When America's new "nuclear posture review" was leaked last month, the Bush administration was furious. It let the cat out of the bag.
Here was the Pentagon laying down policy in a classified document which blurs the long-accepted distinction between nuclear and non- nuclear weapons. It foresees the use of nuclear weapons against targets able to withstand attacks by conventional weapons - such as underground bunkers which could be attacked by the "mini-nukes" US scientists are designing.
It adds that nukes could be used "in the event of surprising military developments". Even more chilling, the Pentagon unashamedly seeks to embrace the moral ground - new kinds of nuclear warheads, it says, could actually "reduce collateral damage". What it is saying is that small nuclear weapons might kill fewer civilians than conventional weapons.
Such an assertion flies in the face of all scientific studies about the horrendous consequences of radiation, even from a low-yield nuke striking a deep underground bunker. It also ignores the huge dangers in lowering the nuclear threshold by treating nukes like any other war-fighting weapon, driving a coach and horses through the internationally accepted principle, based on both moral and practical considerations, that nukes are qualitatively different and - so nuclear weapons powers claim - are to there to deter, not to use.
American military commanders have for years contemplated the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear targets, including "non-state actors", i.e. terrorist groups which possess chemical or biological weapons. But as the defense analyst, Dan Plesch, put it yesterday, by developing a missile defense system and new nukes, the Bush administration is "extending the notion of casualty-free war to nuclear war".
Bush and the US Congress are warming to those military planners and scientists who were previously dismissed as off-the-wall hawks. Only last week John Foster, a senior American nuclear scientist, asked Congress to allow nuclear tests to start within three months, rather than three years, of a request (the US is not party to the comprehensive test ban treaty). The US, meanwhile, has stopped converting its nuclear cruise missiles to conventional weapons.
Washington's new policy directly contradicts the so-called "negative security assurances", the official policy of the US, whereby Washington has pledged to "not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state unless that state attacks the US or its allies in association with a nuclear-weapons state". Asked recently whether that was Bush's policy, John Bolton - one of the administration's sharpest-clawed hawks, despite his job as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, replied: "I don't think we are of the view that this kind of approach is necessarily the most productive... [It] doesn't seem to me to be terribly helpful in analyzing what our security needs may be in the real world."
Far from distancing himself from his American counterparts, Geoff Hoon, Britain's defense secretary, is enthusiastically jumping on - or being pulled along by Bush's nuke bandwagon. Hoon told the Commons defense committee last week: "I am absolutely confident, in the right conditions, we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons." However, he also said he was less confident that they would deter "states of concern" - a reference to Iraq in particular - threatening or attacking Britain with weapons of mass destruction. On Sunday's ITV Jonathan Dimbleby show, he insisted that the government "reserved the right" to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.
Would Tony Blair really launch a nuclear strike against Iraq - with an American Trident missile, the only nuclear capability in Britain's arsenal - with all the consequences that would have throughout the Middle East? Is the threat credible? Would it do anything to deter Saddam? As Hoon dug himself in, there was silence from the Foreign Office, one of whose ministers (Peter Hain) is a member of CND and whose official view is that, far from threatening states with nuclear weapons, it is in Britain's strategic national interest to engage constructively with those states which pose a potential threat.
Or has Whitehall accepted that, despite its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty, nuclear weapons are not only here to stay, but to be used? Hoon could unwittingly have provoked a debate on this crucial question. There is no sign of it yet.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002