George W. Bush’s mid-February directive ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully implemented, Bush’s aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the cold war era look tame by comparison.

To understand the danger of Bush’s emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine print. Some elements of his approach–first outlined at a May 23, 2000, speech at the National Press Club–sound sensible. Bush implied that if elected President, he would reduce the nation’s arsenal of nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental launch.

So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, “at the earliest possible date,” a missile defense system capable of defending “all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas.” Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush’s enthusiasm for a new Star Wars system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in pursuit of continued US military dominance.

When Bush announced Rumsfeld’s appointment in late December, he acknowledged that the Pentagon veteran would have a big “selling job” to do on national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries alike. But even Washington’s closest NATO allies continue to have grave reservations about Rumsfeld’s suggestion that the United States might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into question.

The cost of Bush’s Star Wars vision could be as much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that’s the least of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely to provoke “an unsettling series of political and military ripple effects…that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the further spread of military technology in the Middle East.”

Bush’s provocative missile defense scheme may not even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy. According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush’s renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001 study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s essay on nuclear war titled “Victory Is Possible.” Bush National Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald Rumsfeld.

In its most egregious passage, the study advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear weapons to be used for both deterrent and “wartime roles,” ranging from “deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional powers” to “preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,” from “providing unique targeting capabilities (deep underground/biological weapons targets)” to “enhancing US influence in crises.” In short, at a time when a number of prominent military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.

The unifying vision behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size, composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful public response.

It’s not as if we haven’t been down this road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush’s born-again nuclearism.