January 1, 2003
Distributed by Minuteman Media, www.opedresource.com
The Bush administration recently released its "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of
Mass Destruction (WMD). Unfortunately, what the strategy really does is promote
The administration declared in December that the United States "reserves the right to
respond with overwhelming force - including through resort to all of our options - to the
use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."
"All of our options" encompasses both "conventional and nuclear
response" capabilities, employed in "appropriate cases through preemptive
While elements of this policy have been signaled in various ways in past administrations,
this is the first time it has been unambiguously stated in an unclassified document with a
presidential imprimatur. It comes at a time of preparation for a war on Iraq in which, as
the CIA warned, U.S. forces could confront Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons.
Reflecting a decade long campaign of the U.S. nuclear establishment to create a new
mission for nuclear arms following the collapse of the Soviet Union, 60 percent of
Americans support a U.S. nuclear response in that circumstance, according to a recent
Washington-Post ABC News poll.
The policy should be renounced. It is irrational, illegal, and immoral.
It is irrational because increased U.S. reliance on nuclear arms encourages other states -
and possibly terrorists - to acquire them, and ultimately increases the risk that a
nuclear explosion will take place on American soil. In December North Korea took initial
steps towards resumption of production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, notably
disruption of international monitoring with cameras and seals of spent nuclear fuel and a
facility that could separate plutonium from that fuel.
Emphasizing the nuclear threat also increases pressure to resort to nuclear weapons in the
event of enemy use of chemical or biological weapons even though common sense would
dictate otherwise. Otherwise the threat, and U.S. credibility, will come to seem hollow.
The assumption of equivalence among nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons underlying
the threat is false. Nuclear arms are orders of magnitude more destructive than the other
"weapons of mass destruction."
The WMD strategy, together with the September 2002 National Security Strategy,
also invites imitation by other states of the preemptive measures doctrine, by
which the Bush administration really means preventive war of the kind planned for Iraq.
Other states may decide that their security demands a similar approach, for example India
in relation to Pakistan, or Russia in relation to bordering Islamic countries.
The new policy is illegal because nuclear weapons cannot be used in a discriminate and
proportionate fashion as required by international law acknowledged by the U.S. military
services. There is much talk now of the need for bunker busting nuclear
explosives. But earth penetrators are likely to cause large numbers of civilian deaths
because of the immense amounts of radioactive dust they would kick up.
The policy is also illegal because the U.N. Charter part of the supreme law of the
land under our Constitution - does not allow preventive war. Under the Charter, use of
military force is permitted only when authorized by the U.N. Security Council or in
response to an actual or imminent attack.
Finally, the policy is immoral because it reinforces the threat of mass nuclear
destruction at the core of U.S. foreign policy, and introduces a new element at odds with
U.S. tradition, the right to initiate war, not simply to respond to an attack.
Before his death on December 6, nuclear weapons resister and former Catholic priest Philip
Berrigan affirmed that "nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth ... a curse
against God, the human family, and the earth itself." There is great wisdom in Philip
Berrigans dying words, and great folly in the Bush nuclear pronouncement released a
few days later. We should heed Berrigan's words and embark on a path of abolition of
nuclear weapons, at home as well as abroad. That would meet the demands of law and
morality and make all of us much more secure.
John Burroughs is executive director of the New
York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, New York, and co-editor of Rule
of Power or Rule of Law? An Assessment of U.S. Policies and Actions Regarding
Security-Related Treaties, Apex Press, 2003.