U.S. leaders need to face the reality that interventionist U.S. foreign policy has consequences on the nuclear proliferation front. Those who encouraged and supported America’s post-Cold War military interventions—Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals—need to ask themselves whether increasing the incentives for nuclear proliferation was worth the price of intervention when U.S. national security was not at stake. Especially when that price is now the potential threat of nuclear terrorism.

One of the greatest fears in the post-9/11 world is the prospect of nuclear terrorism. Indeed, this concern led the Department of Homeland Security to create the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. But trying to detect a nuclear weapon to prevent a terrorist attack amounts to a needle-in-the-haystack operation. Simply being able to detect the presence of radiation as one indicator of nuclear material is not sufficient if one is searching for a nuclear device rather than a radiological weapon such as a dirty bomb. For example, there are legitimate commercial sources of industrial and medical radiation that do not constitute a nuclear threat. Moreover, there are many naturally occurring sources of radiation, such as fertilizers, ceramics, bananas, kitty litter, and smoke detectors. The difficulty of being able to detect nuclear materials and the technical gap that exists for the process is best illustrated by the fact that twice ABC News was able to smuggle a 6.8-kilogram cylinder (about the size of a soda can) of depleted uranium through U.S. Customs and into the country (in September 2002 at Staten Island, NY, and September 2003 at Long Beach, CA).

The potential threat of nuclear terrorism is exacerbated by the fact that the quantities of weapons grade plutonium (WGPu) or highly enriched uranium (HEU) required to build a nuclear weapon are relatively small. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a “significant quantity” of WGPu to make a first generation nuclear bomb is 8 kilograms and 25 kilograms for HEU (a Natural Resources Defense Council study concluded that only 1 kilogram of WGPu or 2 kilograms of HEU was needed to build a nuclear fission weapon). This problem is further compounded by the fact that potential sources of fissionable nuclear material are widespread. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, there is over 50 tons (over 45,000 kilograms, or enough nuclear material to build 1,800 weapons) of HEU being used in civilian power and research programs in over 50 countries.

Therefore, the best way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to keep nuclear weapons (and the nuclear material to create a weapon) out of the hands of terrorists in the first place—that is, dealing with the problem at its source. Towards that end, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) effort has resulted in the elimination and reduction of stockpiles of nuclear weapons, their components, and their delivery mechanisms in Russia and the former Soviet states.

Unfortunately, U.S. policies and actions have probably resulted in creating more potential sources of nuclear weapons rather than fewer. For example, in the wake of the Bush administration’s decision to engage in regime change in Iraq, it is not surprising that North Korea and Iran would believe that they might be next on Washington’s hit list unless they could effectively deter such an attack—especially since both countries were named members of the “axis of evil” in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. Because neither country could hope to match the conventional military capabilities of the United States, a logical defense option for both is to develop nuclear weapons.

The larger problem is the U.S. proclivity for military intervention, which pre-dates the Bush administration—since the end of the Cold War (marked by the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989), the United States has engaged in nine major military operations: Panama in 1989, the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003. And it is important to realize that President Clinton’s war in the Balkans was essentially no different than the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Both were unnecessary military actions against sovereign states conducted without the formal approval of the UN Security Council, and neither represented an imminent threat to U.S. security. And both were rationalized on humanitarian grounds—punishment for Slobodan Milosevic’s atrocities in Serbia and Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule in Iraq, respectively.

In other words, U.S. behavior has likely created a powerful incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons—exactly the opposite desired effect.