National Journal
February 1, 2003
Pg. 381

Talking About Defense

Is Bush Deterring, Or Spurring, Nukes?
By George C. Wilson
[Reprinted with permission of author]

As President Bush stands on the knife-edge of launching America's first preventive war, a case can be made that he is spurring rather than discouraging the development of weapons of mass destruction—his stated casus belli for invading Iraq. Just look at the words and actions of Bush and his lieutenants over the last two years through the eyes of Iraq and other "evil" countries.

On September 5, 2001six days before terrorists slammed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—Bush's hawkish Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was telling the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that any "rogue state" could change the behavior of stronger states simply by showing them it had and could launch a nuke or other weapon of mass destruction.

"Think of trying to forge an international coalition to stop an act of aggression—for example, when Iraq went into Kuwait—if we had known beforehand that Iraq had a nuclear capability and a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe and the United States," Rumsfeld said. "It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to fashion such a coalition."

What message would you take from those words if you ran a small country and feared that you were on Bush's hit list? You might well conclude that in order to keep the big, bad United States from attacking you pre-emptively, you had better hurry up and develop The Bomb and missiles to deliver it. That message has since been reinforced by other words and actions by the Bush administration.

* The Nuclear Posture Review. The unclassified version of this document, released on January 9, 2002, looked harmless enough. But secret excerpts of the review, later released by the private organization, dismayed arms-controllers and alarmed several countries that surmised that they could be attacked pre-emptively by the United States, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

The classified document said the United States might use nuclear weapons to "dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends.... Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bioweapon facilities)." A confederation of groups called the Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament Initiative, which advocates nonproliferation, said building such usable, smaller nukes "would undercut U.S. efforts to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," which Bush has cited as his objective, and "could fuel a resurgence of a Cold War-style nuclear arms race."

The review then said who was on Bush's potential hit list: "In setting requirements for nuclear strike capabilities, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya are among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential, or unexpected contingencies. All have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners."

In response, North Korea issued a statement on March 13, 2002, saying it would "not remain a passive onlooker" to being put on Bush's hit list but would "take a strong countermeasure against it. A nuclear war to be imposed by the U.S. nuclear fanatics upon the DPRK would mean their ruin in nuclear disaster." North Korea has since broken out of the 1994 pact negotiated with the Clinton administration to forgo the construction of additional nuclear weapons. Did Bush's Nuclear Posture Review accelerate Pyongyang's pursuit of a policy of mutual assured destruction to deter a pre-emptive U.S. attack?

* National Security Strategy of the United States. In introducing this 31-page document on September 17, 2002, President Bush hardened his threat to strike other countries pre-emptively to keep them from developing and fielding weapons of mass destruction. "As a matter of common sense and self-defense," he said, "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed." The body of the report states that in its war against terrorists, especially those bent on acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction, the United States "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists."

It cannot be lost on countries that Bush considers hostile—especially Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, his "axis of evil"—that the American president is moving toward an attack on a country that doesn't yet have nukes, Iraq, but is talking diplomacy with one that does, North Korea. Therefore, isn't having a nuke the way to deter a pre-emptive U.S. attack? I recently asked this of Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief military adviser to President Bush. He said, "That could be a very bad assumption on anybody's part." Past behavior and present intent put the two countries in different categories, he said.

Still, the two biggest nuclear-tipped scorpions of the last century—the United States and the Soviet Union—managed to stay in the same bottle for 50 years without stinging each other. The reason was the doctrine of MAD—mutual assured destruction. If we nuked them, they would surely nuke us, and vice versa. Without meaning to, Bush could be pushing his foes into acquiring the same kind of deterring sting.

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