Beware of any newspaper story breathlessly reporting X when you know the paper would treat not-X as just as big a scoop. That’s the situation with the recent revelations about the Bush administration’s classified review of U.S. nuclear policy. The Los Angeles Times,which broke the story, ran it under the headline, “U.S. WORKS UP PLAN FOR USING NUCLEAR ARMS,” and its lead sentence said that the “Bush administration has directed the military to prepare contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against at least seven countries and to build smaller nuclear weapons for use in certain battlefield situations.” If the classified Pentagon document the LAT got hold of had revealed that there were no such plans, you know what the headline would have been: “U.S. IS UNPREPARED FOR NUCLEAR WAR.” And the lead sentence would be something like, “The Bush administration has not given the Pentagon any nuclear weapons guidance with respect to at least seven volatile countries, including Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya.”
But wait—there’s more. The LAT’s headline and opening sentences suggest that the creation of plans to use nuclear weapons against these seven countries is something completely new with the current administration. (The story waits until the 12th paragraph before conceding that because “the Clinton administration’s review is also classified, no specific contrast can be drawn.”) But the implication of wholesale novelty here is just false. U.S. military plans have, for instance, long contained specific scenarios in which nuclear weapons would be used against China or North Korea. Would you want it any other way? When the president looks across the Situation Room table at the chairman of the joint chiefs during a major military crisis with China and asks, “General, what are you going to do if they go nuclear?” you don’t want the response to be, “Gee, sir, I have no idea.”
So if targeting countries besides Russia with our nukes isn’t new or automatically bad, what about the other newly leaked details? The LAT reported high in its initial story that the document says nukes “could be used in three types of situations: against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack; in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; or ‘in the event of surprising military developments.’ ” The LAT suggested that this is a departure from prior policy because “U.S. policymakers have generally indicated that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states unless they were allied with nuclear powers.” The NYT similarly suggested that the Bush administration might not stick with what the paper called the “longstanding policy” of not using nuclear weapons against countries that don’t have them or nuclear-armed allies. There’s only one problem here: This hasn’t been the U.S. policy since at least 1997, when the Washington Post broke the story that a classified document issued by President Clinton stated that the use of chemical or biological weapons against American forces might draw a nuclear response from the United States.
And presumably this less restrictive nuclear posture goes back further still. Just before the Gulf War, the first President Bush wrote the following in a letter to Saddam Hussein: “The United States will not tolerate the use of chemical and biological weapons or the destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields and installations. Further, you will be held directly responsible for terrorist actions against any member of the coalition. The American people will demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable actions of this sort.” And by the way, most experts think such thinly veiled threats of nuclear retaliation were the main reason that, during Desert Storm, Hussein didn’t let loose with his weapons of mass destruction.
The other two possibilities mentioned in the Pentagon’s report—targets able to withstand nuclear attack and surprising military developments—are probably being recognized for the first time. That’s because they are relatively new trends among U.S. adversaries. The leaked report estimated that more than 70 nations have built underground military command and control facilities. As we learned in Tora Bora, these can withstand a tremendous pounding from conventional weapons. And the attacks of 9/11 are the clearest possible example of a surprising military development that was not deterred by our current conventional or nuclear arsenal. If U.S. scientists can design cleaner, more focused tactical nukes that could obliterate an al-Qaida in its caves without endangering anybody else, isn’t a policy that would let us develop them worth considering?
No one on the outside yet knows if the Bush administration is thinking along these lines or has some darker, more aggressive scheme in mind. The press seems to have jumped to the latter conclusion on the assumption that thinking more widely about nukes leads to using them more widely. But this view completely ignores the past 57 years, which have been both nuclear-research-intensive and nuclear-war-free. And it doesn’t give proper credit to the logic of deterrence—the logic that says a credible U.S. nuclear threat makes the world more stable. The LAT piece ended with a nuclear disarmament advocate saying the Bush review makes “nuclear weapons a tool for fighting a war, rather than deterring them.” But if the world is now populated by more powerfully armed enemies of the United States, and if they now operate from more facilities that confound our Cold War nuclear structure, then trying to improve on that structure could be stabilizing. It’s doing nothing in response that’s guaranteed to be destabilizing.