The Possibility of Nuclear Retaliation Against Iraq

In December the White House announced a new national strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction. In a policy statement the Bush administration declared that the United States, “must have the capability” to use, “preemptive measures,” to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction against the US. In the final report in our series War in Our Time WNYC’s John Rudolph explores the history of this new policy, and how it might affect the showdown with Iraq.

More than 50 years ago, in the early days of the nuclear age only one country, the United States, possessed the atomic bomb. The Soviet Union was trying to build an atom bomb, a prospect that deeply troubled American officials. In 1949 Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Dulles: The present Russian knowledge is serious. It’s dangerous to have atomic weapons in the hands of people who believe as communists do that any means are justified to gain their ends. But we must not get panicky. The Russians may now feel that they can blackmail us with the threats of using atomic weapons. But we must not give in. It never pays to pay blackmail, least of all to communists.

Secretary Dulles’s comments bear a striking similarity to language used today by President Bush and other administration officials when they speak about Iraq and North Korea.

And like today, at the start of the Cold War there were powerful government officials who favored taking preemptive action to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Stan Norris is a nuclear historian with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington DC.

Norris: If we go back to the very beginning, these early years of the Cold War, ’45, ’46, ’47, ’48 we can return to these terms of preemption and preventive war. And some people advocated attacking the Soviet Union before they got nuclear weapons. So this was an idea that was around, but Truman never adopted it. Preventive war was also considered in the Chinese case in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Of course that didn’t happen and China got the bomb and that compounded our situation to this day.

LBJ: The Chinese nuclear device was exploded at a test site near a lake called Lap Nor in the Taklamkhan desert in the remote central Asian province of … Nuclear spread is dangerous to all mankind. The lesson of Lap Nor is that we are right to recognize the danger of nuclear spread, that we must continue to work against it, and we will.

President Lyndon Johnson announcing the detonation of the first Chinese nuclear bomb in October 1964.

During the Cold War the US and its nuclear rivals often engaged in dangerous nuclear brinksmanship. Even so, according to historian Stan Norris, no US president ever embraced the idea of attacking another nation to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, he says, has now broken from that tradition.

Norris: The most noticed feature of all of this has been the word preemption. Now preemption of course has a long history. It’s always been an option in our nuclear weapons plans throughout the cold war. What it means is the anticipatory use of force against imminent attack, and that has always been seen as legitimate and appropriate in certain circumstances. What the Bush administration has done here I think is expanded the definition to mean preventive attack, or possibly preventive war.

The Bush administration’s new policy states that the US must have the capability “to detect and destroy an adversary’s weapons of mass destruction before these weapons are used.”

It’s just one of several sweeping changes under President Bush’s leadership. In order to develop a missile defense system the US has withdrawn from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

These changes have been influenced in part by a Washington DC think-tank - the National Institute for Public Policy. David Smith is the institute’s chief operating officer. He says the Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction is really not new. What is unusual, he says, is how explicitly the Bush administration has laid out its position.

Smith: What they have done is they have simply spelled out the situations that pertain to the post-Cold War period. We are not talking about massive nuclear attack on the US with 10-thousand warheads. We are talking about countries or entities that might use a nuclear weapon or a radiological weapon, or spread small pox. And we are saying we will respond proportionately if we feel that there is a clear and present danger, if we feel that preemption is the best option we will do that too, and we will use the weapon that is most appropriate.

Smith argues that issuing a stern warning will deter Iraq, North Korea and others who are seeking weapons of mass destruction, or already have them.

Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey disagrees. Markey is a leading advocate of nuclear non-proliferation. He says by signaling a willingness to use nuclear weapons, the US encourages their use by other countries.

Markey: We are not only the military leader of the world we are also the moral leader. And if the United States breaks down this barrier and says as a matter of preemption that we can use nuclear weapons in order to protect ourselves, then we should expect just about every other country in the world to begin to reevaluate the restraint that they exercise in the use of weapons of mass destruction which they have in their possession.

Markey believes it’s unlikely that the US would use nuclear weapons in an invasion of Iraq. But he worries about future conflicts.

Markey: The Bush administration is using a doctrine that says nuclear weapons are usable, that nuclear weapons can be used as a deterrent. But that they can also be used if necessary. Well, that’s a terrible signal to be sending to the rest of the world.

Smith: Look, let’s face it the use of a nuclear weapon is a grave, grave decision that any American president is gonna take. And I say that for Republicans and Democrats alike.

David Smith of the National Institute for Public Policy argues that the new Bush administration strategy does not increase the likelihood that the US will use nuclear weapons. But Smith says changes are needed to respond to post-Cold War era circumstances.

Smith: During the Cold War I think there was a segment of our national security community, particularly in the arms control world, that convinced itself that we had nuclear weapons not for use, but for deterrence. And they made a black and white distinction that frankly I never understood. The only way you’re going to deter anyone with a nuclear weapon or anything else is if you can convince them that under certain circumstances, and I stress under certain circumstances, you would be prepared to use that.

Perhaps the new Bush policy is simply an attempt to see if aggressive language can help deter the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction.

But it’s only one part of a broader strategy. Combined with the proposed missile defense shield and US research on new nuclear weapons it suggests that deterrence in our time will be difficult and costly treacherous. For WNYC I’m John Rudolph.