The NPT is Dead
Well, this does make a certain kind of sense, I suppose. The Israeli strike on what now appears to have been a nuclear reactor at a very low state of construction is preventive war at its most distant; the Israelis have determined that Syria, at least, will never be allowed to have a nuclear program, even under the legal structure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as long as the current regime or a regime like it remains in power. The implications for a long term peace agreement between Syria and Israel are obvious, but those prospects were probably pretty grim, anyway.
I’m more convinced now than ever that the strike was a direct message to Iran regarding Israel’s capacity to do damage to the former’s nuclear infrastructure. The target itself was of relatively low value, and wouldn’t have had a meaningful effect on the Syria-Israel balance of power for a decade or more. The reason to strike now was to demonstrate to Iran that its air defenses (similar to those of Syria) were insufficient protection from the IDF. We’ll see how seriously the Iranians take this; their nuclear infrastructure is more developed and better protected than Syria’s nascent program, and Iran’s air force larger and better equipped. Of course, this won’t matter if the United States decides on direct participation instead of indirect complicity. As I noted previously, there’s some small hope to be had in the fact that the Israelis may not want war; they’ve decided to flaunt their capabilities rather than hide them, which could mean that they’re bluffing, or that they truly hope the Iranians will be deterred.
The strike, and especially the apparent acquiesence of the United States in its planning and execution, means that the NPT is pretty much a dead letter. The treaty has always been open to charges of unfairness, since it legitimized the nuclear programs of a select number of states while delegitimizing similar programs in other states. This was a deal worth upholding, based on the principle that fewer nuclear states is better than more nuclear states. The deal also ensured that signatories would have the capability to engage in peaceful nuclear activity, some of which is indistiguishable from the opening steps of a long term weapons program. American complicity in this strike means that the deal is as good as dead, and has been replaced by a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes. I think this is a tragedy; the NPT has, in my view, worked to minimize the spread of nuclear weapons across the international system through a combination of moral suasion and legal inspection for the last forty years. It only works if the states involved agree that it’s legitimate and of some benefit to all; as I said before, that concept is pretty much dead now. Combine this with the recent nuclear deal with India, and I’d have to say that the Bush administration’s effort to kill a legal cornerstone of international stability have been remarkably successful.