- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

A nuclear cloud has descended over the world.Is it 1) The recent revelation that North Korea might not just have attained fissile materials in the 1990s but actually developed one or two nuclear weapons?
(2) The continuing uncertainty about Iraq's nuclear program in the absence of inspectors?
(3) The persistent fears of al Qaeda managing to detonate a nuke in the United States?
No, it's the Bush administration, which in the words of the New York Times is making America a "nuclear rogue," potentially "menacing to the security of future American generations."
Welcome to the latest hyperbolic liberal complaint about the Bush administration and nuclear- and arms-control policy supposedly threatening world security.
Not too long ago, the charge was that by withdrawing from the ABM treaty, the administration was risking a new Cold War, an arms race with China, the upset of the nuclear "balance of terror" and other consequences too awful (and vague) to spell out in any detail.
Well, that was six months ago, and the world has moved on. No one even seems to remember the poor Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty anymore (it's so "August 2001").
The new threat is the so-called Nuclear Posture Review, which contemplates a drastically scaled-down U.S. nuclear force, but one more focused perhaps with new warheads designed specifically for the task on confronting rogue states like Iraq and North Korea.
This is prompting outrage: How dare the United States move beyond the Cold War and even consider developing weapons better suited to the new era.
The Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction relied on the "balance of terror," on the willingness of the United States and the Soviet Union to hold their populations hostage.
Any highly accurate or earth-penetrating weapon that instead would have been effective against specific military targets was considered "destabilizing" a "war-fighting" weapon rather than a weapon of generalized terror.
Now the age of the huge several-hundred-kiloton hydrogen bomb should be behind us. Instead, there is a new threat requiring a new weapon.
North Korea, Russia, China, Iraq and other countries all have a new appreciation for the bunker mentality burying weapons and command sites deep underground.
Some are so deep they are invulnerable to conventional weapons. "From the public record, I don't know of any non-nuclear way of dealing with this underground threat promptly and conclusively," says nuclear expert Keith Payne.
Which leaves nuclear weapons specifically, a highly accurate, low-yield nuke designed to burrow deep underground and reduce fallout. In contrast to Cold War nukes, this one would be designed to minimize civilian casualties and destroy a very narrow target.
What's not to like?
Oddly enough, in their famous 1983 letter on nuclear weapons, the U.S. Catholic bishops opposed making nukes more accurate. This would seem to be in direct contradiction to the Just War Theory, which emphasizes "discrimination" in order to minimize civilian casualties.
The bishops' spirits live on in 1994 congressional language prohibiting the United States from "research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon, including a precision low-yield warhead."
And it lives on, too, in the howling over the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review.
During last year's debate over the now-forgotten ABM Treaty, arms-controllers made nice sounds about deterrence (who needs missile defense when you have deterrence?).
But deterrence depends on credibility.
So long as the U.S. arsenal is chock-full of outdated weapons that can only cause indiscriminate damage and mass civilian casualties it doesn't seem credible we will use them, and so their deterrent value is lost.
Which is exactly the way arms-controllers like it the U.S. arsenal becomes, in effect, irrelevant.
The liberal complaint about a low-yield nuke is exactly that, in the words of Congress in 1994, it would "blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war." Or, as a Federation of American Scientists report puts it, "adding low-yield warheads to the world's nuclear inventory simply makes their eventual use more likely."
Actually, that's not true: It makes their use seem more plausible, which in turn makes their use less likely.
So long as the United States doesn't possess a low-yield penetrator, rogue-state leaders are able to have, in effect, a safe haven for themselves and their weapons of mass destruction.
If they knew they didn't have any such protection, it might deter them from threatening or attacking the United States in the first place. This is how deterrence works.
But deterrence also fails, in which case a low-yield penetrator might be necessary to pre-empt an imminent attack or to retaliate against one by, say, hitting all of Saddam Hussein's command bunkers.
After all, no matter what the New York Times says, he's the rogue, not the United States. We should have every possible tool at our disposal to deter and defeat him.

Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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