The Bush administration is apparently astonished and concerned to learn that Iran has hastened its drive to get nuclear weapons. Would an American military presence in neighboring nations on two sides of that country—in Iraq and Afghanistan—have anything to do with that acceleration?

Countries like Iran (and Libya, Syria and the many other nations seeking weapons of mass destruction) noted that the United States invaded Iraq—a nation without nuclear weapons—but treated North Korea—a nation that went out of its way to inform the United States about its possession of nuclear weapons—much more gingerly. If you were an Iranian leader, what would you do?

Perhaps the main reason the neo-conservatives, both inside and outside the Bush administration, pressed for an invasion of Iraq was to achieve a “demonstration effect.” Their thinking was that other rogue nations (Syria and Iran in particular) would be intimidated and improve their behavior.

On the surface, there are some signs of increased cooperation with the United States on the part of Iran (helping out in Afghanistan and offering to assist with any downed American aircraft in the recent war with Iraq) and Syria (pledges to close the offices of anti-Israeli groups). But in secret, those nations are most likely racing as fast as they can to obtain weapons of mass destruction—to keep the United States from doing to them what it did to Saddam Hussein’’s regime.

The apparent acceleration of Iran’s covert nuclear program proves that the Iraq war’s intended demonstration effect has turned into a “proliferation effect.”

President George W. Bush has said: “One of the things we must do is work together to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is a major issue that faces the world and it is an issue on which the United States will still lead.”

Yet the administration’s aggressive counter-proliferation policy of launching of “pre-emptive” attacks against states that are attempting to gain or possess weapons of mass destruction is backfiring. War on Iraq or not, proliferating nations know that U.S. public opinion will not support wars on the many countries that are developing or have such super-weapons.

Before the Iraq War, the Pentagon noted that 10 nuclear programs, 13 countries with biological weapons, 16 nations with chemical weapons, and 28 countries with ballistic missiles were either existing or emerging threats to the United States and its allies. So chances are good that if countries conduct such programs in secret and bury or hide the facilities to secure them from U.S. air strikes, they can eventually obtain weapons whose technology is now fairly old.

Aggressive U.S. military actions around the world merely motivate thuggish regimes to redouble their efforts to get super weapons faster.

The intimidation strategy against rogue states has backfired in the past. The larger than life neo-conservative myth of their icon, President Ronald Reagan, dissuading Moammar Qaddafi of Libya from terrorist acts by bombing his tent is just that—a myth. After the 1986 air strikes on Libya, the historical record indicates that Qaddafi accelerated his terrorism but merely did it more covertly or contracted it out to independent terrorist groups.

The large number of Americans killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland alone should have dispelled that myth. Similarly, intimidation will probably not curb fearful rogue states from trying to improve their chances of survival by developing super weapons. Even though rogue states are despotic they do have legitimate fears of attacks by regional foes and now the United States.

Given the large number of nations that are working on weapons of mass destruction (particularly nuclear weapons), the United States may have to accept the unpleasant fact that some unsavory regimes might have them or get them. The good news is that most of those nations are poor and can afford no more than a few nuclear warheads. The bone-crushing dominance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal—with thousands of warheads—should be able to deter such countries from launching an attack on the United States.

Leaders from rogue nations are often portrayed in the American media as irrational and incapable of being deterred from attacks against the United States but have acquired, in their ascent to power in their own nations, the pragmatism of many politicians. In fact, if the United States refrained from unnecessary military interventions in the backwater regions of most of the rogue nations, those nations would have no cause to launch such weapons against the faraway United States in the first place.

But Bush has taken the opposite road of profligate and unneeded military interventions. The American public and media have basked in the glow of old glory being draped over the statue of Saddam in Iraq. But the unseemly downside of such American military adventurism may lie hidden in deeply buried bunkers in nations like Iran.