Imagining the unimaginable
April 5, 2002
For the time being, the Bush Administration’s recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has vanished from the nation’s front pages, replaced by the news of the moment. But Americans should be clear what the consequences will be if it ever becomes official policy, and what developing a new generation of nuclear weapons will mean for the fragile web of treaties that presently keep the unimaginable at bay.
Consider the dominos that will topple.
The NPR targets seven nations with nuclear weapons—Russia, China, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Iraq—even though only the first two have nuclear arms. That specifically violates a 1978 U.S. promise (reaffirmed in 1995) never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers unless the latter were in alliance with another nuclear power. The pledge was at the heart of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), in which 182 nations agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons as long as they were never targeted. It is a quid pro quo: “You don’t threaten us with nukes, we don’t have to develop them to defend ourselves.”
The Bush Administration rationalizes breaking the pledge by stretching the meaning of “weapons of mass destruction” to embrace chemical and biological weapons, both of which were specifically excluded from the NNPT for very good reasons. Chemical weapons, though thoroughly unpleasant, have never been capable of mass destruction. And while biological weapons are very scary, and certainly induce panic, they are too hard to deliver to make them a threat to large numbers of people. The only serious weapons of mass destruction are nuclear.
The NPR also threatens to use nukes in the event of war between China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, or Israel and Iraq. While the latter is highly unlikely, there is considerable tension between the other antagonists, and we don’t have much control over any of them. Want someone in Seoul, Tel Aviv or Taipei making that decision for us all?
Lastly, it proposes using nuclear weapons in response to “surprising military developments,” a term so vague that it could cover virtually any American military setback. Is a mission gone awry in Afghanistan (or Iraq) a “surprise”?
Under the NPR, the only incentive for other nations not to develop nukes is fear, a dumb (and dangerous) way to run international relations. Following the NPR revelation, China’s President Jiang Zemin said his country needs “atom bombs…if we do not want to be bullied by others.” If there was ever a reason for Iran and North Korea to build the bomb, this policy provides it.
The new plan proposes developing new “bunker busting” nukes despite a 1995 Congressional ban that such weapons blur “the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.” The Department of Energy has already tripled the funding for a new plutonium pit plant ( the pit triggers a warhead to explode) and approved $3.25 million to produce tritium gas, a “blast enhancer” that allows one to miniaturize warheads.
The next domino is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT has successfully slowed the development of newer and deadlier weapons by preventing real life testing. A side benefit of the CTBT is that it relaxes the tension on the nuclear trigger by creating uncertainly about whether your nuclear stockpile is trustworthy. If you can’t test your old warheads, you are never quite sure if they will work, and you certainly don’t want to lob a dud at some country like China or Russia.
But new weapons require new tests. No one is foolish enough to deploy a fresh design without testing it, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has already made it clear that the Administration is considering violating the CTBT. The word in military circles is sometime after the next midterm elections.
If the U.S. dumps the CTBT, India, Pakistan and China will follow in short order, with France and Russia close behind. One need only think for a moment about the present tension between India and Pakistan (not to mention China and Taiwan) to conclude that another round of nuclear testing in South Asia is a really bad idea.
Besides re-igniting a global nuclear arms race, Americans will pay for this coming and going. The U.S. is estimated to spend about $30 billion a year on nuclear weapons (much of it secret “black budget” funds), and the price is going up. On top of that, nuclear weapons create 99 percent of all high level, and 75 percent of all low-level nuclear wastes in the U.S. Since we don’t have any place to put them, we can look forward to poisoning ourselves as we go broke.
It would be well if the Democrats would decide to rejoin the vertebrates and heed the words of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former arms negotiator Thomas Graham Jr. about what instituting the NPR will mean: “We can expect nuclear weapons to spread around the world. We will live in a far more dangerous world and the U.S. will be less secure.”