Powell Quiets Fears Of Bush’s Nuke Talk

“A nuclear bomb. Would that bother you?”

With those few words, Richard Nixon casually brought up the subject of nuking North Vietnam in 1972, during a conversation with Henry Kissinger about escalating the war.

“That, I think, would just be too much,” said the careful courtier, whose own Cold War flirtation with the “unthinkable” may not have fully prepared him for Nixon’s mad musings.

“I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sakes,” Nixon grumbled, according to the recently released White House tapes.

Thirty years later, the old reprobate would be delighted that his political heirs in Washington are thinking really, really big. The Pentagon’s newly revised, secret-but-leaked “nuclear posture review” lists not just one or two, but at least seven nations that may conceivably qualify as targets for nuclear attack by the United States. The potential bull’s-eyes include not only the usual “axis of evil”–also known as Iran, Iraq and North Korea–but Libya and Syria, as well as our “friends” in China and Russia.

Whatever the intended purpose of disseminating this ominous document on the eve of Vice President Dick Cheney’s trip abroad, the instant result was predictably destructive. Worse yet may be the effects of a unilateral return to the testing and deployment of new weapons, as the review suggests.

In Moscow, news that the United States still plans for nuclear war with Russia immediately embarrassed President Vladimir Putin, rendering him vulnerable to his most nationalistic and anti-American critics. His sudden humiliation was particularly incongruous following the announcement by the Russian and American governments of plans for a May summit. Having taken some political risks to accommodate Mr. Bush since last September, Mr. Putin must wonder why his reward feels more like punishment.

Elsewhere, our friends tried not to panic, while our enemies argued that the “posture” review provides fresh evidence of our malignant, imperialistic and inhumane character. (We know we aren’t like that, of course, but other people who don’t know us as well as we know ourselves– which includes several billion on this planet–aren’t quite so sure. They still recall that our leaders once dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilians.)

Hastening to reduce the diplomatic damage, Colin Powell pointed out that “conceptual planning” by the Pentagon doesn’t mean an imminent nuclear attack on any of the seven named nations (no, not even Iraq). Said the Secretary of State, a sane man whose job is to convince the world that crazies don’t control the White House, “We should not get all carried away with some sense that the United States is planning to use nuclear weapons in some contingency that is coming up in the near future. It is not the case.”

It was thoughtful of Mr. Powell to reassure us, but there is more to worry about than the prospect of Dubya suddenly going nuclear on his father’s old nemesis. Although Mr. Bush came into office proclaiming that he planned to reduce nuclear forces in tandem with Russia, and to prevent the further spread of such weapons, his administration’s attitudes encourage every self-respecting state to obtain and deploy nuclear arms.

The President and his policymakers have repeatedly expressed contempt for international arms-control treaties and regimes. They’ve announced the scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. They don’t care for the worldwide nonproliferation treaty or the chemical-weapons treaty, and they helped to defeat the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the Senate two years ago. Until very recently, they’ve displayed scant interest in safeguarding nuclear materials in Russia.

The dominant mind-set in the Bush White House was expressed by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who responded to concerns about the Pentagon review by saying, “No one should be surprised that the United States worries a great deal about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The only way to deter such a use is to be clear that it would be met with a devastating response.”

Ms. Rice should reread the government’s latest National Intelligence Estimate, where she would find that we are “more likely to be attacked with [weapons of mass destruction] using non-missile means” than by ballistic missiles traceable to an enemy state. Suitcase and truck bombs are “less expensive, more reliable and accurate, more effective for disseminating biological warfare agents … and would avoid missile defenses.” In short, we could be hit without knowing where to retaliate.

There is nothing inherently wrong with drawing up scenarios of all sorts; that is what we employ military strategists to do. And deterrence does provide real protection against rogue regimes. But what is dangerously wrong is to dismiss diplomacy, technology, aid and other nonmilitary aspects of defense. To behave as if there is no other means of self-protection except more and newer doomsday weapons is to sow the dragon’s teeth.

When he wasn’t drinking, even Richard Nixon understood that.