- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

The nuclear threat is back. Saddam Hussein is projected to have a nuclear capability by 2005; he may use it not for deterrence but rather detonations. This is driving current U.S. policy toward Iraq. But the nuclear threat to U.S. security is not limited to Saddam or even the "axis of evil" committed to developing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. Elsewhere, the risks of an India-Pakistan nuclear conflict go far beyond the damage it could do to the peoples of the subcontinent. The threat is not limited to those being targeted.

The United States has an interest in maintaining the de facto taboo on nuclear use that has emerged and endured since Nagasaki. While the weapons of modern states (and terrorists) can inflict painful losses, only nuclear weapons can today reliably threaten large-scale devastation. It is in the interest of the United States to see that nuclear weapons are as rare as possible and that they remain unused.

Conventional threats, however elusive or difficult, can be addressed conventionally. To maintain the nuclear firebreak, the United States has not currently pursued nuclear weapons options for war-fighting rather than deterrence. The United States has left designs for nuclear weapons designed to counteract difficult targets hardened and deeply buried installations or incoming ballistic missiles with countermeasures in research and development. To maintain the taboo, the United States does not have a declaratory strategy of using nuclear weapons against those that conduct a biological weapons attack against our forces. Unless deterrence appears assured, better to let aggressors deal with uncertainty.

However, Saddam may try and have his nuclear use in the end if not as aggressor, then as target. Testimony in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 31 projected that a desperate Saddam might launch his residual ballistic missile force at Israel with biological weapon payloads in an attempt to provoke an apocalyptic retaliation, leaving any democratic Iraqi successor with ashes, bitterness and radioactivity. Defeated dictators in their final bunker are not deterrable; they want to take their populations with them. American policy is aimed at preventing them from having the opportunity.

The United States not just professional strategists needs to think about how the world will change if or when the nuclear taboo is broken, whether by Iraqis, Israelis, terrorists or an India-Pakistan conflict. A return to business as usual is unlikely to be a viable policy option once the nuclear genie has been released. Will we be able to maintain nuclear non-proliferation as a viable policy goal? This may be especially difficult if nuclear use is seen to be "successful." The United States will need to help ensure that it is in position in the next few years to counter a post-nuclear rush toward proliferation. We are unlikely to have the luxury of time to put together a response after nuclear weapons are used.

Will nuclear use make nuclear war-fighting more thinkable and hence make U.S. nuclear weapons vital for more than deterring potential future rivalries from Russia and China? The United States, following the most recent round of strategic arms reduction with Russia, wants to keep considerable numbers of nuclear warheads in storage rather than destroying them. This may be a way of reconciling the goal of a reduced U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear balance while still retaining enough nuclear weapons to overawe potential competitors. The United States will likely need to develop a broad spectrum of new policies to maintain the viability of the current goal of limiting nuclear proliferation, if the utility of nuclear weapons has been demonstrated by combat use.

The United States today uses the spectrum of policy tools bilateral and multilateral to show potential nuclear proliferators that they will have less, rather than more, security if they build a nuclear capability. The 1994 agreement with North Korea was intended to apply this approach to that member of the "axis of evil." Saddam has seemingly rejected any approach short of the use of force to check his nuclear ambitions. It is certainly in the U.S. interest that nuclear weapons be limited, but also that they remain unused. For, if they are used, among the many things the United States will have to build afresh is a new approach to counter nuclear proliferation. That means we will have to have the tools conceptual as well as actual ready in advance.

David C. Isby is a Washington-based national security consultant and author.

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