June 9, 2003
Editor's note: The writer served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and was senior advisor to President Clinton and the secretary of state for arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament.
Even as American forces struggle to consolidate victory in a war justified largely to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the White House is preparing to build and test new nuclear weapons for our own arsenal.
The Bush administration has announced that it wants to eliminate a 1994 ban on low-yield nuclear weapons, fund research on them and compress the time needed to prepare nuclear tests.
Supporters argue that low-yield nuclear weapons, so-called mini nukes, could be useful against a dictator's chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The reasoning goes that conventional weapons are too weak to destroy deeply buried bunkers, and existing nuclear weapons are too strong. They claim that mini nukes would be just right -- they could destroy such targets but limit collateral damage. The president could then credibly threaten rogue states with nuclear attack -- expanding the "preemption" doctrine to explicitly embrace the first use of nuclear weapons.
So in Iraq, for example, rather than invading, would we have launched nuclear warheads against those 40-odd sites thought to hold Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities?
In fact, the Iraq experience reveals why the case for mini nukes is technically dubious, as well as politically foolish.
First, it's unlikely we'd have intelligence reliable enough to justify a pre-emptive nuclear strike. As is increasingly and painfully obvious, we certainly didn't have it in Iraq.
Second, mini nukes would have severe, long-term environmental consequences. An explosion capable of destroying hardened underground sites would, by definition, rip up massive quantities of earth, contaminate it with radiation and disperse it into the atmosphere, generating fallout that would kill and sicken many thousands of civilians. Even a 5 kiloton mini nuke, roughly one-third the Hiroshima bomb, would be massively more than a surgical strike. (In Iraq, imagine the rebuilding job after several dozen "small" nuclear explosions.)
Third, the political effect of mini nukes, meanwhile, would be to foster proliferation and undercut international efforts to prevent it. It's no accident that, after Iraq, the other two members of President Bush's "axis of evil" have both intensified their efforts to make nuclear weapon ingredients -- North Korea, by moving to reprocess spent fuel into plutonium, and Iran, by preparing to enrich uranium. When you put countries in the crosshairs, you should not be surprised when they try to acquire a bigger arsenal. And by saying it is going to rely on nuclear weapons, Washington lets other countries legitimize their own nuclear plans.
Finally, after decades of steady progress to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons, U.S. development of new kinds of weapons -- with new missions and lowered barriers to use -- would surely stimulate an unraveling of the international consensus against nuclear arms.
By walking back on our legal disarmament commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we would create an easy excuse for violations -- or formal repudiation of -- the treaty by others.
The security case for mini nukes is so weak as to suggest perhaps a different motive. In Fort Greeley, Alaska, the administration is slapping up an "operational" national missile-defense site that no president in his right mind would ever seriously rely on to intercept an incoming missile. It does, however, intercept the hated Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, justifying and solidifying the president's withdrawal last year.
Perhaps mini nukes have a comparable purpose -- to manufacture a need to end the moratorium on nuclear testing initiated by President Bush's father in 1992, and to formally repudiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by President Clinton in 1996.
The four years from 1989 to 1993 -- the first Bush presidency -- were arguably the most productive time ever for arms control and nonproliferation. It will be a sad if that legacy is now being dumped by President Bush's son for the sake of checking boxes on an extremist agenda.
Worse, it will be a defeat for nonproliferation and dangerous for the country.
John Holum served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He was also the senior advisor to President Clinton and the secretary of state for arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament, and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Clinton administration. He is currently a member of the Bipartisan Security Group, a program of the Global Security Institute (www.gsinstitute.org).