After George W. Bush’s tough talk about the “axis of evil” unnerved allies–and forced the Administration to dispense assurances it was not about to go halfcocked after Iran, Iraq and North Korea–the White House has once again supplied the international community reason for the jitters, thanks to its new Nuclear Posture Review. The classified report, first revealed by The Los Angeles Times and then front-paged by The New York Times, is the Pentagon’s master plan for developing and deploying nuclear weapons. The document, which lists contingencies in which nuclear arms might be used, notes that the United States might have to resort to nuclear weapons during “an Iraqi attack on Israel, or its neighbors, or a North Korean attack on South Korea or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan.” (The latter, of course, would be a confrontation with China.) The report also states, “Iran, Syria and Libya are among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential or unexpected contingencies” that would require “nuclear strike capabilities,” and it states that the United States could launch a nuclear assault to destroy stocks of weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical arms.
The report certainly will not bolster Bush’s image abroad, for it will cause people to wonder if–shades of Ronald Reagan!–this administration is planning for winnable nuclear wars against nations that do not possess nuclear weapons. This leak will also probably cause headaches for Vice President Dick Cheney when he travels to the Middle East this week. He’ll want to talk war on terrorism, and the heads of state might be more interested in his ideas about targeting nuclear weapons in their neighborhood. The report is also the latest step in what seems to be a Bush administration campaign to undermine a key foundation of the international nuclear nonproliferation order.
The prospect of using–or preparing to use–nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess them has long been a delicate matter. Nobody expects the Pentagon not to plan for the horrific possibility of nuclear war with another nuclear-armed state. But since 1978 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.
This US position–known as “negative security assurances” in arms-control parlance–came with loopholes. Here’s how Secretary of State Warren Christopher described it in 1995: the United States “will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a state towards which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.” That is, if a non-nuclear state that has signed the NPT finds itself in an armed conflict with the United States on its own (without being in league with a nuclear-weapon state), then the United States could not hurl nuclear bombs at it.