Sun, Mar 17, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Nuclear bluff damaging to the US

The threat of using nuclear weapons has already been proved to be hollow, but it can still provoke a hostile reaction, which the US should remember

By Jonathan Power


n his autobiography A Soldier's Way, US Secretary of State Colin Powell recounts the build-up to the 1991 Gulf War when he was the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and Vice President Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense.

"Cheney kept assigning me last-minute tasks ? He had a third question and I jotted it down in my notebook simply as `prefix 5,' my nuclear qualification code. `Let's not even think about nukes,' I said, `You know we're not going to let that genie loose.' `Of course not,' Cheney said. `But take a look to be thorough and just out of curiosity.'"

Powell played the same role in the administration of former US president George Bush as he does in that of Bush's son -- the voice of reason. He is not the token black but the token liberal who is allowed to speak, in some areas even to lead, but on the crucial decisions of prime policy is simply ignored.

His advice to rely on sanctions rather than warfare with containing Saddam Hussein was brushed aside in 1991 and his qualms on nuclear weapons did not stop US secretary of state James Baker delivering what in effect was a nuclear threat if Saddam should use chemical or biological weapons. Neither did it stop, under questioning, senior officials in both the US and British governments refusing to rule out the right to go nuclear. Only French president Francois Mitterand replied unambiguously, "I say no to that."

So now compromising with the devil of nuclear weapons is back on the table. The leaked Pentagon review of nuclear policy reveals that not only are the "axis of evil" states on the target lists, but also Syria, which has recently backed the Saudi peace plan for Palestine and Israel; and Libya, which is generally regarded as a success for hard-edged diplomacy in converting a would-be terrorist state into one that business can be done with.

Powell, now secretary of state, has bravely tried to put a gloss on the report, but he knows better than anyone else the formidable political pressures that would be brought to bear to use nuclear missiles in a war with Iraq if Saddam, with his back to the wall, tried to use his chemical weapons or biological weapons on neighbor Israel in a last attempt to upturn the Middle East applecart and get Muslim opinion on his side.

US President George W. Bush may give the order to fire a low-yield nuclear missile at Saddam's command bunker or the concentrated formations of the Republican Guard, if only to pre-empt a larger Israeli nuclear attack and to remove Israel from the likelihood of a future revenge attack.

The US will then have crossed a threshold that over fifty-seven years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become in effect sacrosanct. In historian E. P. Thompson's telling remark, Bush will have allowed "the unthinkable to become thinkable, without thinking."

Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, recounts in his new book how, at the height of the Cold War, he and the president used to discuss whether nuclear weapons could be used in the event of a Soviet attack. McNamara made it plain, he said, that if deterrence had failed and an attack was under way, nuclear weapons had already lost their use.

"Although I believe Kennedy and Johnson agreed with my conclusion, it was impossible for any one of us to state such views publicly because they were totally contrary to established US and NATO policy."

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