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.

Now for the rub: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea have each signed the NPT. Which means that in a mano-a-mano war against, say, Iraq, U.S. war-managers could not go nuclear.

This policy restriction has been a sore point for conservatives for years. Several weeks before the Nuclear Posture Review earned headlines, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, took a significant, but little-noticed, swipe at negative security assurances. In an interview with Arms Control Today magazine, Bolton, for years a right-wing opponent of many arms treaties, was asked if Warren Christopher’s 1995 statement remained the policy of the Bush administration. Bolton replied, “I don’t think we’re of the view that this kind of approach is necessarily the most productive.” He noted that the administration’s emphasis was not “on the rhetorical” but on “the actual change in our military posture,” which would be “embodied in the outcome of the Nuclear Posture Review.”

The interviewers from Arms Control Today pressed him, asking, “So, right now, the Bush administration would not make a commitment to non-nuclear-weapon states…that it would not use nuclear weapons?” Bolton answered: “I don’t think we have any intention of using nuclear weapons in circumstances that I can foresee in the days ahead of us. The point is that the kind of rhetorical approach that you are describing doesn’t seem to me to be terribly helpful in analyzing what our security needs may be in the real world, and what we are doing, instead of chit-chatting is making changes in our force structures.” (Making changes? You bet.)

In his responses, Bolton did not acknowledge the role of negative security assurances in the NPT process. It was as if he believed such statements were nothing more than conversational niceties. Which might be true from the perspective of other nations. But if these nations are going to be encouraged by such statements from Washington, then these declarations have great value.

Bolton is the Bush administration’s key person–its soul–on arms control issues, and his remarks seemed to mark an abrupt turn-about in a long-standing policy on a highly sensitive topic. But the administration tried to dance its way out of the corner. Shortly after the interview, during the daily briefing of State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, a reporter asked Boucher to explain Bolton’s comments and wondered, “Are you now prepared to nuke un-nuked countries?” Boucher claimed “Bolton was reiterating…a policy that the United States government has had since the 1970s.” This was exactly wrong. Bolton had dismissed that policy. Then Boucher repeated the statement that Christopher had issued in 1995. So policy reversed was unreversed.

But maybe not. Boucher added a caveat, noting that the U.S. “will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests.” He asserted that “those kind of statements have been made repeatedly since the 1970s,” and he quoted a 1996 remark from then-Defense Secretary William Perry, who said that if the United States was attacked by chemical weapons, “we could have a devastating response without the use of nuclear weapons, but we would not forswear that possibility.”

In covering for Bolton and claiming nothing had changed, Boucher appeared to have stretched the weapons-of-mass-destruction loophole. He was not only saying, as Perry did, that nuclear weapons could be used in retaliation after a chemical weapons attack against the United States; he was warning that nuclear arms might be used preemptively to prevent such an attack. And that is indeed the policy contained in the new Nuclear Posture Review. If the United States has (or says it has) reason to believe a non-nuclear-weapon state is amassing biological weapons for use against the United States, then that country qualifies for the nuclear hit list.

Bolton, despite Boucher’s spin, was indeed speaking for an administration that does not see merit in declaring we-won’t-nuke-the-un-nuked in order to enhance nonproliferation efforts. As Bush’s disregard of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty demonstrated, this crowd is drawn more to unilateral force decisions than to multilateral nonproliferation endeavors. The more worrisome portions of the Nuclear Posture review may only be what-ifs. But in nuclear diplomacy, what-ifs and words do count. The Bush administration’s new weapon plan is a shot against the nations he has rhetorically targeted but also a strike against governments and diplomats that take nuclear nonproliferation seriously.