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Nuke Nightmare: Bush's Drive
To Armageddon

By Joel Wendland

06 July, 2004

"It's a fairly radical new way of thinking," declared Linton Brooks of the National Nuclear Security Administration after the passage of most of the Bush administration's proposed new nuclear policy and funding agenda in the 2003 Energy Bill. "We essentially got what we wanted," the Bush appointee chortled. Brooks described the Republican-controlled Congress' acceptance of the Bush nuclear doctrine as a "fundamental shift" in nuclear policy. Brooks lauded the move from test bans and non-proliferation to the development of a new generation of weapons and planning for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons.

Included in the funding package, according to Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACN), was $49.3 million for "mini-nukes" and testing programs: $7.5 million was earmarked for development of the "bunker buster," $6 million for studying other "low-yield" weapons, $10.8 million for "modern pit" manufacturing facilities, and about $25 million for testing preparations. (A "modern pit" is the basic nuclear core material of an atomic weapon in storage.) Another $700 million was allocated for
manufacturing new pits, storing tritium, and updating nuclear production and maintenance facilities

On the heels of this success the Bush administration proposed additional funding increases in its 2005 budget, more than doubling the spending on a "mini-nuke" program. Additionally, the administration called for $4 billion for building a new "modern pit" production facility "able to
produce 125 - 450 plutonium pits per year," says the CACN. Sources also say that Bush will be asking for almost $500 million, over five years, for research on its "bunker buster" bombs. While these proposals have currently bogged down, if Bush administration and a Republican dominated Congress maintain power after the November election, we can expect to see a renewed blitz to pass them.

Linton Brooks was correct. Bush's nuclear policy represented a qualitative shift from how past administrations regarded the use of the nuclear arsenal. While Bush claims an expanded nuclear policy is necessary to conduct a "war on terrorism," it is clear that this line is only a cover for a policy the far right has pursued openly since the 1990s. As early as 1990, then Pentagon chief Dick Cheney sought to skirt test bans and "to integrate the possible use of nuclear weapons to respond to biological or chemical attacks." George H.W. Bush hinted his support for a new policy by openly opposing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on his last day in office in 1993. In 1999 Senate Republicans rejected the CTBT signed by Clinton in 1996. Throughout this period, the Republicans' rejection of the CTBT was linked to a perceived need to reconstitute the "star wars" missile defense program as exemplified by the exaggerated nuclear hysteria generated by the 1998 (Donald) Rumsfeld Commission report.

By 2000, however, Republican Senators John Warner and Wayne Allard pushed a "provision to allow initial development studies on a nuclear weapon with an explosive yield of less than five kilotons," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The Warner-Allard initiative overturned a 1994 law banning "undertaking research and development that could lead to a precision nuclear weapon" or "mini-nuke." Even then, Republicans sought the development of nuclear weapons "intended not to deter a potential enemy but for use in small, regional wars."

Production for use was now on the agenda. With Bush's selection as president in 2000, this nuclear agenda moved from doctored commission reports and Senate hearings to the Pentagon and the White House. While many Democrats, including Clinton and Gore, ill advisedly supported "star wars," they did not want to move away from non-proliferation, the CTBT, nor did they push "mini-nukes." In his January 2001 report to the president, Clinton's Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili warned against expanding the role of nuclear weapons and making them more useable. Echoing critics of "mini-nukes," Shalikashvili remarked that "if the world's strongest conventional power needed new types of nuclear weapons, other nations would have even more incentive to
acquire them."

In the early months of his administration, Bush took steps to separate the U.S. from its CTBT obligations (along with other arms control agreements such as the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty). In July 2001, the Bush administration announced it would not seek Senate approval of the CTBT,
and he asked State Department officials to search for a legal way to "bury" the treaty, according to the New York Times. By September 6, 2001, Bush still only openly linked his position on the CTBT to his view of the need for "star wars," prompting a former Canadian foreign minister to angrily remark, "This is a government that has retreated so far back into the dark ages that there isn't even a candle lit any more."

Within two months after September 11th, the Bush administration signaled a shift in its rationale for opposing the CTBT. The administration boycotted a UN conference that November promoting the treaty, saying that banning testing would undermine "the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear arms,"
reported Reuters. The "star wars" mantra was not cited.

Under this public shift in policy rationale, a more closely guarded policy was being developed in the bowels of the Pentagon and the White House. While usable nuclear weapons as Bush administration policy predated September 11th, the terrorist attacks temporarily gave the concept a much-needed boost. The Bush administration's nuclear policy first received concrete expression in an initially secret document called the Nuclear Posture Review (not released until January 2002). The NPR was developed in the first year of Bush term - not just in the weeks after September 11th. The administration's NPR relied heavily on a report originally published in January of 2001 by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), whose board of advisors includes former advisers to the Reagan administration and a Boeing officer whose specialty is missile defense. NIPP's reports are published in such far-right periodicals as National Review and the Washington Times.

