Arms-control advocates are sounding the alarm over recent press reports about Washington's new nuclear posture review, which calls for developing nuclear plans and capabilities to deter or defend against nuclear, biological or chemical weapons attacks not only by Russia and China but also by Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya.
The critics of the nuclear review claim that increasing the number of instances in which the US might consider using nuclear weapons could well make their use more likely and is liable to stimulate further proliferation of such weapons.
These arguments do not stand up under scrutiny. In fact, the Bush administration deserves praise for its candor in dealing with the security dilemmas posed by the post-Cold War strategic environment. The US is right to redefine the requirements of deterrence in order to meet new threats to its security, its forces abroad and its allies.
Countries hostile to the US are indeed developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that could do us grave harm. Their leaders may not be deterred by traditional threats of massive nuclear retaliation. And they are producing and storing these weapons in deeply buried and hardened sites that might be invulnerable to all but nuclear weapons.
Posing a threat to targets that are highly valued by an adversary has been a staple of US deterrence doctrine since the beginning of the nuclear age. But leaders of rogue states may not take seriously US threats to launch massive nuclear strikes on leadership and weapons sites -- nuclear, chemical and biological -- that are inaccessible except to the most destructive nuclear weapons in our arsenal: the types left over from the Cold War. These US weapons, would, of course, cause a huge loss of innocent lives. Thus, having the capability to destroy such targets with smaller and less destructive weapons would strengthen rather than erode deterrence.
It is preposterous to believe, as some scaremongers have suggested, that the Bush administration is preparing to carry out nuclear preemptive strikes around the world. But it is not hard to imagine circumstances under which a president might want to have the nuclear option available for preventing or responding to a rogue state's use of highly destructive weapons.
Suppose, for example, that the US had just suffered the loss of 100,000 lives in a biological warfare attack, that it not only knew the identity of the rogue state attacker but also had reliable intelligence it was preparing additional attacks on US territory -- and that these weapons could be destroyed only with nuclear weapons. Under these conditions, why shouldn't the president have the option of limiting further American deaths?
A key criticism of the nuclear posture review is that it envisions using nuclear weapons to deter or possibly respond to not only nuclear threats to the US but also attacks with chemical and biological weapons (CBW). Critics point out that during the Cold War, nuclear weapons were an option of last resort, to be used only to deter a nuclear attack on the US by the Soviet Union -- in other words, only when national survival was at stake.
This interpretation is a misreading of history. Throughout the Cold War, the US reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to deter both conventional and nuclear attacks on its NATO allies and on Japan, Korea and Australia. The prime example of the US' "lowering the threshold" for the use of nuclear weapons was Europe, where official NATO doctrine called on the alliance to use nuclear weapons to deter or defeat a conventional attack by the Warsaw Pact that was also expected to include the use of chemical weapons.