WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is reportedly considering the possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Iraq. Striking a nonnuclear state with nuclear weapons - even seriously entertaining and planning for the possibility - is a mistake that will only convince rogue nations that they need atomic weapons to protect themselves from the US.
For decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the US has promised not to use nuclear weapons against states that do not have them and are not allied with nuclear-weapon states. There has been only one exception to this rule: If a nonnuclear state attacks it with a chemical or biological weapon, the US has hinted it might retaliate with nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration recently reiterated this caveat, but it has never otherwise threatened nonnuclear states with nuclear weapons.For example, President Bush has never publicly linked his new doctrine of preemption with the use of nuclear weapons. Even the leaked version of the Pentagon's "nuclear posture review," which was sharply criticized last spring for listing seven nations against which the US should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, did not authorize nuclear preemption against non-nuclear-weapon states.
But now, according to William Arkin, a defense analyst who writes a regular column for The Los Angeles Times, the Pentagon is testing procedures for preemptively using nuclear weapons to destroy Iraqi facilities underground or to prevent Iraq from using chemical or biological weapons.
This is a step that can only decrease US security. Even threatening - much less carrying out - a preemptive nuclear attack will undoubtedly convince nonnuclear states that they will be safe from the US only if they have an atomic deterrent. More states with nuclear weapons means more states that can threaten US cities and more chances that terrorists could get their hands on a nuclear weapon.
For those reasons, the US has worked hard to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The foundation of its efforts has been the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which forbade all but five countries that already had nuclear weapons from developing them. The non-nuclear-weapon states agreed to this on the understanding that eventually the nuclear weapon states would disarm.
Ten years later, as the continued superpower arms race made the likelihood of disarmament seem remote, the US sweetened the pot, promising that it would not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. These "negative security assurances" were intended to help level the battlefield and reassure states that they did not need nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Although the US retreated from this promise somewhat in the early 1990s - adding the exception for responding to a chemical or biological attack - the spirit of the pledge has remained intact for the last 25 years.
In fact, the State Department reaffirmed these security assurances last February, and the White House has repeatedly stressed the importance of the NPT.
But, in considering a preemptive nuclear strike against Iraq as an option, the Bush administration threatens to invalidate these past promises, effectively arguing that nuclear weapons are no different from conventional weapons and therefore do not need to be governed by separate rules.
That is an absurd position. The destructive power of nuclear arms is unparalleled, and that makes them qualitatively different. They can take hundreds of thousands of lives and destroy cities in an instant. That kind of power can confer upon otherwise weak states the ability to influence and manipulate the US.
In fact, some analysts have argued that the Bush administration had to rule out the use of force against North Korea - even though it poses a greater threat than Iraq - because Pyongyang might have one or two nuclear weapons.
Whether Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons and to what extent that affected Mr. Bush's decision to reject a military solution to the current crisis is not clear. But the US would certainly be less likely to attack a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
Which brings us back to the original point: If the US begins to threaten nonnuclear countries with nuclear weapons, the logical response will be for those countries to build their own nuclear weapons in order to protect themselves.
The US doesn't need nuclear weapons for military missions in Iraq. Its formidable conventional arsenal is capable of destroying both underground targets (or at least the access to them) and any chemical or biological weapons that it can locate.
For two years, the Bush administration has steadily whittled away at the diplomatic foundations of US security. Initiating the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq would destroy that which remains. Even changing nuclear policy to allow for that possibility will undercut efforts to keep states such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Syria nuclear-free.
Using nuclear weapons to fight proliferation is a hypocritical move that will only come back to haunt us.
• J. Peter Scoblic is editor of Arms Control Today, a monthly publication of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.