The tragedy of 9/11 inflicted on the American body politic a pain that will not ease and aroused an anger not easily appeased. The world grieved with America, understood its pain, shared its anger and generally supported the ensuing “war on terrorism.” The sympathy and goodwill is in danger of being dissipated. Outsiders had hoped that the tragedy of 9/11 would lead America to rediscover the virtues of multilateralism. The opposite happened instead: Washington felt liberated from the need to make any concessions to multilateralism.
This produced a mini-crisis last July with regard to the International Criminal Court. The tension and contradiction between unilateralism and multilateralism have come to a head again over Iraq. The Bush address to the General Assembly in September was less an American concession to UN multilateralism than a demand for international capitulation in the face of the US threat to go to war.
This is justified by the charge of Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. How do we justify the paradox of the state with the most powerful arsenal of one type of WMD (nuclear weapons) threatening to use force to stop others from acquiring any one of the three types of WMD?
In addition, Washington is refining the critical roles that nuclear weapons play in its military doctrines and strategies. Under the proposed new targeting system of “adaptive planning” based on “offensive deterrence,” it proclaimed the option of launching a pre-emptive strike in future contingencies with precision-guided conventional bombs or “special purpose” nuclear weapons against hostile countries that pose a threat, either imminent or apprehended, of a WMD attack on the United States. Nuclear weapons are thus stealthily advancing up the ladder of escalation from the weapon of last resort to a weapon of choice, matching the shift from wars of self-defense to wars of choice.
But can the threshold of nuclear weapons use be lowered without thereby also lowering the threshold of proliferation? Does contemplating and preparing for the use of nuclear weapons with lower yield and reduced fallout against an anticipated WMD threat constitute a preparatory step too far? Mission creep for such weapons–extending their role from deterrence solely against nuclear weapons to countering all WMD–has two consequences: It lumps together biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in one conceptually fuzzy category, and it weakens the nuclear taboo. Why should Iran, which has suffered from missile-launched chemical attacks, not have the same right to nuclear defense?
Moreover, the proclamation of an essentially imperial doctrine of unchallengeable military supremacy and “full-spectrum dominance” will greatly magnify the allure of nuclear weapons as weapons of defense-cum-deterrence for poor/weak countries. Accepting the permanent dominance of any one group is contrary to human nature. The combination of US high-tech superiority, reliance on long-distance, over-the-horizon warfare and casualty aversion adds value to nuclear weapons as leveraging tools that can affect the calculus of US military decisions. No one is likely to challenge Washington as such in the foreseeable future, but some will want to acquire the means to make the United States pause before attacking them, and there is no better means to do this than deliverable nuclear weapons.