Webcast Recap

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's International Security Studies, Middle East, and Asia programs, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

Drawing on his reporting for the New York Times and additional extensive interviews with U.S. policymakers and intelligence officials, David Sanger's timely new book focuses on the foreign policy legacy that the George W. Bush administration has left the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama. Sanger argues that the centerpiece of that legacy – the Iraq war – has had not only major direct costs in lost American and Iraqi lives and in the expenditure of $800 billion since the invasion. But there have also been major opportunity costs – in projecting American influence around the globe and in lost credibility for developing collective international action to meet more urgent security threats than that posed by the weakened and contained Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sanger describes how the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda led to a new perception of threat – the dangerous new "nexus" of terrorism and proliferation – and the corresponding change in U.S. strategy from containing "rogue" regimes to changing them.

The Bush administration took down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had provided Al Qaeda with a sanctuary from which to plan and carry out the 9/11 attacks, but then pivoted to focus on Saddam Hussein's Iraq before Afghanistan had been stabilized. The administration never followed through on its promise for a Marshall Plan to rebuild Afghanistan. The shift of U.S. forces and attention to Iraq created an opening for the Taliban to reconstitute their forces. As one counterinsurgency expert put it, U.S. military efforts "just shifted our problem to the east," to the adjacent areas in northwest Pakistan.

U.S. military strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan have exacerbated the stability of the Pakistani government, which controls a nuclear arsenal. Sanger details the effort by Islamic extremists to quietly infiltrate Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and the covert assistance that the United States has provided to the Pakistani government to secure those weapons.

The book breaks news with its revelation about how U.S. intelligence penetrated Tehran's nuclear program, leading President Bush, in his final year, to authorize covert operations, in lieu of a risky American or Israeli airstrike, to delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. In the case of North Korea, Sanger argues that the Bush administration's preoccupation with Iraq and its regime-change attitude toward "rogue states" in the aftermath of 9/11 led it to mismanage nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang in 2002-2003. The collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which had frozen activity at the North's nuclear complex, permitted Pyongyang to obtain plutonium sufficient for a nuclear test and a small arsenal of weapons.

The real winner of the Iraq war, Sanger concludes, was China, which has used the last eight years to expand its influence in East Asia and beyond. Nonetheless, Sanger sees a real opportunity for the Obama administration to work with China on energy and climate change.