Nuclear arms: give and take

June 01, 2000|By Matthew Miller

LAME DUCK Bill Clinton may be off to see new Russian President Vladimir Putin this weekend, but any hope for eventual escape from today's nuclear madness may now rest with Gov. George W. Bush, who stunned the policy community the other day with a call for unilateral nuclear reductions well beyond those the White House has dithered over for eight years.

Governor Bush's bold surprise in a speech last week assures that America's outdated nuclear strategy will be a campaign issue and in ways that confound the usual ideological lineups. Jonathan Schell, the liberal author and activist who's helped lead the movement to abolish nuclear weapons for 15 years, told me Governor Bush's initiative "has the potential to be a major breakthrough."

The Texas governor's statement that today's bloated arsenals are "unneeded" and the "relics of dead conflicts" is "exactly right," Mr. Schell says. "It's amazing that it took 10 years [after the Cold War ended] for a major presidential contender to say it," he adds. "That a Republican says it is extremely hopeful."

Governor Bush said he'd pursue "the lowest possible number" of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security. Taking a page from his father's unilateral removal of "tactical" (shorter range) nuclear weapons from the force in 1991 -- a move Mikhail Gorbachev mimicked within months -- Governor Bush said he'd take U.S. forces to his desired level and urge Russia to follow.

"These changes ... should not require years and years of detailed arms control negotiations," Governor Bush argued. Echoing arms experts in both parties, he said he'd also take our forces off hair-trigger alert, which the Republican candidate said "may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch."

To be sure, Governor Bush's evolving nuclear policy isn't all good news. He coupled his call for deeper weapons cuts with a pledge to build a vaguely bigger missile defense than President Clinton has discussed. This is a problem. Even after $60 billion spent, the technology is wildly unproven. Yet if it works, that might be worse. A functional missile defense seems sure to prompt Russia and especially China to add enough new nuclear weapons to overwhelm it and thus preserve their deterrent. Governor Bush's plan, therefore, looks internally incoherent.

As Mr. Schell told me, "defenses without the commitment and reality of nuclear disarmament can ... torpedo all existing arms control agreements and propel us toward a sort of nuclear anarchy."

Still, Governor Bush's ideas are intriguing enough to begin an overdue debate, which made Vice President Al Gore's instant condemnation of the plan as "risky and irresponsible" predictably disappointing. Can't these guys freshen up the demagoguery even a little?

The question that Mr. Gore, who prides himself on his nuclear expertise, needs to answer is this: Why has his administration been so mired in old think that it hasn't discussed taking our nuclear forces down more dramatically this long after the Cold War? Defense Secretary William Cohen's response -- which boils down to the notion that current plans to take both sides down to 3,000 nuclear weapons is pretty darned impressive -- will seem to our grandchildren stunningly complacent.

Then again, maybe that's the kind of confusion you'd expect from a man who says that if Bush advisers like Dick Cheney and Colin Powell get a briefing from the Clinton Pentagon they'll see the folly of their fantasies.

At the same time, Governor Bush must explain how he squares his call for deeper cuts with what Russia and China will view as his provocative ambitions for missile defense. The best hope is that despite his "my defense is bigger than Clinton's" rhetoric, Governor Bush would go for a limited, lower cost plan to combat a handful of rogue states that could even be shared (or jointly operated) with Russia and China.

But look what's happening. First Social Security. Now nuclear policy. And it's barely June. Maybe this won't be such an unedifying presidential campaign after all.

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist and his e-mail address is

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