The New Nuclear ; under Bush, Missile Defense Is for New Foes. 'Assured Destruction' Still Holds for Old Ones

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President Bush's push for missile defenses would change - but not eliminate - the "theology" of nuclear standoff with which the United States has calculated its national security ever since the Soviet Union acquired its own atomic arsenal some 40 years ago.

In his speech last week at the National Defense University, Mr. Bush referred to mutually assured destruction (MAD), the basic tenet of this theology, as a grim relic of another era. His implication: In a defense-dominated nuclear world, MAD would be as obsolete as bomb shelters, civil defense sirens, and the cold war itself.

Maybe some day. The hard reality of the situation is that, absent a perfect shield, the logic of MAD will remain an integral part of strategic arithmetic. Bush, as so many presidents before him, will be forced to grabble with the difficult moral realization that the safety of the US populace depends at least in part on allowing them to remain vulnerable to Armageddon.

Under the administration's plan "we're downsizing MAD, but we're not casting it aside," says Michael Krepon, a senior security analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington.

The MAD theory has its roots in the early 1960s, when US officials first struggled with the notion that nuclear weapons were far more than just extra-powerful regular bombs. The catastrophic damage that would be caused by even one thermonuclear weapon meant that war plans needed to focus not on the best way to fight nuclear war, but on the best way to prevent it from ever beginning.

The Pentagon first moved to adopt "assured destruction" as its strategy during the tenure of Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson's secretary of Defense. The concept was simple: The US and the Soviet Union would never attack one another with nuclear weapons if both realized that, if they did so, they would inevitably be struck with a devastating strike in return.

It took a nuclear theorist from outside the government, Donald Brennan of the Hudson Institute, to publicize the ethical difficulties of this position. He slapped "mutual" on "assured destruction", coining the acronym MAD, and pronounced himself opposed to living under a nuclear sword of Damocles.

"We should not deliberately create a system in which millions of innocent civilians would, by intention, be exterminated in a failure of the system," he wrote.

Popular culture satirized MAD as a mutual suicide pact, most notably in Stanley Kubrick's film "Dr. Strangelove."

But Strangelovian or not, MAD remains the foundation of the way the US regards nuclear weapons today. …