Nuclear Option Creep

Article excerpt

The Bush administration is reportedly considering the possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. Striking a nonnuclear state with nuclear weapons - even seriously entertaining and planning for the possibility - is a mistake that will only convince rogue nations that they need atomic weapons to protect themselves from the US.

For decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the US has promised not to use nuclear weapons against states that do not have them and are not allied with nuclear-weapon states. There has been only one exception to this rule: If a nonnuclear state attacks it with a chemical or biological weapon, the US has hinted it might retaliate with nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration recently reiterated this caveat, but it has never otherwise threatened nonnuclear states with nuclear weapons.For example, President Bush has never publicly linked his new doctrine of preemption with the use of nuclear weapons. Even the leaked version of the Pentagon's "nuclear posture review," which was sharply criticized last spring for listing seven nations against which the US should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, did not authorize nuclear preemption against non-nuclear-weapon states.

But now, according to William Arkin, a defense analyst who writes a regular column for The Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon is testing procedures for preemptively using nuclear weapons to destroy Iraqi facilities underground or to prevent Iraq from using chemical or biological weapons.

This is a step that can only decrease US security. Even threatening - much less carrying out - a preemptive nuclear attack will undoubtedly convince nonnuclear states that they will be safe from the US only if they have an atomic deterrent. More states with nuclear weapons means more states that can threaten US cities and more chances that terrorists could get their hands on a nuclear weapon.

For those reasons, the US has worked hard to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The foundation of its efforts has been the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which forbade all but five countries that already had nuclear weapons from developing them. The non-nuclear-weapon states agreed to this on the understanding that eventually the nuclear weapon states would disarm.

Ten years later, as the continued superpower arms race made the likelihood of disarmament seem remote, the US sweetened the pot, promising that it would not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. These "negative security assurances" were intended to help level the battlefield and reassure states that they did not need nuclear weapons to defend themselves. …