In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., on February 11, President Bush warned against the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and suggested measures to dismantle a growing black market in nuclear fuel and technology.  He called the possibility of a sudden attack by weapons of mass destruction “the greatest threat before humanity today” and predicted that America and the rest of the world would have to face it for decades to come.

Mr. Bush said that the rules governing nuclear proliferation should be strengthened, including introducing a ban on the shipment of nuclear technology to countries that currently lack processing equipment.  The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has allowed nonnuclear states to develop atomic power plants with the understanding that they would not be used as fronts for weapons-making, but Mr. Bush says that recently disclosed nuclear-weapons programs in Iran and North Korea prove that the treaty is no longer effective.  He called for new rules that would require nations to declare their nuclear facilities and capabilities and to open themselves to international inspections.  Nonsignatories would be prohibited from importing equipment for nuclear programs.

The President’s warnings reflect a real problem, even if his underlying political objective is to move the context of the ongoing debate about weapons of mass destruction from the embarrassing failure to find them in Iraq to what he called “a massive threat . . . that isn’t countered by Cold War strategies.”  He also appeared keen to shift the focus from the shortcomings of the intelligence community in Iraq to the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in detecting the illicit proliferation network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

A week before Mr. Bush’s speech, Dr. Khan stunned the world when he admitted on television to leaking nuclear-weapons secrets to—among others—North Korea, Libya, and Iran.  Widely considered a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing the country’s nuclear arsenal, Khan made his “confession” on February 4, after a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf.  He assured his countrymen that, in all his foreign endeavors, he had acted “without authorization” from General Musharraf’s government, promised not to do so again, and asked for forgiveness.  The meeting between Musharraf and Khan, and the latter’s subsequent TV appearance, were carefully choreographed by the government.  Musharraf looked stern in his military fatigues and spoke through pursed lips, while Khan appeared to be bending toward him in supplication.

The proceedings were reminiscent of Moscow, 1936, except that Khan’s life and liberty were not in any danger.  His de facto invincibility became obvious when the government immediately decided to grant him “clemency,” while repeating Khan’s assertion that his actions were “unauthorized.”  A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declared that the affair was over and asserted that the admission itself proved Pakistan to be a “responsible nuclear weapons state.”

Such assurances were at odds with Musharraf’s point-blank refusal to hand over any documents to any international agency or to allow members of the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Pakistan to investigate the affair.  The Pakistani president sounded a defiant note when he declared that his is a sovereign country, and, therefore, “no document will be given, no independent investigation will take place.”  Vowing never to roll back Pakistan’s nuclear assets, Musharraf also lashed out at fellow Muslim nations Iran and Libya for caving in to international inspectors and turning over documents on their nuclear programs.  In a subsequent interview, he even blamed Washington for not warning him of Khan’s activities in a more timely manner.

The initial reaction from Washington was extraordinarily mild.  “President Musharraf has assured us that Pakistan was not involved in any kind of proliferation,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan:

The investigation by the government of Pakistan demonstrates their commitments to addressing the issue of proliferation, and this proliferation is no longer.  The actions of Pakistan have broken up this network and that’s important.

In the same spirit, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated that the Bush administration welcomed Pakistan’s announcement and praised Mushar-raf’s alleged cooperativeness:

It marks the sign of how seriously the government takes the commitments that President Musharraf has made to make sure that his nation is not a source of prohibited technologies for other countries.  Pakistan, in this process, has been working very closely with the IAEA and with other governments, as they investigate and as they look at the information that is coming out of, especially, the IAEA on what’s been going on.  So we welcome President Musharraf’s actions, as do other members of the international community.

McClellan’s and Boucher’s statements continue the United States’ long-standing appeasement of Pakistan’s nuclear transgressions.  In 1972, following its third war with India, the government in Islamabad secretly decided to develop nuclear weapons.  Its program was ostensibly peaceful, but, in 1974, Western suppliers embargoed all further exports of technology.  Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, the Reagan administration lifted all sanctions and provided generous military and financial aid.  By 1983, the CIA strongly suspected that China had supplied Pakistan with a bomb design, but the White House looked the other way.  That same year, a Dutch court convicted Khan in absentia on a charge of stealing confidential material—allegedly used to jump-start Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1976—from the British-German-Dutch nuclear conglomerate URENCO and sentenced him to four years in prison.  Soon thereafter, Pakistan was able to complete a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor that provided a source of plutonium-bearing spent fuel.  The process reached its logical conclusion on May 28, 1998, when Pakistan detonated a string of nuclear devices and became the first Islamic country to join the nuclear club.

