If another country were planning to develop a new nuclear weapon and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state. Yet such is the course recommended to President Bush by a new Pentagon planning paper that became public last weekend. Mr. Bush needs to send that document back to its authors and ask for a new version less menacing to the security of future American generations.
The paper, the Nuclear Posture Review, proposes lowering the overall number of nuclear warheads, but widens the circumstances thought to justify a possible nuclear response and expands the list of countries considered potential nuclear targets. It envisions, for example, an American president threatening nuclear retaliation in case of "an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbors, or a North Korean attack on South Korea or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan."
In a world where numerous countries are developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, it is quite right that America retain a credible nuclear deterrent. Where the Pentagon review goes very wrong is in lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons and in undermining the effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The treaty, long America's main tool for discouraging non-nuclear countries from developing nuclear weapons, is backed by promises that as long as signatories stay non-nuclear and avoid combat alongside a nuclear ally, they will not be attacked with nuclear weapons. If the Pentagon proposals become American policy, that promise would be withdrawn and countries could conclude that they have no motive to stay non-nuclear. In fact, they may well decide they need nuclear weapons to avoid nuclear attack.
The review also calls for the United States to develop a new nuclear warhead designed to blow up deep underground bunkers. Adding a new weapon to America's nuclear arsenal would normally require a resumption of nuclear testing, ending the voluntary moratorium on such tests that now helps restrain the nuclear weapons programs of countries like North Korea and Iran.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, American military planners have had to factor these enormously destructive weapons into their calculations. Their behavior has been tempered by the belief, shared by most thoughtful Americans, that the weapons should be used only when the nation's most basic interest or national survival is at risk, and that the unrestrained use of nuclear weapons in war could end life on earth as we know it. Nuclear weapons are not just another part of the military arsenal. They are different, and lowering the threshold for their use is reckless folly.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company