Ira Chernus  



Fast forward to October, 2004. As a close presidential election comes down to the wire, one issue dominates: the threat of weapons of mass destruction in . . . Brazil. Yes, it could happen. Here’s how.

The president's political guru, Karl Rove, will be desperate to find a winning issue. With U.S. soldiers still dying and no WMD found, Iraq will be too embarrassing. The economy may be reviving, but stalled job growth will be embarrassing, too. The gay marriage issue threatens to tear the Republicans apart and hurt them more than it can help. Some other issue will have to be found to divert public attention. Why not WMD in Brazil?

Brazil gave up its nuclear weapons program years ago. It signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has permitted limited inspection of its nuclear facilities. However, Brazil’s president Lula da Silva has criticized the NPT because it favors countries that already have nuclear weapons. When Lula took office last January, his minister of science and technology, Roberto Amaral, suggested that Brazil should acquire the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. Amaral has since said just the opposite.

But last week Brazil announced that in a few months it will start producing enriched uranium, which means it will be able to make nuclear weapons on relatively short notice. And it says it won’t allow international inspectors to make unannounced spot inspections of its enrichment plant.

How do we know what those sneaky Brazilians are up to? Next October, Bush and Rove may find it very convenient to make that question dominate the campaign.

Or perhaps it will be the Democratic challenger who raises the question. Whoever he is, he will have to prove that he is tougher than the incumbent on stopping bad guys from getting WMD. He will have to find a target to aim at, a new threat that the Bushies are supposedly ignoring. Why not Brazil?

The Democratic contenders who are currently doing best in the polls all hold foreign policies principles pretty much like Bush’s. They, too, divide the world up into good guys, who are allowed to have nukes, and bad guys who are not. They disagree with Bush on means, not ends.

Brazil’s Amaral understands that. He told the New York Times that Brazil has no need to allow spot inspections. "All we've got are a couple of itty-bitty reactors," he said. And Brazil is a peaceful member of the international community. "We're not interested in a bomb and we've never made a bomb or ordered it used in a war, so we have the moral and ethical authority to talk about this subject."

In other words, don’t treat Brazil like the axis of evil. Brazil is a good guy, a U.S. ally. Shouldn’t different rules apply?

Yes, they should, in the opinion of James Goodby, a former arms control negotiator in the Clinton administration. "Similar programs in Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have rightly been seen as either direct or indirect threats to international peace and security," he explained in the International Herald Tribune. "Unlike Brazil, they harbor hostile intent toward the United States," and Bush is right to make them stop. But Brazil "presents the case of an undoubtedly friendly nation." Brazil would never use the weapons, Goodby concludes: "Brazil's nuclear aspirations lie in the fields of economics and status."

However, Democrats can be just as quick as Republicans to turn yesterday’s friend into today’s enemy. And mainstream Democrats have just as much reason as Republicans to take aim at Brazil. Brazil is not just a random target of political convenience. Goodby’s words "economics and status" tell the story.

Lula is an economic maverick. He is leading a major attack on hypocritical American trade policies, which allow the U.S. to protect its own industries while denying smaller nations like Brazil the same privilege. He is also resisting some efforts by the IMF and World Bank to dictate his nation’s economic policies, and he is urging leaders of other nations to do the same. He’s doing it all in a smart, effective way that has U.S. leaders worried.

Some observers suggest that IMF and World Bank restrictions have prevented Brazil from moving ahead on its nuclear program. By announcing that Brazil will produce enriched uranium, Lula was declaring his independence and thumbing his nose at those globalization agencies and at the U.S. It’s no longer so clear that Brazil is undoubtedly friendly.

This is a development that would worry a future Democratic president just as much as a second-term George W. If Lula gets the bomb, there is no telling how it might raise his international profile and bolster his bid to lead an independent global bloc of developing countries. Why, he might even have to be declared a "rogue" or an "international outlaw." Then his recent trip to Cuba, and Brazil’s links to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in the 1980s, would suddenly become big news. So would the fact that Brazil has the world's sixth-largest known deposits of uranium and the largest known deposits of thorium. It would be easy enough for the candidates next fall to agree that Brazil is our new Enemy Number One.

No, it is not likely to happen. But it illustrates two important points.

First, it shows clearly how the U.S. government separates the good guys from the bad guys. If you play economic ball with the U.S. and the developed nations, then you are a civilized member of the community of nations. You are a nice boy. So you can have WMD. It may be a bit more complicated than that. But not much. It works the same way, no matter who is in the White House.

Second, the case of Brazil shows how U.S. leaders create public fears out of their own private fears. They are genuinely afraid that Lula might galvanize international opposition to their vision of a globalized liberal internationalist utopia. Their vision is terribly misguided. But their fear is terribly real.

If they decide to tell us all to be afraid of Brazil, they won’t tell us what they are afraid of. They will try to play the same trick on us that they played during the Iraq war. Our job is to see through the ruse. We have to know what they are really afraid of. And we have to know why what they see as danger—Lula and all that he represents, with no nukes—is really an opportunity for a better life in Brazil and around the world.