The Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has stated his intention to “nominate myself” to be president of Egypt, but this memoir will not improve his election prospects. In personal terms, it’s hard to imagine anything less thrilling to Egypt’s street revolutionaries than ElBaradei’s accounts of his meals (“The food was very basic, with few choices: noodles, meat and kimchi; no fruit or salad”) and accommodations (“a worn, drab-colored suite consisting of a bedroom and a salon”) in places like North Korea. Nor will his fellow Egyptians be much intrigued by the details of his battles against nuclear proliferators. At the moment, the protestors have other priorities.
On the other hand, foreign policy leaders and wonks everywhere will find plenty in this memoir to stir debates about the most vital task for global survival — the need to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, especially to rogue states and terrorists.
That quest is ElBaradei’s story. For decades he was an intimate participant in dramatic nuclear proliferation confrontations that dominated headlines. He served as a senior official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog and inspection arm, for 13 years (1984-97) before rising to its director-generalship in 1997. He resigned in 2009 after completing his third term and announced his interest in running against President Hosni Mubarak in the election scheduled for this year. In 2005, he and the agency were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their nonproliferation endeavors. Doubtless the Norwegian selectors, always ready to needle American hawks, also sought to reward his bold critique of the American-led war against Iraq, especially since they drew ill-tempered ripostes from top officials in the Bush administration, particularly “Dick Cheney and his faction.”
In many ways, this David-Goliath confrontation over Iraq both drove ElBaradei in his years atop the I.A.E.A. and also inspired this memoir. The Iraq story is well known. The Bush team insisted that Saddam Hussein — who had cheated on nukes and chemical weapons once before and been caught — had or was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, and they demanded I.A.E.A. inspections of Iraq to confirm it. The agency conducted 247 inspections at 147 sites in Iraq from November 2002 until March 2003 and found no violations and no nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the United States insisted on its own “evidence” and went to war. There can be no exaggerating the negative effects of this experience on world opinion toward the United States and upon ElBaradei himself as I.A.E.A. chief.
ElBaradei’s self-proclaimed mission became preventing another Iraq-type war. To this end, he significantly upgraded the agency’s inspection capabilities, building on the work of his predecessor, Hans Blix. At the same time, ElBaradei decried American counterproliferation efforts as warmongering. These campaigns provided the three themes of his memoir: the need to strengthen the mandate and standing of the I.A.E.A., to restrain sword-waving by the great powers (read the United States), and to emphasize diplomacy and collective security instead.
First, and not surprisingly, ElBaradei is well aware of the atomic energy agency’s handicaps. For one, its inspections are generally restricted to Non-Proliferation Treaty members and only to those sites declared by those members. Extending this limited mandate to other sites requires a strong push from the United Nations Security Council. The agency has only some 2,300 employees, a very tight budget of about $450 million and limited intelligence-gathering resources. Of course, ElBaradei wants to buttress inspection authority and capabilities. He wants more intelligence- sharing from the big powers. He is particularly angry at Washington for not disclosing its intelligence that Syria was building a nuclear facility, and then for doing nothing to stop Israel from bombing that facility in 2007. He also pushes for tougher safeguards for nuclear material and for moving control of the developmental stages of the “fuel cycle” from national to international hands.
This is all sensible but probably not attainable. While the United Nations does a number of things quite well, it is not very adept or courageous when it comes to sensitive political matters and national prerogatives. Take, for example, the curious fact that the members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights elected Libya to its chairmanship in 2003, despite its appalling record, because it was “Africa’s turn.” If this is how business is done, it is unlikely that the I.A.E.A.’s board of governors and the Security Council will ever endow the agency with the common-sense powers and capabilities ElBaradei wants.
Beyond this, ElBaradei insistently describes the United States and other great powers as more the problem than the solution. In a “new era, one characterized by clandestine activity and the willingness of some countries to blatantly deceive,” the Iraq experience showed “that this deliberate deception was not limited to small countries ruled by ruthless dictators.” ElBaradei goes on to fault the United States for offering direct dialogue with North Korea while refusing talks with Iran “without preconditions.”
He goes on to say that Washington does not seem to understand the actual causes of proliferation, which he writes “were rooted much deeper, in the extreme economic and social inequalities that prevailed between North and South . . . and the conflicts and tensions that continued to fester in specific regions.” Those tensions certainly lead to proliferation, but “economic and social inequalities” have no detectable bearing on why Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, Syria and Israel have pursued nuclear programs.
ElBaradei passionately advocates making diplomacy the main recourse in counterproliferation — and he’s right to do so. But when he argues that “the increasing distrust between different cultures” form the barrier to “an enduring and collective security” he’s on shaky ground.
His credo is diplomacy above all else, for however long it takes and whatever the risk that nuclear weapons will be built in the meantime. He exhibits more sympathy for non-Western proliferators and their needs than for the major powers and their security and political concerns. At times, his narrative comes close to condoning the motives of states that seek nuclear weapons. “Iran’s goal is not to become another North Korea — a nuclear weapons possessor but a pariah in the international community — but rather Brazil or Japan, a technological powerhouse with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons if the political winds were to shift, while remaining a nonnuclear weapons state,” he writes. As for Iran’s concealing its nuclear program at Natanz, he says Iran “was not intending to ‘hide’ it per se.”
And he adds his voice to those who contend that the fight against proliferation can’t succeed unless the established nuclear powers (above all, America and Russia) reduce their stockpiles and move toward nuclear disarmament. It will be many moons and unerringly effective inspections before leaders in Washington and Moscow contemplate such a course. Surely ElBaradei knows this.
Nonetheless, “The Age of Deception” provides the grist for serious debate even as it helpfully chronicles the International Atomic Energy Agency’s journey and tribulations as it evolved from a relatively obscure group of technicians into an organization with growing international clout. But if those following in ElBaradei’s path think they can combat proliferation without the major powers — particularly the United States — assuming a central role, they are wrong. Checking proliferation will require more innovative and tighter cooperation between the agency ElBaradei loves and the United States, of which he no longer seems especially fond.