The nuclear `posture' of a rogue superpower

March 18, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - The month began with a blast from the past: Richard Nixon talking on tape to Henry Kissinger. The president was goading the secretary of state to expand his wartime horizons: "I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. ... Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sake."

No one knows if Mr. Nixon was being provocative or serious. But the verbal nuclear exchange cut through all the Nixon-as-statesman gloss, reminding us just how dangerous the man was. Just how dangerous the times were.

Now we have another nuclear alert to the danger of our own times. The danger of our own military-executive complex and of a war without protest.

The alert is embedded in the "nuclear posture review," a title that sounds as benign as yoga.

Our new "posture," it appears, is to stand tall, to think big, to think the unthinkable. The Bush administration has asked the military to design plans for mini-nukes, bunker-shattering nukes, nukes to be used in retaliation and also "in the event of surprising military developments."

The posture, exposed by the Los Angeles Times, even comes equipped with a black list. Seven countries warrant contingency plans of their own, a potential hit list that ranges from China to Iran, from the new axis of evil to the old evil empire.

In a megaton understatement, a nuclear arms expert called this report "dynamite." The Mirror, a British tabloid, blared, "Let's Nuke 'Em All," and London's Evening Standard said, "Bush Plays at Dr. Strangelove."

But in America, the news hardly interrupted the six-month anniversary ceremonies and barely shook the people whose determined confidence in the president is still polling in the stratospheric 80th percentile. Indeed, even Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said, in the spirit of the new political correctness, "Frankly, I don't mind [if] some of these renegade nations ... think twice about the willingness of the United States to take action ..."

It's now six months since the day when, as we say, everything changed. The day the towers fell and the Pentagon was attacked, the ranks closed against the enemy. There was only one thing to do, and the president did it.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, most of the old doves and old hawks looked like birds of a feather. Among 1,200 Harvard undergraduates polled, 75 percent trusted the military to do the right thing most or all of the time.

Americans signed up for the duration, even those of us who know that violence is, by its very nature, uncontrollable. We didn't check our consciences at the recruiting table, but when Afghan civilians were killed by our bombs, well, it was inevitable, wasn't it? When we hit the wrong convoy, well, that was war and its snafus. When some of our allies in the war to liberate women turned to raping Taliban women, we sadly noted collateral damage.

But war, with all its fear and anger, its desire for protection and longing for a good leader, can silence dissent and debate. That in turn can unleash new unchecked "postures" before the world.

War is now the cover story for funding a missile defense system. War is the cover story for drilling in the Alaskan refuge. And war is now the cover story for a new nuclear scenario with a doomsday terror of its own.

It's something of a miracle that we made it through the past half-century without a single nuclear weapon used by us or against us. During this time, Mr. Nixon be damned, the assumption was that we would use our arsenal only as a deterrence and retaliation against nuclear attack.

But let's be clear. Mini-nukes, bunker-nukes, nukes-to-use would destroy the firebreak between nuclear and conventional weapons. They would send a message to other nations. As Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists says, "If the world's greatest military power, with all its conventional weapons, needs to use nuclear weapons, doesn't everyone else?"

Nuclear war and nuclear winter become more likely if our country becomes a rogue superpower.

The administration calls this a mere "contingency" plan. Colin Powell, the comforter in the Cabinet, reassures us "we should not all get carried away." But this is, as they say in the emergency radio announcements, "a test."

Is our fear so great we can do nothing but follow the leader? Is our definition of patriotism so narrow that it doesn't include dissent or dispute? What is the public's posture? Supine?

At the risk of echoing that rogue president of my youth, this is the time to think big. And to say no.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. She can be reached via e-mail at

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