Nukes: Can US practice what it preaches?
In June 2002, President Bush advised the nation that the greatest threat to US security lies in the possibility of terrorists acquiring unconventional weapons. It would seem logical, then, to reassess whether national security strategy is doing all that is possible to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists. A good starting point: the United States' own nuclear policies.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
With respect to chemical and biological weapons, the US has eschewed possession of them and is destroying what stocks it has. The record is more problematic with nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has taken policies on these weapons in two directions that differ substantially from previous policies. A necessary question to ask is whether these changes impede or abet preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In the spring of 2002, Presidents Bush and Putin signed the Moscow Treaty establishing the goal of reducing inventories of immediately deployable strategic nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012. This was in line with the previous policy, as reflected in the START II Treaty, which reduced both sides to 3,000 to 3,500 strategic warheads. Where the Bush policy is different is in the slow pace of the demobilization - no reductions from present levels are required for 10 years - and the treaty does not require the destruction of any warheads. It provides only that each side will retain just 1,700 to 2,200 immediately deployable warheads. It isn't clear to the public just what that means. The US, however, has indicated it will not destroy any of the 4,000 to 5,000 warheads above the allowable limit that it retains. Instead it will keep them in some condition that it can claim is not immediately deployable. The net effect of the treaty and of US plans for dealing with it, then, is to say that the US is placing a high premium on maintaining access to approximately 6,000 to 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads as a hedge against uncertainty.
A second change in policy is that the Bush administration has gone to Congress for authorization to do research on new, less powerful, tactical warheads. These are primarily for employment as "bunker busters" for destroying deeply buried, hardened targets. This, too, indicates the importance the US places on having usable nuclear weaponry.
The issue the country must face today is whether these two new directions are compatible with reducing the primary threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists. It seems obvious that if the US, with the strongest military forces in the world, insists on having lots of usable nuclear weapons, such weapons must have even greater utility for powers with lesser conventional forces. Thus, the US has reduced its leverage to garner cooperation from other nations in the myriad actions necessary to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
How can the US convince the world that the Iraqs and the North Koreas must not have even one nuclear weapon when it needs 7,000? The US looks hypocritical and isn't in a sound position to lead the world in an antiproliferation campaign.