Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the revelation — or belated admission — that the “father” of Pakistan’s atomic bomb program has been an active nuclear proliferator is that making foreign policy on the basis of moralistic judgments is dubious business. The United States thought it needed Pakistan after 9/11 and may still need it. That doesn’t make Pakistan’s government attractive.
Relations among nations are almost always conducted on the basis of cold-blooded calculation about the perceived interests of the countries involved. Dressing the process up in purportedly moral rhetoric might sell a policy to some people, but it can cloak what is really going on, promote misunderstanding, and often enough lead to less desirable — and often enough less moral — outcomes than policies based on realistic analysis.
What seems to have led to the public unraveling of the Pakistani proliferation presided over by Abdul Qadeer Khan was Libya’s decision to allow inspectors to preside over the dismantling of its own embryonic nuclear weapons program. It soon became obvious that Khan had provided Libya much of the technical wherewithal. So now he has confessed to providing nuclear technologies to Iran and North Korea.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has pardoned Khan and vows to get to the bottom of the scandal. Sure.
Actually, trade in nuclear and missile know-how among Pakistan, China, North Korea, Iran and Libya has been an open secret for years. Before becoming president in a military coup, Musharraf was army chief of staff. Nuclear proliferation would have been impossible without the cooperation of the military Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It is possible this happened without Musharraf’s knowledge, but it seems unlikely.
So Pakistan was a proliferator and President Musharraf is something of a bad actor. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the interests of the United States and Musharraf converged. To a great extent they are parallel still. At some point they will probably diverge again.
The U.S. government, then, will probably not push to make everything about the Pakistan scandal public because that would be likely to damage a temporary ally, which is already vulnerable. It might even use its willingness to settle for less than the whole truth being made public to push for more cooperation in the hunt for al-Qaida fighters who are probably hiding and plotting along the Afghani-Pakistani border.
Does all this sound amoral and unduly tolerant of a leader who is, for now, “an SOB, but at least he’s our SOB?” Welcome to the reality of international relations.