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New U.S. Nuclear Policy to Focus on 'Rogue' Regimes : Strategy: America begins to devise ways to confront inevitable spread of weapons. Pentagon is calling the plays.

NUCLEAR DOMINOES. The perils of proliferation . Second of three parts


WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration has launched what amounts to a quiet revolution in the United States' long-term strategy for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, easing U.S. policies that have been in place for decades.

The thrust of the new, less idealistic approach is to accept as a fact of life that the spread of technology has made it possible for many countries to build a nuclear bomb and to concentrate instead on what can be done in the face of this grim reality.

In some areas, that means acknowledging that more countries will "go nuclear" and working on ways to make sure they do not use their new weapons. In others, it means devoting more attention to military methods for deterring or counteracting new would-be nuclear powers around the world.

Indeed, the Pentagon has been the driving force behind the unfolding series of changes, grabbing the initiative on non-proliferation policy away from the State Department.

"We face a bigger proliferation danger than we've ever faced before," then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin said in a major speech last year. "The rising tide of technology has made denial of technology an insufficient guarantee of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons."

In that speech, Aspin unveiled a strategy called "counter-proliferation," aimed at altering U.S. defense policies to add what he called "an element of protection" to the traditional approach of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

His successor, Defense Secretary William J. Perry, is expected to issue a major statement soon expanding on the new Pentagon strategy.

In addition to the emphasis on military preparedness, the Administration's new approach of accommodating the reality of nuclear proliferation has several components, some of which are proving to be fiercely controversial:

* Generally loosening export controls. U.S. policy during the Cold War and throughout the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations had been to ban exports of a wide range of technology that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction. But the Clinton Administration is retaining controls on only a few especially sensitive items while opening the way for sales of many others.

* Concentrating efforts on a handful of "rogue" regimes, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Under this approach, it is not the fact of proliferation itself that is a problem but rather the questionable character of some of the governments. Critics such as Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) say that this approach provides a rationale for easing proliferation policy toward the many other nations that are not classified as "rogues."

* Concentrating efforts on trying to persuade other countries to freeze their nuclear weapons programs at low levels of development.

Instead of trying to persuade Pakistan and India to abandon their nuclear weapons programs entirely, for example, the Administration has been willing to try initially to limit or "cap" these programs and hope that the two enemies will counterbalance each other.

"Rolling back" the two rivals' nuclear programs can wait until later, officials are now saying. Perry recently suggested a similar approach to North Korea.

The Administration hopes to do all these things without detracting from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international agreement that in the past had been the linchpin of U.S. policy on non-proliferation. The treaty envisions a world in which every nation except the five members of the U.N. Security Council completely forswears or abandons nuclear weapons programs.

Underlying these changes in U.S. non-proliferation policy are a number of factors, including the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War with Iraq and the Administration's drive to increase U.S. exports.

The collapse of the Soviet Union broke up the security arrangements that had inhibited countries from developing their nuclear programs.

"Many nations, once secure in the framework and discipline of a bipolar Cold War standoff, are now forced by the survival instinct to look not just at new alliances but to reconsider self-reliance for security--and therein (they) see a powerful attraction for nuclear weapons," analysts Roger Molander and Peter A. Wilson at the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. think tank said last year.

The end of the Cold War also wiped out the rationale for strict international export controls on the sale of high technology. For decades, these controls were made formal in an international organization called the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, commonly called COCOM, which banned the sale of goods to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

On March 31, COCOM went out of existence. While Western nations are talking about setting up a new international regime to curb exports to non-Communist governments considered dangerous, they have not reached agreement yet on how to do so.

"We're aiming for October," Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis said recently.

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