It's one of two things. The nuclear posture review is either a harmless piece of paper serving up warmed-over Clinton doctrine, "a working document" leaked by some subversive showoff; or else it is a farewell to arms control and nonproliferation, the work of doomsday planners who have at last succeeded in selling their idea that nuclear weapons are no different from the conventional kind and equally useful in combat.
The Bush administration, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, is busy spinning its insignificance. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Powell at a hearing if the new, smaller nukes envisioned by the review would require testing that would violate the moratorium on testing. Powell gave a sweeping assurance: He had called the Pentagon and was told it had no intention of abandoning the test ban.
Secretary Rumsfeld was having the novel experience of playing host to an official whose country found its name on the target list that is a feature of the review. Both he and Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defense minister, got around it by saying what great friends and partners the United States and the Kremlin have become since the end of the Cold War.
The Pentagon reviewers may seem to be activating the nuclear trigger by asserting that we will use nuclear weapons against any nation threatening biological or chemical warfare. Hitherto, nonnuclear states were exempt from U.S. nuclear attack, but the president says he has to have every possible option.
For some, the review offered a trip down memory lane. The advocacy of small nuclear weapons brought back memories of 1964, when Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater traversed the country peddling tactical battlefield nukes no bigger than a fountain pen -- so small they could be clipped to a GI's shoulder tabs.
The public did not buy. It wasn't the size of the weapons, it was their radioactivity that concerned people. Goldwater was vaporized by Lyndon Johnson.
"It was bizarre then," says the Carnegie Endowment's nuclear sage, Joseph Cirincione, of Goldwater's crusade. "It's bizarre now."
"We are saying that nuclear weapons are no longer the weapon of last resort but weapons of first choice," he says. This is from an administration that has pledged a two-thirds reduction in strategic nuclear weapons but denies that development of small weapons will have any effect on nonnuclear countries that had refrained from going nuclear.
Cirincione's succinct summary of the meaning of the review: "It means that the nuclear nuts have seized control of the policy apparatus."
Most military men agree that battlefield nukes are not an option. Among them has been Colin Powell, who, in his autobiography, "My American Journey," wrote disparagingly of their utility. In 1958 he was assigned to guard a nuclear cannon. "We are not talking about dropping a few artillery shells at a crossing. No matter how small they were . . . we would be crossing a threshold. . . . Using nukes at this point would mean one of the most significant policy and military decisions since Hiroshima."
Powell has been assiduous in defending the administration against charges of extremism and unilateralism. Some think he swallows hard before fashioning his rationalizations, but a united front is more essential than ever, with the vice president making a tour to convince 11 nations that this is a prudent, painstaking country that could be trusted to run a tidy and effective effort in evicting Saddam Hussein from Iraq.
"Our heads are spinning," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a moderate Republican who succeeded his father in the Senate. John Chafee was a champion of arms control. "This is a time when we should be befriending people, not threatening them. We need all the allies we can get."
Chafee said that the leaked news of another enterprise, the shadow government, was still confounding members. The Bush plan to collect bureaucrats from all over the government and send them underground for 90 days to ensure the continuity of government -- leaving Congress entirely out of the picture -- caused both hilarity and hurt feelings on the Hill. Members are familiar with White House efforts to make the legislative branch feel irrelevant, but to insinuate nonexistence breaks new ground. The short-lived Office of Strategic Influence caused consternation. Although for some it represented progress of a sort -- the Pentagon never admitted it was lying all through the Vietnam War -- it caused fresh waves of derision in Europe.
The alacrity with which administration officials, beginning with the president, are insisting that the nuclear posture review represents no change is enough to convince you that the Office of Strategic Influence is alive and all too well.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company