William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Opening the Nuclear Front
The Bush administration opened a nuclear front in its various wars this week, firing a paper at Congress arguing that nuclear weapons are at a "critical juncture" and continue to be essential for U.S. national security. The statement -- all of three pages -- is essentially a justification for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a new nuclear warhead. There is, however, a glimmer of hope in a report that is mostly boilerplate.
The glimmer is in the paper's tone, which is almost pleading. Amid the arguments -- that nuclear weapons have been an essential element of "deterrence" since President Truman, and that the principal U.S. national security goal is deterring "aggression against ourselves, our allies, and friends" -- there is the sense that the U.S. is trying too hard to justify a policy that perhaps it realizes is becoming obsolete.
With Congress increasingly questioning the Bush administration's nuclear weapons strategy and its pursuit of new nuclear warheads and nuclear capabilities, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joined with the Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in issuing the report Friday, titled "National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century."
The paper argues that despite the demise of the Soviet Union, the "future security environment is very uncertain, and some trends are not favorable. Rogue states" -- code for Iran and North Korea -- "either have or seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons." More states, it says, could develop nuclear weapons, and "established nuclear powers" -- Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, all unnamed -- could pursue "aggressive nuclear force modernization programs."
All of this requires the United States to continue to offer assurances of security for our allies and U.S. nuclear weapons continue to serve "as the ultimate guarantor of their security." A nuclear arsenal demonstrates "to allies and adversaries alike that the United States has the necessary means, and the political will, to respond decisively against aggression and the use of weapons of mass destruction." In this regard, Iran and North Korea are explicitly mentioned.
But it's not as if the United States is headed for nuclear disarmament. Even with a Democratic Congress or a Democratic president, that's not likely.
The report argues that Congress needs to continue to support "a responsive nuclear infrastructure." That means robust research and a commitment to maintaining technical expertise in nuclear weapons, and even the ability to renew underground testing if necessary. Most important, it means the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a new weapon that the administration and the nuclear priesthood hopes to build in large numbers.
None of this is surprising. But that doesn't mean it's the right direction. I see no value in "using" nuclear weapons in our disputes with North Korea and Iran. In fact, brandishing them merely serves to encourage our adversaries to develop their own. Furthermore, when it comes to Russia and China, our goal must be to seek reductions and constraints. And as for the value of our nuclear weapons vis a vis India, Pakistan, or Israel; the history is clear, our nuclear weapons have bought us nothing but their justifications.
Perhaps it is time to adopt the post-9/11 stance when it comes to nuclear weapons, including our own: We cannot just wait for stuff to happen to us. We have to take action. Ultimately that means a commitment to deeper reductions and a further marginalizing of the role nuclear weapons play in U.S. foreign policy.