Executive Branch Approaches to Nuclear Proliferation in a Changing Middle East

I have been fascinated with the Middle East – and its security challenges – since my sophomore year of high school, when I sat on a couch in my uncle’s home watching the 2006 Lebanon War unfold on CNN. The level of destruction was similar to that which I had personally experienced due to a natural disaster a few years prior, but the fact that this conflict was human- caused and preventable made the tragedy much worse. I have since immersed myself in the region’s history and conflicts, while supplementing my study on the Middle East with extensive coursework and research on U.S. national security policies and practices. These passions have fused together into a broader pursuit of working to understand the intricacies of international security and foreign diplomacy, and the challenges America faces in furthering its own national security interests.

My proposed CSPC research focuses on Executive Branch approaches to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, given the risk and uncertainty associated with the region’s new realities. I hope that it will prove timely and useful in analyzing both the evolving nature of the nuclear threat, and ways in which the Executive Branch might confront it. While many academics have focused on the United States and Israel’s struggle to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear capable, Tehran’s efforts are not the only disconcerting developments in the region. Some Sunni states feel threatened by the rise of a Shi’a Persion power, and are concerned that Middle Eastern leadership might shift away from the region’s traditional centers of influence, Riyadh and Cairo. This is particularly relevant in light of the recent Arab Spring, and might be best exemplified by the fact that in the past four years, at least 14 countries in the region have announced plans to pursue civilian nuclear programs, which, regardless of their stated purpose, could ultimately allow quicker propulsion to a nuclear weapon capability.

Then there is Syria. In 2007, Israel demolished its undeclared nuclear facility at al-Kibar, which was built with the assistance of North Korea and was likely capable of producing fissile material. This increase in activity from Damascus has largely contributed to the eagerness of smaller states to band together in pursuit of greater nuclear aims. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are currently negotiating a joint nuclear program that would combine resources and share electrical power among member states.

Sweeping changes in the region leave me curious as to the role of uncertainty and risk in President Obama and the National Security Council’s (NSC) approach to these issues. Prospect theory’s core tenet states that people value gains and losses differently, placing more value on what they have to lose than to what might be gained. Building on this, the certainty effect notes that individuals tend to make risk-averse decisions in choices involving sure-gains, and risk-seeking decisions in choices involving sure-loss. The Obama administration’s stance on nuclear weapons is one of unwavering commitment to the elimination of nuclear arsenals, and thus the influence of risk and uncertainty is particularly applicable.

New realities in the Middle East leave me confident that investigating Executive Branch policies – when counterbalanced with significant risk and the potential for significant loss – in treasures, political popularity and global influence – depending on the approach to the issues at-hand, will provide a useful case study for future research on nuclear proliferation in a rapidly changing region, and on global security more broadly.

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