Nuclear deterrence works, so why abandon it in Iraq?

March 21, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - I was not alarmed to read the news, leaked to the press last week, that the Bush administration has ordered the Pentagon to make plans for the use of nuclear weapons against countries that attack us with weapons of mass destruction. What alarmed me is that no one has explained it to President Bush.

The possibility the United States might answer a non-nuclear attack with a nuclear strike was said to represent a sudden and dangerous change. In fact, as Scott Shuger notes in the online magazine Slate, it's been American policy for years. In 1997, The Washington Post uncovered a classified directive issued by President Clinton "that would permit U.S. nuclear strikes after enemy attacks using chemical or biological weapons." During the Cold War, Washington let it be known that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe might spawn mushroom clouds over Moscow.

The reason for preserving this option is obvious and sensible: to deter our enemies from attacking and killing Americans. We used to stockpile chemical and biological weapons, not because we expected to use them but to discourage our enemies from doing so. But long ago we agreed to destroy those munitions. So our chief deterrent today has to be the only weapons of mass destruction left to us - nuclear ones.

The main change evident in the administration's Nuclear Posture Review is that we might develop small nukes to destroy underground complexes of the sort used by al-Qaida in Afghanistan. North Korea and some 70 other countries are believed to have put command and control operations in such facilities, which they hope will be impervious to conventional bombs. Tucked away in a subterranean bunker, an aggressor like Saddam Hussein might get the idea he could carry out a horrific attack on New York, Washington or Tel Aviv and live to tell the tale. An earth-penetrating nuke would make it clear there are no hiding places.

In his March 13 news conference, President Bush defended this strategy. "The reason one has a nuclear arsenal is to serve as a deterrence," he declared. "We've got all options on the table, because we want to make it very clear that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends."

The chief purpose of nuclear weapons, unlike other arms, is not to destroy but to deter. They serve to keep the peace by raising the cost of war beyond anyone's willingness to pay. They neutralize our enemies' weapons of mass destruction by rendering their use suicidal.

It's possible for aggressor states to imagine they could win or at least survive a conventional conflict with the United States - as Iraq did in the Persian Gulf war, and as North Vietnam and North Korea did earlier. But there's no way for them to envision a happy ending after an American president presses the nuclear button.

Mr. Bush and his subordinates understand all this, which is why they refuse to renounce the use of nuclear weapons if we're attacked. But at the same time they affirm the logic of deterrence, they deny that it has any relevance to Iraq. The administration has made it clear that it wants Mr. Hussein gone and is considering military action to remove him.

Asked about that prospect at the same news conference, Mr. Bush denounced Mr. Hussein's Iraq as "a nation which has gassed her people in the past, a nation which has weapons of mass destruction and apparently is not afraid to use them." He went on: "He is a problem. And we're going to deal with him."

But why do we need to eliminate Mr. Hussein to prevent him from using weapons of mass destruction? He had chemical and biological weapons during the gulf war, but he tamely accepted defeat without using them. Why? Because - unlike when he used them against his own people - he was afraid of cataclysmic retaliation.

Before the war, you see, President George H.W. Bush informed Mr. Hussein by letter, "The United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons. ... Further, you will be held directly responsible for terrorist actions against any member of the coalition. The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort." Mr. Hussein knew a nuclear threat when he saw it, and he had no interest in testing its sincerity.

Experiences like that one are the basis of the younger President Bush's policy on nuclear weapons, which is that if we are attacked with weapons of mass destruction, those responsible will cease to exist. I'm convinced that's a sensible, proven way to safeguard our peace and security. When is the president going to come around?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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