Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), warned of insufficient evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and courageously opposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule before it was fashionable to do so. Rewarded with the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, he shares many more of his views in his new memoir, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times.
Unfortunately, ElBaradei takes on more than anyone could get right. He inflates his and the IAEA’s role in solving the world’s problems while saying little about the agency’s operational limitations in detecting nuclear violators. The first whiff of this comes with the book’s premise. To solve our nuclear crises, he argues, the world’s leaders need to show more respect toward suspect proliferators by relying less on sanctions and threats and more on “nuclear diplomacy” to soothe the “underlying insecurities” of nuclear have-nots.
From here, things get complicated quickly. Among the rights nations enjoy is that of developing “peaceful” nuclear energy, which, ElBaradei insists, includes making reactor fuel—a process that brings states to the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. ElBaradei suggests that nuclear-fuel making be limited in states like Iran. Why Tehran would agree to restrain itself, though, goes unexplained, as does how the agency might detect cheating.
Here, the limitations of IAEA nuclear inspections matter. These include the agency’s inability to find covert nuclear plants, to track nuclear-fuel production accurately, and to detect significant military diversions in a timely manner. IAEA inspections are also pegged to egregiously generous criteria for how much material and time it takes to make a bomb. These points, unfortunately, are ignored.
ElBaradei instead emphasizes the need for “genuine” diplomatic dialogue with possible proliferators. This, he argues, is superior to sanctioning or isolating them, which only aggravates their insecurities and prompts them to proliferate. Thus, Washington’s 1994 offer to Pyongyang of power reactors capable of making scores of bombs’ worth of plutonium in exchange for North Korea’s eventual compliance with its IAEA safeguards obligations is “flawed” but better than “the alternative.” Meanwhile, Washington’s suspension of the deal after evidence emerged that Pyongyang was trying to make a uranium bomb was an “over-reaction to questionable intelligence.”
Similarly, ElBaradei applauds the 2005 U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear deal. This gave India civilian nuclear technology as if it were a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member despite having tested nuclear weapons in 1974 and 1998. As with his judgment not to report several smaller states’ questionable nuclear activities to the U.N., ElBaradei condones this deal in the name of nuclear equity.
This, he argues, demands that the superpowers do more to eliminate existing strategic weapons. Thus, he rebukes Washington for deploying missile defenses, London for building Trident submarines, and the Bush administration for toying with developing more usable nuclear weapons. He also calls on the wealthiest states not to “create more wealth for the wealthy” but rather to address hunger, poverty, and disease.
To oppose such lofty thoughts might seem as churlish as opposing motherhood. But at this point, we are far from Vienna and the IAEA’s technical nuclear-inspection role. ElBaradei, moreover, presupposes that anyone who disagrees with him is unworthy (criticizing everyone from his key inspectors to nearly all of the Bush administration). Certainly, it would have helped in selling his big ideas if ElBaradei had said much more about his agency’s and his own limitations, of which there are plenty. Being right, even on key points, after all, hardly absolves one of self-examination, and in the Age of Deception there is far too little.
Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom.