ONE OF THE MORE REASONABLE international responses to the White House’s recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) came, surprisingly, from the government of Libya. African Affairs Minister Ali Abd Al-Salam al-Turiki didn’t buy the hype that Washington was scheming to launch a seven-front nuclear war. "I don’t think this is true," he said. "I don’t think America is going to destroy the world."
The response elsewhere, as reported in the British tabloid the Mirror, was less composed. The Tehran Times editorialized that "This indicates the U.S. is going to wreak havoc on the world to establish its domination." Alice Mahon, a Labour Member of Parliament, complained that "the lunatics have taken over the White House." John Isaacs, president of the leftist Council for a Livable World, charged the Bush Administration with "dangerously lowering the threshold for wreaking nuclear devastation across the planet."
The histrionics came, predictably, from the far-flung but overlapping worlds of left-wing pacifists, arms-control enthusiasts, and international America-haters. In part, their over-reaction owes itself to sensationalistic reporting that made a prudent nuclear strategy predicated on the realities of the post-September 11th world sound like the atomic version of buck fever. The Mirror, for example, ran "LET’S NUKE ‘EM ALL: Horror at Dubya’s secret attack plan on 7 countries," on its front page.
In reality, the Administration’s NPR says only that America reserves the means and the right to use nuclear arms to deter or prevent a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack on its people or allies hardly radical stuff. The report, secret until obtained by the Los Angeles Times, directs the military to prepare contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia, and Syria. It also seeks the development of smaller, battlefield nuclear weapons to be used against targets capable of withstanding a non-nuclear attack, in retaliation for a WMD attack, or "in the event of surprising military developments."
The NPR is not a call to a nuclear arms, but a statement of a practical reality, namely that as rogue, terrorist-sponsoring nations scramble to assemble WMDs, America must be prepared to stop them, using whatever means necessary. It stresses that Russia is no longer an enemy, but that its vast nuclear arsenal is still to be taken seriously, as is the ever-present threat of Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Nuclear weapons should always be America’s last resort, but a resort nonetheless.
That sort of message doesn’t play well among those who think that treaties are suitable substitute for genuine defense but, thankfully, this is an administration not beholden to such pieties. God willing, the use of nuclear weapons will never again be necessary, but it is easy to conceive of scenarios where it might:
Suppose, for example, that American intelligence discovered an Iraqi nuclear program underway in a deep, underground bunker immune to conventional attack. Moreover, because of ongoing or impending hostilities, Washington had good reason to fear that the Iraqi nukes could be completed soon, then used on American forces. In such a situation, the use of small, tactical nuclear weapons that could penetrate the bunker while minimizing collateral damage could potentially save thousands of American lives.
During the Gulf War, the previous Bush Administration sent Saddam Hussein the unambiguous message that if he dipped into his chemical-weapons stockpile, he could expect a swift and overwhelming (read: nuclear) response. That threat was sufficient to hold Saddam, for once, somewhat in line. The best way to prevent a WMD attack remains to prepare for one.
Thus the NPR’s call for modifying and upgrading as well as reducing the country’s nuclear stockpile. Existing armaments, designed with the Cold War in mind, are largely too powerful for tactical purposes. As such, defense experts say, they are "self-deterring" unusable because their use would constitute a gross over-reaction to any likely danger. The NPR urges revisiting the country’s nuclear needs so that rogue states know that the American military truly has every possible weapon at its disposal.
The heart of nuclear policy, during the Cold War and now, is deterrence. In today’s world, that means sending potential enemies the message that neither the use nor development of WMDs will be tolerated. As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explained on Sunday’s Face the Nation, "We all want to make the use of weapons of mass destruction less likely. The way that you do that is to send a very strong signal to anyone who might try to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States that would be met with a devastating response."
Some on the Left get it. On CNN, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman remarked that it’s probably a good thing if "some of these renegade nations who we have reason to believe are working themselves to develop nuclear weapons think twice about the willingness of the United States to take action to defend our people and our values and our allies."
Others, though, are less clear-headed. David Corn of The Nation frets that the NPR will undermine diplomatic efforts at non-proliferation. Since 1978, he says, "the United States has tried to reassure the world that (more or less) it would not launch nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon nation. The point of this declaration was to encourage non-nuclear states to sign and abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Washington would have a difficult time pressing other nations to forego nuclear weapons, if it reserved the right to blast these countries with its own nuclear arsenal."
According to Corn and other arms-control true believers, the Bush policy might scare NPT signatories Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria into ramping up their WMD programs. But such thinking rests on the laughable assumption that the pariah states actually intend to honor their meaningless and unenforceable agreements when so far, they haven’t.
What’s more likely to keep the Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong-Ils of the world in check a piece of paper, or the credible threat of their very elimination?
Americans should be grateful for a president who knows the answer to that question.