Low-yield nukes, bunker busters, the administration's problems with testing bans and other non-proliferation treaties, expanded research and production facilities, citation of Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia as potential nuclear targets and expanding the "scale,
scope, and purpose" of nuclear strike capabilities were hot topics. Most significant was that the NPR lumped conventional and nuclear weapons together in potential first-strike scenarios. One report produced for the Congressional Research Service said that the administration's NPR "has grouped nuclear weapons and conventional weapons together as 'offensive strike weapons.' It argues that the ability to use conventional weapons would reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. But by grouping the two together, in one interpretation, the Administration's policy could begin to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons and increase the likelihood of nuclear use." Further the NPR opened the possibility of using nuclear weapons against countries that did not possess nuclear weapons.

The administration broadened the list of potential country targets to include those which might use and weapons of mass destruction later in 2002 with its National Security Presidential Directive-17 (NSPD-17). Geared specifically toward mobilizing the military and public opinion for the "war on terror," a potential permanent war with the "axis of evil," and the ultimate goal of an invasion of Iraq, this document expanded the administration's policy of nuclear weapons usage. Later in 2002 the
president's Nuclear Weapons Council directly recommended "a return to nuclear testing" and breaking with international treaties that banned testing. By early 2003 a Department of Energy memo urged some of its offices to "take advantage of the repeal of the ban on testing." Recommending even further expansion of potential nuclear usage, the Pentagon's Defense Science Board early 2004 called for the construction of "mini-nukes" usable against terrorist organizations and lamented the "political constraints" that prevent more aggressive pursuit of such a policy.

His call for developing new weapons and new production facilities for new and old weapons contradict Bush's claim that the main goal is non-proliferation and reduction of the arsenal. Currently, according to the NPR and other sources, the U.S. possesses close to 8,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and an estimated additional 3,000 to 5,000 non-deployed reserve or inactive stockpiles.

The international community is deeply concerned with or opposed to the Bush administration's new nuclear policy. Certainly countries that have been named as immediate potential targets have few reasons to disarm or avoid developing stockpiles. In addition to objections from expected quarters, however, friendly countries have raised serious concerns and criticisms. Beijing's China Daily described the nuclear policy as having "reduced the trustworthiness of the United States" for which it will pay a "high diplomatic price." The Moscow Times predicted that the policy "may drastically lower the nuclear threshold and trigger numerous local and regional nuclear wars." Australia's Sydney Morning Herald opined that the Bush administration's plan scorned multilateralism and signaled its intention "to pursue a strategic and diplomatic agenda shaped by self-interest." The Oslo Dagsavisen suggested Bush's policy would kill the Non-Proliferation Treaty leading to "greater vulnerability and increased insecurity for everyone." In its response to the NPR, Le Monde characterized the plan as "irresponsible" worthy of "a nation in panic." The Rotterdam NRC Handelsblad predicted the collapse of the coalition in the "war on terror" as now seems taking place.

From right to left politically, expert opinion has highlighted the danger of Bush's nuclear policy. While Republicans expressed little or no opposition to the NPR after the September 11th attacks, more recently dissent has appeared in their ranks. After the passage of the 2003 Energy bill that included funding for new nuclear testing and research, some congressional Republicans expressed concern about the U.S. image on the non-proliferation issue. How could we claim to support non-proliferation
while building our own arsenal and developing plans for testing it? Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) expressed criticism from within the president's party. He declared the administration to be "out of bounds" on this issue and said that the Energy bill would result in a "major national scandal."

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2002, Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project Director Joseph Cirincione called the NPR a "deeply flawed document" that "could cause irreparable harm to the national security of the United States." Adoption of NPR's
recommendations as policy, he said, "could be construed as a material breach of United States obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty." Cirincione said the NPR "sees nuclear weapons as simply another weapon." The NPR's program would encourage other countries to also back out of the NPT and escalate the proliferation of nuclear and other WMD. Cirincione's fears expressed in 2002 came to pass in the 2003 Energy bill.

A report by the Center for Defense Information forcefully pointed out major contradictions. The administration's 2005 budget proposal, it said, would massively underfund international non-proliferation programs by about $2 billion while calling for huge increases in new nuclear programs here. The spending on non-proliferation programs that Bush did propose "is mitigated," the report continued, "by funding put into new nuclear weapons programs, as other countries will be less likely to cooperate with the United States on non-proliferation projects if we act to counter those
objectives." Other countries, the CDI concluded, "will see [Bush funding proposals] as an indication that the United States is not serious about cooperating on non-proliferation programs since it continues to augment its own nuclear weapons program." Analysis conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggested that stated plans for arsenal reduction is contradicted by the administration's own projections of the number of warheads over the next few years. "The total number of warheads remains essentially the same," said the NRDC.

