I do intend to return to my planned series on Matt Bai and the Serious People. But for now, David Sanger asks a question that really needs to be asked: what is going to happen to Pakistan's nukes? Before I look at the answer Sanger offers, let me point to this one line in the story.
“It’s a very professional military,” said a senior American official who is trying to manage the crisis and insisted on anonymity because the White House has said this problem will not be discussed in public. “But the truth is, we don’t know how many of the safeguards are institutionalized, and how many are dependent on Musharraf’s guys.” [my emphasis]
Understand: the threat that Al Qaeda could get nukes was the single most important driving force behind the Iraq war. And now, because BushCo has seen fit to put Cheney in charge of its Pakistan policy, and Cheney has seen fit to make a spokesperson one of the main architects of that policy, there is a very real possibility that our "ally" Pakistan will provide nukes to the guys that hit us on 9/11. And the White House's response is to dictate that, "this problem will not be discussed in public."
All the more reason to discuss it in public, I say.
And Sanger's discussion is none too optimistic.
“We just don’t have any idea how this is going to unfold,” one senior administration official conceded late Friday. With that uncertainty, the nuclear problem took on at least two dimensions.
If General Musharraf is overthrown, no one is quite sure what will happen to the team he has entrusted to safeguard the arsenal. There is some hope that the military as an institution could reliably keep things under control no matter who is in charge, but that is just a hope.
Even if it never comes to a loss of control over weapons or their components, the crisis carries another level of danger. Administration officials say privately that if the chaos in the streets worsens, or Al Qaeda exploits the moment, Pakistan’s government could become distracted from monitoring scientists, engineers and others who, out of religious zeal or plain old greed, might see a moment to sell their knowledge and technology.
In other words, no one knows WTF will happen to nukes as things destabilize further in Pakistan. (FWIW, here's Joby Warrick's take on the same question--someone clearly shopped this story for the Sunday papers.)
Unfortunately, Sanger allows him story to be a vehicle for neocon tripe about how the potential risk of proliferation means we need to ally with Musharraf to the death.
“The nightmare scenario, of course, is what happens if an extremist Islamic government emerges — with an instant nuclear arsenal,” said Robert Joseph, a counterproliferation expert who left the administration this year. John R. Bolton, the former United Nations representative who has accused Mr. Bush of going soft on proliferation, said more bluntly that General Musharraf’s survival was critical. “While Pervez Musharraf might not be a Jeffersonian democrat,” Mr. Bolton said, “he is the best bet to secure the nuclear arsenal.”
No mention of the fact that Musharraf's power depends partly on Islamic extremists. No mention of the fact that the "very professional" military (not to mention the ISI) is loaded with Al Qaeda sympathizers. No mention of the fact--when Sanger suggests that Musharraf "finally confronted Dr. Khan"--that Musharraf recently released AQ Khan from house arrest and never let the US speak with him directly.
In other words, Sanger makes it clear that public assurances that Pakistan's nukes are safe are presented against a background policy in which the White House has dictated that "this problem will not be discussed in public." He raises a number of reasons to doubt that those nukes are as safe as the assurances suggest. Yet he doesn't really pursue whether Musharraf's continued rule is the best way to keep those nukes safe.