One year after President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "axis of evil," the United States is thinking about the unthinkable: It is preparing for the possible use of nuclear weapons against Iraq.
At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside planning cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, target lists are being scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of "preemption."
According to multiple sources close to the process, the current planning focuses on two possible roles for nuclear weapons:
attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they might be impervious to conventional explosives;
thwarting Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction.
Nuclear weapons have, since they were first created, been part of the arsenal discussed by war planners. But the Bush administration's decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such weapons, especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq represents a significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites the ground rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism.
It also moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special category and lumps them in with all the other military options -- from psychological warfare, covert operations and Special Forces to air power in all its other forms.
For the United States to lower the nuclear threshold and break down the firewall separating nuclear weapons from everything else is unsettling for at least three reasons.
First, if the United States lowers the nuclear threshold -- even as a possibility -- it raises the likelihood that other nations will lower their own thresholds and employ nuclear weapons in situations where they simply need a stronger military punch. Until now, the United States has reserved nuclear weapons for retaliation against nuclear attacks or immediate threats to national survival, a standard tacitly but widely accepted around the world. If the president believes that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses that kind of danger to the United States, he has failed to convince the world -- and many U.S. citizens.
Second, the move toward thinking of nuclear weapons as just one more option among many comes at a time when technology is offering a host of better choices. Increasingly, the U.S. military has the capability of disabling underground bases or destroying biological and chemical weapons without uncorking the nuclear bottle, through a combination of sophisticated airpower, special operations and such 21st century capabilities as high-powered microwave weapons and cyber warfare.
Third, there are dangers in concentrating the revision of nuclear policy within a single military command, STRATCOM, which until now has been focused strictly on strategic -- not policy -- issues of nuclear combat. Command staff members have unrivaled expertise in the usage and effects of nuclear weapons, but their expertise does not extend to the whys of weapons usage.
Entrusting major policy reviews to tightly controlled, secret organizations inside the Pentagon is a hallmark of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure. Doing so streamlines decision-making and encourages new thinking, advocates say.
But it also bypasses dissenters, many of whom are those in the armed services with the most knowledge and the deepest experience with the issues. The Bush inner circle is known to be a tight bunch, prone to "group think" about Iraq and uninterested in having its assumptions challenged. But there are opinions they need to hear. While most military officers seem to consider the likelihood of our using nuclear weapons in Iraq to be low, they worry about the increased importance placed on them and about the contradictions inherent in contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
The administration's interest in nuclear contingency plans stems from its deeply held conviction that the United States must act against Iraq because of a new and more dangerous terrorist threat involving weapons of mass destruction.
"The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology," Bush declared in the introduction to his national security strategy, issued last fall. It said enemies of the United States "have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction."
In May, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, officially confirming the doctrine of preemptively thwarting any potential use of weapons of mass destruction.
"U.S. military and appropriate civilian agencies must possess the full range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use of WMD," the president reiterated last December in his National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The current nuclear planning, revealed in interviews with military officers and described in documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, is being carried out at STRATCOM's Omaha headquarters, among small teams in Washington and at Vice President Dick Cheney's "undisclosed location" in Pennsylvania.
The command, previously responsible for nuclear weapons alone, has seen its responsibilities mushroom. On Dec. 11, the Defense secretary sent Bush a memorandum asking for authority to place Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., the STRATCOM commander, in charge of the full range of "strategic" warfare options to combat terrorist states and organizations.
The memo, obtained by The Times, recommended assigning all responsibilities for dealing with foreign weapons of mass destruction, including "global strike; integrated missile defense; [and] information operations" to STRATCOM. That innocuous-seeming description of responsibilities covers enormous ground, bringing everything from the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear strikes to covert and special operations to cyber warfare and "strategic deception" under the purview of nuclear warriors.
Earlier this month, Bush approved Rumsfeld's proposal. On the surface, these new assignments give the command a broader set of tools to avoid nuclear escalation. In reality, they open the door much wider to contemplating American use of nuclear weapons. The use of biological or chemical weapons against the U.S. military could be seen as worthy of the same response as a Russian nuclear attack. If Iraq were to use biological or chemical weapons during a war with the United States, it could have tragic consequences, but it would not alter the war's outcome. Our use of nuclear weapons to defeat Hussein, on the other hand, has the potential to create a political and global disaster, one that would forever pit the Arab and Islamic world against us.
How great a change these steps represent are revealed in the fact that STRATCOM owes its existence to previous post-Cold War policymakers who considered it vital to erect a great firewall between nuclear and conventional forces.
Now, with almost no discussion inside the Pentagon or in public, Rumsfeld and the Bush White House are tearing that firewall down. Instead of separating nuclear and conventional weapons, Rumsfeld is merging them in one command structure with a disturbingly simple mission: "If you can find that time-critical, key terrorist target or that weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile, and you have minutes rather than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach out and negate that threat to our nation half a world away?" Ellis asked in December.
The rapid transformation of Ellis' command reveals his answer to that rhetorical question. Since 9/11, Ellis and his command have been bombarded with new demands and responsibilities. First, the Pentagon's nuclear posture review, signed by Rumsfeld in December 2001 and issued in final form in early 2002, directed the military to reinvigorate its nuclear capability. STRATCOM was to play a leading role in that reinvigoration.
Among other things, the still-classified posture review said, "nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bioweapon facilities)."
The review called upon the military to develop "deliberate pre-planned and practiced missions" to attack WMD facilities, even if an enemy did not use nuclear weapons first against the United States or its allies.
According to STRATCOM documents and briefings, its newly created Theater Planning Activity has now taken on all aspects of assessing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons facilities worldwide. Planners have focused intelligence gathering and analysis on seven priority target nations (the "axis of evil" nations along with Syria, Libya, China and Russia) and have completed a detailed analysis of intelligence data available on all suspect sites. According to U.S. Central Command sources, a "Theater Nuclear Planning Document" for Iraq has been prepared for the administration and Central Command.
What worries many senior officials in the armed forces is not that the United States has a vast array of weapons or contingency plans for using them. The danger is that nuclear weapons -- locked away in a Pandora's box for more than half a century -- are being taken out of that lockbox and put on the shelf with everything else. While Pentagon leaders insist that does not mean they take nuclear weapons lightly, critics fear that removing the firewall and adding nuclear weapons to the normal option ladder makes their use more likely -- especially under a policy of preemption that says Washington alone will decide when to strike.
To make such a doctrine encompass nuclear weapons is to embrace a view that, sooner or later, will spread beyond the moral capitals of Washington and London to New Delhi and Islamabad, to Pyongyang and Baghdad, Beijing, Tel Aviv and to every nuclear nation of the future.
If that happens, the world will have become infinitely more dangerous than it was two years ago, when George W. Bush took the presidential oath of office.
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times