Talking Crazy on Nukes

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pentagon planners triggered alarms throughout the world last week with the leak of a document suggesting the U.S. wanted to greatly expand the battlefield use of nuclear weapons — and the countries it might use them against. The proposal was a radical departure from current nuclear military thinking that nuclear weapons are best used as a threat to keep others from attacking you. The U.S. nuclear arsenal had been developed principally as a last-ditch deterrent against a Soviet invasion of Europe, and the U.S. had promoted non-proliferation by pledging not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Now the Pentagon was saying the U.S. may encounter circumstances in which nuclear weapons would used against not only traditional nuclear powers such as China and Russia, but also against Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Libya.

The proposed new thinking substantially lowers the threshold for launching nuclear strikes — it even calls for a new generation of tactical "bunker-buster" nukes to destroy underground arsenals of biological weapons. Not exactly a doomsday weapon of last resort. And the idea of giving nuclear weapons a more everyday function in military thinking has certainly shocked both America's allies and its adversaries.

China, for one. The report suggests that nuclear weapons may have to be tactically deployed in the event of a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan. Even in the hypothetical language of the review, this is extremely dangerous talk. U.S. policy on China's relationship with Taiwan is necessarily muddled — on the one hand it recognizes Beijing's claim that Taiwan and China are part of the same entity; on the other it is committed to defending the island in the event of an attempt to use force to bring it under Beijing's control. Throwing the option of a nuclear strike in the mix, however, could spark some panicky discussions in Beijing. The U.S. is currently developing a National Missile Defense that would, even in its most limited version, effectively neutralize China's small fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles. NMD was always going to spur China to greatly expand its own missile fleet to give it the potential to overwhelm U.S. defenses and therefore maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. That drive will be given added urgency by suggestions that the Pentagon might envisage a nuclear strike in a confrontation over Taiwan.

Then there's the Arab world. Leaking the report on the eve of Dick Cheney's trip to the Middle East to rally Arab support against Saddam certainly complicated the Vice President's mission. The Pentagon review lists four Arab or Muslim states that could become the target of U.S. nukes, and that will be taken by many in the Arab world as good reason for such states to acquire a few nukes of their own. Hostile nations don't like being told what to do under threat of an adversary's weapons of mass destruction capability any more than the U.S. does. And that tends to spur them on to develop or expand their own WMD capability. The geopolitical trump card that emerged with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 prompted first Russia, then several other countries to develop their own nukes, with Iraq, Iran and North Korea doing their best to join the club, too.

Crazy talk from the Pentagon about nuking America's least-loved Muslim states isn't going to help Vice President Cheney persuade the Arab world that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction are sufficient reason to support a war that U.S. allies in the Arab world are already regarding with considerable dread.