Two months after September 11, the BBC’s Newsnight and the Guardian reported that the Bush administration had thwarted an investigation of Khan and his associates.  Former CIA operatives told the BBC that they could not investigate the development of “Islamic bombs” by Pakistan because the funding appeared to originate in Saudi Arabia.  Greg Palast and David Pallister, the authors of the report, concluded that the Bush administration “spike” of the investigation followed from the dual policy of not alienating Saudi Arabia and of courting the support of the authorities in Islamabad for the military action in Afghanistan.

In the same spirit, two years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that the United States was not concerned about the potential for misuse of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and declared that he did not “personally believe that there is a risk.”  In another context, such assurances could be understood as a necessary political expedient vis-à-vis a major Muslim power whose support is needed in the “War on Terror.”  Such a policy, however, is no longer tenable.  An administration that went to war in Iraq in order to take away her alleged WMD’s cannot afford to be perceived as complicit in Pakistan’s efforts to escape international censure and scrutiny.  As former U.S. chief weapons inspector David Kay put it, “I can think of no one who deserves less to be pardoned.”  He called the disclosures “a wake-up call.”

This issue provides a test of Mr. Bush’s declared resolve to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  He should not allow Musharraf to deny international scrutiny of his country’s nuclear program.  In exchange for not publicly embarrassing the general, President Bush should insist that Pakistan submit her nuclear program to international inspection and allow some degree of scrutiny by the United States over her existing nuclear arsenal.  In private, Bush should not even pretend to believe the assertion that one man could have maintained an illicit nuclear-proliferation network with some of the most dangerous regimes in the world without the Musharraf government’s knowledge, participation, and active encouragement.

At the time of this writing, the magnitude of the problem remains unknown.  It is yet to be established whether Khan’s direct or indirect contacts have included Islamic terrorist cells or groups or people connected with them, nor what technological blueprints, materials, or hardware may have exchanged hands.  Khan is known to have supplied Libya with the high-speed centrifuges needed to make uranium bomb fuel and even designs for the bomb itself.  Who else has benefited from his services?  Such concern is justified in light of Khan’s open support for Muslim solidarity.  He was eager to defy the West and to pierce the “clouds of the so-called secrecy,” as he once put it.  A senior Pakistani politician told the New York Times that Khan felt that giving nuclear technology to a Muslim country was not a crime.  Islamic activists in Pakistan have threatened to mount street protests if Khan goes on trial.

The sentiment is shared by many members of Pakistan’s ruling elite, which is not surprising, considering that Pakistan is the first modern state to be established on openly Islamic principles.  Even her name, “Land of the Pure,” implies that only the “pure” ones—Muslims—are true citizens.  Pakistan still suffers from many defects derived from her origins.  She is divided by caste, with the highest status reserved for the alleged descendants of Arab conquerors, called ashraf.  This social structure predicated on the supposed superiority of Islamic imperialism suggests that Islam is the cause, or at least an aggravating feature, in an array of problems that includes underdevelopment, illiteracy, oppression, poverty, disease, and rigidity of thought.  As long as the country’s Islamic character is explicitly upheld by Musharraf and his successors, Pakistan cannot evolve into a democracy, an efficient economy, or a civilized polity without undermining the religious rationale for her very existence.  Unlike neighboring India, Pakistan has never been a functional democracy.  To this day, she discriminates against Christians and other religious minorities, and she covertly aids terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mr. Bush’s stated objective of seeing Pakistan develop into a “moderate” Islamic state cannot be advanced if Washington continues to turn a blind eye to the transgressions of the regime in Islamabad.  Soft-pedaling Pakistan’s role as a nuclear proliferator would be particularly counterproductive.  It could only encourage Musharraf’s unrepentant cockiness and postpone the long-overdue reform of his army, which remains under the command of officers whose loyalties are often inimical to Western interests and who have allowed countless Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to slip across the border from Afghanistan to stay out of the U.S. military’s reach.  Musharraf’s government has released many Islamic militants detained after September 11, and it has backtracked on its promise to control the Islamic schools that are breeding new terrorists.

A degree of cooperation with Pakistan in Mr. Bush’s War on Terror is perhaps inevitable, just as various Cold War alliances with nasty Third World regimes were sometimes necessary, but the relationship should not go beyond the pragmatic.  It will be unfortunate if the facts surrounding Pakistan’s passing of nuclear secrets to some of the least-pleasant regimes on earth continue to be clouded by American denials and the feigned optimism that have, for decades, characterized Washington’s relations with its supposed allies in the Muslim world.