The Bush Crusade
So, to put the best face on the Bush agenda (leaving aside questions of oil, global market control and economic or military hegemony), a humane project of antiproliferation can be seen at its core. Yet a nation that was trying to promote the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, would behave precisely as the Bush Administration has behaved over the past three years. The Pentagon's chest-thumping concept of "full spectrum dominance" itself motivates other nations to seek sources of countervailing power, and when the United States actually goes to war to impose its widely disputed notion of order on some states, but not others, nations--friendly as well as unfriendly--find themselves with an urgent reason to acquire some means of deterring such intervention.
The odd and tragic thing is that the world before Bush was actually nearing consensus on how to manage the problem of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and had begun to put in place promising structures designed to prevent such spread. Centrally embodied in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which had successfully and amazingly kept the number of nuclear powers, actual as well as admitted, relatively low, that consensus gave primacy to treaty obligations, international cooperation and a serious commitment by existing nuclear powers to move toward ultimate nuclear abolition. All of that has been trashed by Bush. "International law?" he smirked in December 2003. "I better call my lawyer."
Now indications are that nations all over the globe--Japan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Brazil, Australia--have begun re-evaluating their rejections of nukes, and some are positively rushing to acquire them. Iran and North Korea are likely to be only the tip of this radioactive iceberg. Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India are a grim forecast of the future on every continent. And the Bush Administration--by declaring its own nuclear arsenal permanent, by threatening nuclear first-strikes against other nations, by "warehousing" treaty-defused warheads instead of destroying them, by developing a new line of "usable" nukes, by moving to weaponize the "high frontier" of outer space, by doing little to help Russia get rid of its rotting nuclear stockpile, by embracing "preventive war"--is enabling this trend instead of discouraging it. How can this be?
The problem has its roots in a long-term American forgetfulness, going back to the acid fog in which the United States ended World War II. There was never a complete moral reckoning with the harsh momentum of that conflict's denouement--how American leaders embraced a strategy of terror bombing, slaughtering whole urban populations, and how, finally, they ushered in the atomic age with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scholars have debated those questions, but politicians have avoided them, and most citizens have pretended they aren't really questions at all. America's enduring assumptions about its own moral supremacy, its own altruism, its own exceptionalism, have hardly been punctured by consideration of the possibility that we, too, are capable of grave mistakes, terrible crimes. Such awareness, drawn from a fuller reckoning with days gone by--with August 6 and 9, 1945, above all--would inhibit America's present claim to moral grandeur, which is simultaneously a claim, of course, to economic and political grandiosity. The indispensable nation must dispense with what went before.
"The past is never dead," William Faulkner said. "It isn't even past." How Americans remember their country's use of terror bombing affects how they think of terrorism; how they remember the first use of nuclear weapons has profound relevance for how the United States behaves in relation to nuclear weapons today. If the long American embrace of nuclear "mutual assured destruction" is unexamined; if the Pentagon's treaty-violating rejection of the ideal of eventual nuclear abolition is unquestioned--then the Bush Administration's embrace of nukes as normal, usable weapons will not seem offensive.
Memory is a political act. Forgetfulness is the handmaiden of tyranny. The Bush Administration is fully committed to maintaining what the historian Marc Trachtenberg calls our "nuclear amnesia" even as the Administration seeks to impose a unilateral structure of control on the world. As it pursues a world-threatening campaign against other people's weapons of mass destruction, that is, the Bush Administration refuses to confront the moral meaning of America's own weapons of mass destruction, not to mention their viral character, as other nations seek smaller versions of the American arsenal, if only to deter Bush's next "preventive" war. The United States' own arsenal, in other words, remains the primordial cause of the WMD plague.