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Bush exit may pave way for new nuclear security strategy

President George W Bush's impending departure has rekindled hopes that new US leadership can prop up the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which marks its 40th year on Tuesday.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2008 09:36 IST

President George W Bush's impending departure has rekindled hopes that new US leadership can prop up the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which marks its 40th year Tuesday.

Both the presidential candidates, senators Barack Obama and John McCain, recognize that renewed US leadership on disarmament is critical to strengthen the global accord aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating dangers posed by nuclear weapons.

Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, seems committed to securing support from Congress for swift US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) prohibiting nuclear weapons testing.

Republican nominee-elect John McCain, who once voted against the CTBT, is willing to take another look at the accord, which the Bush administration has failed to consider aside from refusing to accept new weapons limits.

Obama has also emphasized that the United States is looking to a nuclear free world while McCain committed the country to the same -- if less specific -- goal.

In fact, a remarkable bipartisan consensus is emerging that can help the new US president revolutionize America's policy towards nuclear weapons, said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who lost to Bush in the 2004 White House race.

"For the first time in history, both main party candidates have agreed to put America on a path towards a world without nuclear weapons and all the risks they bring," Kerry said in an opinion piece in the Financial Times newspaper last week.

Some are less enthusiastic.

"I am not predicting a brighter future quite yet," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan US group pushing policies to curb global weapons dangers.

What was heartening, he said, was that both presidential candidates recognized that renewed US nuclear leadership on disarmament was absolutely necessary to strengthen the NPT so that it can survive for another four decades, he said.

"But the problem is that the future holds a great number of tough nuclear weapons related challenges and it is not going to be easy," he said.

To reestablish the US nonproliferation leadership needed to repair the system, Kimball proposed that the next president act quickly to slash the still-bloated US and Russian nuclear arsenals, end the pursuit of new nuclear warheads and ratify the CTBT.

He also called for US-led efforts to make NPT holdouts such as India, Israel and Pakistan meet the commitments expected of NPT members.

Along with China, they should be lobbied to enter the mainstream by ratifying the CTBT and officially capping fissile material production, he said.

Traditionally, the United States had led the drive to strengthen international safeguards to prevent misuse of civil nuclear technology.

It also took steps to pursue disarmament with the Soviet Union and later Russia and used diplomacy to persuade countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and others not to pursue the bomb.

"But today, the United States has disavowed key non proliferation and disarmament commitments," Kimball said, citing as example the Bush administration's civilian nuclear deal with non-NPT member India.

"It shows that the US is willing to bend the rules in certain cases for 'friends'."

Another perceived blunder by the Bush administration was the mishandling of the North Korea nuclear issue back in 2002, when US actions led the hardline communist state to withdraw from the NPT and kick out nuclear inspectors.

After North Korea accumulated enough plutonium to make several bombs, one of which was tested in 2006, Washington is again talking to the reclusive state and rewarding it for denuclearization steps.

But the Bush administration's biggest blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of stopping Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program.

The administration ignored the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN weapons inspectors on the ground, who had said one month before the invasion there was no evidence of a nuclear weapons program or active chemical and biological weapons programs.

That decision, some experts believe, severely undermined the non-proliferation system and made it difficult now for international action for NPT member Iran's violation of IAEA safeguards and push to develop uranium enrichment capabilities in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

Amid such growing concerns, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel said nuclear proliferation will require special attention by the next US president.

The new administration should push for a 21st century nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament framework at the NPT's 2010 'Review Conference' to replace the post-Cold War structure, he said.

"But the next president cannot wait for or depend only on this opportunity. He must initiate and lead on this issue next year," Hagel said.