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Clock's Ticking as Bush Redraws Rules on Nuclear Weapons

16 March 2002

Late last month the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its "Doomsday Clock" forward two minutes to seven minutes to midnight. The famous symbol of nuclear danger is now at the same setting as it was when the clock began in 1945, and the scientists are as gloomy about nuclear Armageddon as they were at the height of the Cold War. Why? The scientists point to George Bush's abandonment of the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which enshrined "mutually assured destruction" as the only way to prevent the US and the Soviet Union from launching a first nuclear strike. There is Mr Bush's obsession with unproven missile defences.

There is the Administration's contempt for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which is all but dead because the US refuses to ratify it.

And now there is the Nuclear Posture Review, a Pentagon planning document delivered to Congress in January and leaked to the media this week. Critics believe the review embraces an old right-wing idea never before endorsed by any administration: instead of treating nuclear weapons as so horrific that their use should never be considered unless the US faced immediate annihilation, they should be incorporated into the ordinary US arsenal.

They could even be used pre-emptively against nations without nuclear weapons.

If the critics are right, the global trend since the end of the Cold War to reduce and even eliminate nuclear weapons could be reversed.

"All previous administrations have seen these as weapons of last resort, and this administration sees them as first-choice weapons,"said Jo Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The White House, furious that the report was leaked, has played down its significance.

"There is no way to read that document and come to the conclusion the United States will be more likely or will more quickly go to the use of nuclear weapons," said an exasperated Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

Mr Powell and the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said the US did not point nuclear weapons at any country, at least "not on a day-to-day basis".

The White House is right, up to a point. The unclassified sections of the review updates the US nuclear strategy to take into account that the Cold War is over. Mr Bush proposes slashing the number of nuclear warheads from 6000 to between 1700 and 2200 over the next decade (that is down from more than 30,000 in the 1960s).

However, an unnamed number would not be destroyed, but merely stored, ready to be re-deployed quickly, which critics say makes the offer meaningless.

"The reason one has a nuclear arsenal is to serve as a deterrence," Mr Bush said. He stressed that "all options are on the table", including nuclear strikes, to defend against chemical and biological attack from Iraq or any other country.

Similarly, in 1996, the then secretary of defence, William Perry, said any assault with chemical or biological weapons would lead to an "overwhelming and devastating" US response, and he would not rule out a nuclear response.

The threat of this White House to use nuclear weapons is not new, but other parts of the review do represent a shift. It is impossible to tell how radical the shift is because president Bill Clinton's 1994 review remains secret.

But the specifics of the new Pentagon review have nuclear proliferation experts alarmed about the message the only country ever to use nuclear weapons is sending to the world.

The review calls for contingency plans for nuclear strikes against Mr Bush's "axis of evil" countries, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, as well as Libya, Syria, China and Russia.

That the US is specifically contemplating nuclear strikes against non-nuclear countries such as Iraq and Iran undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the world's key arms control treaty, signed by 187 countries including the US.

Alongside the treaty, the US pledged not to launch a nuclear attack against any non-nuclear country that signed the treaty, or avoided joining forces with a nuclear power.

This week The New York Times wrote a scathing editorial headed "America as nuclear rogue". It said the review undercut the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, if accepted as policy, would mean that "countries could conclude that they have no motive to stay non-nuclear. In fact, they may well decide they need nuclear weapons to avoid nuclear attack."

Why would Iran or Iraq respond to diplomatic pressure not to develop nuclear weapons if they were targeted with nuclear strikes anyhow? And if testing is resumed - the Administration says it has no plans, but refuses to rule it out - it could only encourage countries such as China, India and Pakistan to do the same.

The New York Times said that if any other country proposed developing new nuclear weapons and contemplated strikes against non-nuclear countries, "Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state".

The review says nuclear weapons could be used in retaliation for chemical and biological attacks and for "surprising military developments", which it does not define.

And it cites the need for new so-called low-yield nuclear arms that could destroy underground bunkers or stores of chemical and biological weapons, with less damage than conventional ones.

A report last year by the National Institute for Public Policy, an influential conservative think tank, argued that "nuclear weapons can be used in counter-force attacks that are intended to neutralise enemy military capabilities". That is known as unilateral assured destruction, the elimination of the enemy.

The report also sought development of "low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons".

Key authors of that report are now in the Administration, including Mr Bush's deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and a member of the National Security Council, Robert Joseph.

Gay Alcorn
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald © 2002 Sydney Morning Herald

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