What do the Seattle Seahawks and the regimes in North Korea, Iran and Syria have in common? Only two things. First, they all want to win. For the Seahawks, it is at football, but, for the others, it is proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Second, both have developed a deep appreciation for how their respective games are played and what they can do to maximize their chances of winning.
The Seattle Seahawks’ defense last year was the best in the NFL. The defense led the NFL in the fewest number of points allowed and the fewest yards given up to opposing defenses. It proved itself during Superbowl 48. The Denver Broncos had one of the best offenses in the NFL and Payton Manning had led them to the Super Bowl on the strength of the passing game. But at the Meadowlands, Seattle completely shut down the vaunted Bronco offense and, in particular, Denver’s ability to pass.
The Seahawks’ defense was good. Richard Sherman was awesome. But in addition to talent and teamwork, the Seahawks also may have been relying on strategy. Even before the Seahawks’ runaway victory over the San Francisco 49ers there were stories making the round that the team was employing a strategy that provided it with an edge. To put it simply, the Seahawks got physical with the opposing receivers, betting that even if they got flagged once or twice, they would get away with it more often. Many observers believe that NFL referees are reluctant to throw endless flags for pass interference and defensive holding, even if defenses deserve them. It has also been suggested that referees are particularly reluctant to throw the flag in playoff games.
The Seahawks’ alleged strategy of pushing the limit on physical engagement with the opposing offense, particularly pass receivers, to the point of accepting getting flagged a couple of times per game has a parallel in the behavior of countries trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. North Korea, Iran and Syria have repeatedly and flagrantly flouted international law with respect to their weapons of mass destruction programs. Like the Seahawks are alleged to have done, the three prime proliferators have continually tested the system to see where there were “red lines” and whether the international equivalent of NFL referees – the IAEA, the P5, the U.N. and the United States – would throw a flag.
North Korea diverted nuclear fuel from a safeguarded reactor, threw out IAEA inspectors on several occasions and, after signing a deal to halt their known enrichment activities went ahead with an alternative, clandestine enrichment program. Iran also repeatedly violated its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and acquired an array of nuclear weapons-related know-how and technology from the network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. Syria employed chemical weapons against its own people on a number of occasions before finally being called on their actions. Of course, even in this instance, the Obama Administration threatened the Syrian regime with nothing more than the equivalent of a five yard penalty.
North Korea, Iran and Syria have gamed the counter-proliferation system and figured out, like the Seahawks are said to have done, how much they can get away with. A distressing number of times the international system has failed to throw the flag, to penalize these pariah states, thereby allowing them to get away with violating international norms and their treaty obligations. The process of imposing sanctions has been agonizingly slow and so fraught with loopholes that even when the flag is thrown it is almost a meaningless response.
Pyongyang is reported to be trying to restart its shuttered nuclear reactor and to be working on new, longer-range ballistic missiles. Teheran has taken no steps with respect to its nuclear fuel capabilities and stocks that couldn’t be reversed in a matter of months. Damascus may already be in violation of its agreement to assist the international community in eliminating Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
The fault in the two systems, for refereeing professional football games or preventing proliferation, rests primarily with the referees, not those playing the game. If the NFL’s referees and the community of nations demonstrate a reluctance to throw the flag and penalize the rule breakers, it is inevitable that the players, be they cornerbacks and safeties or pariah states, will seek to take advantage where they can. If the Seahawks sought to game the system, the worst that could happen is that they effect the point spread. When North Korea, Iran and Syria try the same stunt, the security of the world could be placed in jeopardy.
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