to it in other places as the nuclear 'tipping point,' where decisions we take in the next few years will decide whether we continue some of the progress that has historically occurred over the last two decades to reduce the number of countries with these weapons programs and reduce the numbers of these weapons -- or whether we fail to resolve these critical issues and we set off another great wave of proliferation."
The authors of "Deadly Arsenals" said a key part of getting it right on proliferation is getting the threat assessment right. But Cirincione suggested the U.S.-led "war on terrorism" is exaggerating some threats.
"No state ever has transferred nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons to a nonstate group," Cirincione said. "We think there are good reasons for that -- blowback, loss of control, you're going to get the blame for it anyway, just to give you the shorthand reasons. We think it's unlikely that any state would actually transfer that, but as you point out, it is possible, and that possibility is most present in North Korea."
On Iran, Cirincione said all evidence suggests that the Islamic Republic is not ready to drop out of the NPT, reject a diplomatic solution with Europe on its nuclear program, and go all out to pursue nuclear weapons.
"They are a good five to seven years away from the ability to either to make fuel for their reactors or material for a nuclear weapon," Cirincione said. "So, understanding the technological limitations that Iran is under may help you in negotiations with Iran to interpret their negotiating posture as just that. Part of it is a posture."
Co-author Wolfsthal was also more upbeat about solving the Iranian nuclear issue, at least when compared to North Korea. He said Iran is more open and can be influenced.
"One of the reasons I'm not totally pessimistic is because we've done it a lot," Wolfsthal said. "South Africa gave up an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus had the third-, fourth- and sixth-largest deployments in the world on their territories and now are nuclear [weapon] free. So, we know how to get this right. The question is, in the case of North Korea, have the dynamics gone too far down the road? I'm more pessimistic than [Cirincione]. I think there's a very slim chance that we're going to be able to get North Korea to think nuclear weapons are not in their interest."
Both analysts said one of the key issues in the nonproliferation battle remains securing the world's stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, a necessary component for nuclear weapons. They are urging the United States, Russia, and other governments to step up efforts to secure the material, present in nuclear research reactors in 40 countries, from falling into the hands of terrorists.