Ever since the United States emerged from World War II as the sole possessor of nuclear weapons, it has been American policy to prevent other nations from acquiring them. Little could be done, however, to keep such large and technologically advanced countries as the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China from developing them, and soon these five became the original members of the “nuclear club.”

Fortunately, for all their differences, all five were responsible enough not to brandish these weapons recklessly, and they also shared a common interest in not wanting other nations to acquire nuclear capability.

Thus was born the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which signatories pledged not to develop nuclear weapons, and which has been the basic instrument of American policy on this issue ever since. Under it, a good many countries – some, but not all, friendly to the United States and the West – have taken the pledge and, by and large, abided by it. One notable early exception was Israel, which refused to sign the treaty, though it has never admitted developing nuclear weapons. It is well known, however, that Israel possesses them – a fact tempered by the reflection that it almost certainly would use them only if threatened with extinction by its Arab neighbors.

Over the decades, however, nuclear technology has inevitably spread, in varying degrees, to upward of 20 to 30 nations – some of which have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, others haven’t. The bad news is that the world has now arrived at a point where several of these nations are capable of building nuclear bombs, and a few have actually done so. India and Pakistan, to take the most glaring examples, have both joined the nuclear club, as just one more step in their bitter rivalry.

Worse yet, two of the nations that are believed to have developed nuclear weapons, or to be on the verge of doing so, are aptly described as “rogue states” – relatively small but ugly despotisms that may well use them if they don’t get their way: Iran and North Korea.

The problem has been foreseeable for many years, and has gotten steadily worse. The last president who could afford to stall – Bill Clinton – stalled right through his two terms, and left this miserable dilemma on the doorstep of his successor, George W. Bush, who no longer has the luxury of stalling. Are we going to let Iran and North Korea join the nuclear club, with all that that implies, or not?

North Korea, a leftover communist tyranny, is an economic basket case that might ordinarily be left to collapse in its own sweet time. But its “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, has survived by selling his nuclear know-how to other countries, as well as by blackmailing the world to give him aid in return for not using his nukes (he is believed to have a few) or building more of them. Putting Kim out of business would require aerial strikes on his nuclear installations, but he warns that, if that happens, he has the will and the ability to kill hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea or Japan first, with the bombs he has on hand.

Iran is believed to be within a year or two of having nuclear weapons, which it would probably aim at Israel as a contribution to the Arab cause. That, to be sure, gives Israel a good reason to launch aerial attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities (if they can be found), as it did to Iraq’s two decades ago. But this might well precipitate an Iranian military invasion of Iraq, where America’s forces have their hands full already.

What, then, is Bush to do? Getting into another war with either North Korea or Iran is probably not Karl Rove’s favorite idea for enhancing Bush’s popularity. But the alternative may be to see these two rogue states take their seats in the nuclear club and spend the next couple of decades blackmailing us for anything that strikes their fancy. If you have suggestions, the White House would no doubt welcome it.

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