Since Iraq's nuclear threat was proven to be phony, the Bush administration has single-handedly returned the threat of global nuclear war to the table. The Global Security Institute as argued that "The NPR reflects a major shift in the military and ethical rationale for nuclear weapons, no longer defining them as devices of deterrence, but as weapons of war." While Bush claimed that "mini-nukes" would reduce collateral damage, experts at the CACN argued that radioactive fallout from low-yield nuclear weapons can't be contained. In fact, wrote Robert W. Nelson in the Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, a strike using "low-yield" weapons "does not appear possible without causing massive radioactive contamination." Further, the use of such nuclear weapons against military or terrorist forces that have or may use chemical or biological weapons may release rather than destroy deadly chemical or biological agents.

After winning funding for its new nuclear policy, the next obstacles are the international treaties that restrain full-scale launching of the new program. Withdrawing from the ABM treaty and boycotting the conference on the CTBT and refusing to seek its ratification were politically easy enough. Next is the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Clinton emphatically supported the NPT at its 2000 international review conference, calling for "universal adherence to the NPT and of strict compliance with its terms" and noting "the crucial role of IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards in enforcing the Treaty's undertakings." While Bush's State Department recently expressed similar sentiments, Bush's open contempt for the IAEA during its drive to invade Iraq and the development of this new nuclear policy suggests otherwise. As indicated by polls, overwhelmingly Americans support non-proliferation and major reductions in the arsenal, so weakening or withdrawing from the NPT may prove politically trickier.

The Bush administration's policy may have already wrecked the NPT in effect. In 2002 CACN echoed other critics saying that the NPR "undermined" the NPT and countries that have agreed to NPT's restrictions may feel obliged to "abandon the treaty in the face of a U.S. buildup."

In fact, last May a preparatory meeting (called PrepCom) for the NPT's routine five-year conference ended in "dissension.dimming hopes" for continued "international consensus" on the treaty's future, according to a report by the Arms Control Association (ACA). At this meeting, U.S. representatives tried to focus the meeting's attention on their claim that Iran had tried to acquire nuclear weapons. They demanded that the treaty's signatories punish Iran by refusing "all nuclear cooperation." U.S.
officials also expressed their frustration with the IAEA for refusing "to conclude that [Iran's] activities were intended to build nuclear weapons." U.S. officials even suggested that the IAEA didn't need conclusive evidence to impose sanctions on Iran. In a replay of the hype surrounding the drive for war on Iraq that included erroneous claims about "mushroom clouds over American cities," U.S. representatives pushed hard to focus on

The U.S. obsession with Iran was countered by the "[non-aligned movement] states and other delegations, such as the seven members of the New Agenda Coalition - Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, and Mexico." According to the ACA report, "These states made clear their belief that the slow pace of disarmament by the five nuclear-weapon states, most pointedly the United States, and the continued possession of nuclear weapons by India, Israel, and Pakistan outside the treaty pose equal or more serious threats to the NPT's continued vitality." Aside from the fact that many countries may no longer be prepared to believe uncritically U.S. claims regarding the possession of WMD by other countries, many countries seem to regard the Bush administration's nuclear buildup as hypocritical and cynical.

Notwithstanding the State Department supportive pronouncements, the Bush administration's commitment to the NPT is waning (if it even exists). While it seeks to use the treaty to enforce inspections in and disarmament of states like Iran and North Korea, it rejects calls for its own
compliance with the treaty, especially where it contradicts the new nuclear policy formulated in the NPR. "The Bush administration," says the ACA report, "also has already acted contrary to several of the 13 [NPT disarmament] steps by, among other things, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue strategic missile defense systems and declaring that it will not ask the Senate to reconsider its 1999 rejection of the CTBT. In fact, U.S. officials insisted at the PrepCom that those commitments no longer be formally referenced." In other words, the Bush administration unilaterally rejected basic measures of the NPT and says, "Let's forget about that."

A reelected Bush administration will try to push the NPT into extinction. The only feasible alternative scenario is replacing the Bush administration with an administration that is committed to NPT's original goals. Without "regime change," aggressive confrontations with nuclear and non-nuclear powers that object to the U.S. running roughshod over its treaty commitments to disarmament and non-proliferation will intensify. It is not impossible to envision the actual unfolding of events outlined in Bush's NPR: first-strike use of nuclear weapons leading to an extended and destructive period of global warfare.

Joel Wendland is managing editor of
Political Affairs magazine and writes