The Pentagon has announced “a more diverse set of options for deterring the threat of weapons of mass destruction.” This “more diverse set of options” includes the use of nuclear weapons that may now be used in a first strike against China or Libya, Iraq or North Korea, Syria or Iran. They may be used to hit hardened sites underground. They may be used to destroy biological weapons, chemical arms and “other arms of mass destruction.” The new policy signals the biggest shift in nuclear policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During 40 years of the Cold War, US policy was to use these weapons primarily, if not exclusively, as a defense against Russians using them, as a bilateral deterrent. Under the new plan, we may use them unilaterally and preemptively. Before, we justified them to destroy armies and other missile sites. Today, we might use them against threats announced and unannounced. The Bush Administration says for “contingencies... immediate, potential or unexpected.”
No one knows what “contingencies immediate, potential or unexpected” might mean. Ambiguity allows for a maximum number of options. The military prefers—like Ariel Sharon in Israel—to have the flexibility to bomb an imagined enemy to bits. Then talk. But here at home, to prepare public opinion for such unilateral pounding, the Pentagon perceives a need to first remake the image of these weapons. They are trying to re-characterize them, to legitimize them, to make their use seem practicable, normal and excusable.
But nuclear weapons are not practical, not normal and are not excusable. Nuclear weapons are not interchangeable with better tanks and smart bombs. They are more like a suicide pill. Their consequences are potentially civilization ending. No one contests—not any expert, not any war planner—that radiation effects from the relatively small bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sickened a civilian population for a generation. Nuclear effects are not limited in time.
Scientists in Moscow and in the US during the Cold War agreed that a nuclear exchange would produce a heat and dust cloud, a huge black curtain over the atmosphere. This cloud would likely drop global temperatures by 6-10 degrees, shorten everyone’s growing season, and threaten the survival of the world’s agriculture. This is a disaster which could be civilization ending. Further, these effects would not be contained in the northern hemisphere or the south. Nuclear effects are not limited to the target. They are not limited in time and not geographically. They are not limited to combatants or to terrorists or enemies. They mostly affect civilians.
Nuclear bombs are not smart bombs; they are very dumb.
But terrorists can now say that nuclear weapons have been declared by us to be legitimate for use against them at any time. Those who consider themselves potential targets may be apt to conclude they had better use their own weapons against us first. How else will they live if they do not themselves use the first strike policy the US has originated? This is the downward sucking logic of first-strike nuclear deterrence.
There is no solution to this suicidal engagement except to interrupt the cycle, to step out of it, to deny the intent. This stepping out, ultimately, is what ended the Cold War. Gorbachev did it first, in December, 1988. He simply made an announcement at the United Nations that the game was over. President Reagan shortly followed suit. Now the Bush Administration is starting the game up again. Instead of lessening the threat, the clang and bang of childhood war games seems to have captured their imaginations and they have mightily escalated the danger.