Don't Panic! March 20 2002

Why is there so much controversy over the recent report detailing the Pentagon's overhaul of our nuclear defense policy?

Several days ago, a secret report discussing the country's nuclear strategy, called the Nuclear Posture Review, was leaked to the press. Any time the words "nuclear" and "leaked" are used in close proximity to one another, that's cause enough for concern. But this report is particularly noteworthy because it has some critics thinking that the United States is planning to adopt a more aggressive nuclear policy, which could increase the likelihood of a nuclear war.

The first half of that assertion is justified. The United States is indeed shifting to a more aggressive nuclear policy. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were developed and deployed essentially to deter an attack on us by the Soviet Union (and vice versa). By assuring that the use of nukes by anyone would result in global destruction, the hope was that they'd never be used at all.

But the Nuclear Posture Report calls for, among other things, the development of deep-penetration weapons that would cause minimal radioactive fallout. In theory, they could be used to destroy reinforced bunkers built deep in the ground without spreading radioactivity too far beyond the target area. By "too far," I mean to us or our allies — in other words, nuclear weapons that could be used on a battlefield without destroying the world.

Talk of low-yield deep-penetration weapons — while certainly titillating to sexually repressed Pentagon brass and students of Freudian psychology — suggests an increased likelihood that we may pre-emptively use nuclear weapons to destroy enemy facilities or forces, even if the enemy hasn't used — or threatened the use of — nuclear weapons on us.

So instead of wielding nukes to prevent wars, we might use them to win wars. Reinforcing that fear is the Nuclear Posture Review's target list, which includes non-nuclear powers Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran and North Korea. In the past, our official policy included the promise that we would not nuke nations that didn't have nukes as a way of encouraging countries not to develop their own. (Awfully sporting of us, don't you think?) But with our new nuclear posture, that promise is deader than Gary Condit's political career.

But does this more aggressive policy increase the likelihood of a nuclear war? Not necessarily. It's widely accepted that, during the Gulf War, we quietly threatened to nuke Saddam Hussein if he used his chemical weapons on us. Many analysts indeed credit that threat as the main reason he didn't use them. The Bush administration rightly argues that our old policy of nuclear deterrence aimed at Russia and China is a relic of the Cold War and needs to be updated. (A few are relics of the Cold War themselves, so they should know.) They correctly point out that Axis of Evil alumni North Korea, Iraq and Iran are developing nuclear weapons despite their pledges not to. They also point out that terrorist organizations may be hiding nukes or other weapons of mass destruction in caves or bunkers impervious to conventional weapons.

The Pentagon hopes that developing the ability to destroy such fortresses will itself be a deterrent. If it's not, they're banking on the ability to destroy these weapons before they're used on us. So instead of the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War — or MAD, as it was often called — this policy involves unilateral assured destruction. It may turn out to be an effective policy. But let's be honest, UAD just doesn't have the same ring to it.

E-mail questions to andisheh@ creativeloafing.com.??

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