Sunday, April 23, 2006

First strike

Gary Farber, in comments to the previous post, took issue with my characterization of this administration's adoption of a first-strike nuclear policy as new:

[This] actually goes back to every National Security Directive since the invention of the bomb. ... There was never a credible threat against the Soviet Union without it, was the rationale. Thus, without it, no deterrence against their going through the Fulda Gap....

This is not the understanding of many professional observers of U.S. nuclear and military doctrine. It is true that U.S. national security policy since the 1940s has continuously given a central place to the possession of nuclear weapons and the willingness to use them in retaliation against attack. That stated willingness is what was supposed to give credibility to the deterrent effect of our nuclear arsenal. However, U.S. national security doctrine has never, until recently, officially countenanced the use of nuclear weapons against countries or entities that have not attacked us.

Key members of the Bush administration, in particular Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, came into office intending to change the U.S. nuclear and conventional security strategy in the direction of first strike. Donald Rumsfeld has advocated "missile defense" and weaponizing space for most of his career, in order to give the United States first-strike capacities not available to any other country. The 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document, drawn up by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby at the request of then-Defense Secretary Cheney, and the Project for a New American Century's 'Rebuilding America's Defenses' paper of 2000 both argue for this change. The spring 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (mandated by Congress in 2000) was written by adherents of the Cheney-Rumsfeld viewpoint.

The analysis of that 2002 NPR by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation was that "it suggests a shift in U.S. nuclear use doctrine":

The role of nuclear weapons has always been to deter an attack by a nuclear-armed adversary, and to retaliate as a last resort. Furthermore, the U.S. pledges not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPR reflects a noticeable shift in these long-standing policies. First, it suggests that nuclear weapons could be used in a pre-emptive first strike "against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities)."

Second, the NPR requires the U.S. nuclear force to be able to respond to immediate or unexpected contingencies involving North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, all of which are members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (although some of these countries are not members in good standing.) These contingencies suggest that the U.S. may be the first country to use nuclear weapons in a future conventional conflict.
[my emphasis]

Contrast this with the analysis of the Center for Defense Information of a previous Nuclear Posture Review, in September 1994, which emphasizes the deliberate ambiguity about occasions for use, but cites no language at all that envisions a situation in which the U.S. employs nuclear weapons as anything other than a reaction to an attack (though not necessarily a nuclear attack).

The current administration's September 2002 National Security Strategy document is an explicit statement that U.S. war policy now includes "preventive" war, military strikes against a perceived threat rather than in response to any actual attack. This policy was put into effect in the invasion of Iraq.

Now, there is clear evidence that this aggressive approach to conventional military action is broadening to include the use of nuclear weapons. William Arkin, a veteran defense reporter, wrote in June 2005 for the front page of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section:

In the secret world of military planning, global strike has become the term of art to describe a specific preemptive attack. When military officials refer to global strike, they stress its conventional elements.

Surprisingly, however, global strike also includes a nuclear option, which runs counter to traditional U.S. notions about the defensive role of nuclear weapons. The official U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons has not changed.

This passage implies that up until now, U.S. nuclear posture has been defensive, not first strike (preventive/preemptive). The main point of Arkin's opinion piece was his call for open discussion of this new policy, exactly because it was new, before it became official and permanent.

And that official U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons is in the process of changing. Walter Pincus reported last September:

The Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to use them to preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction. The draft also includes the option of using nuclear arms to destroy known enemy stockpiles of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

The document, written by the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs staff but not yet finally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would update rules and procedures governing use of nuclear weapons to reflect a preemption strategy first announced by the Bush White House in December 2002. The strategy was outlined in more detail at the time in classified national security directives.

Pincus' story ran on the front page, so the Post clearly considered it news, i.e., a change from existing nuclear doctrine. I have not seen anyone report since that Rumsfeld has signed off on the new nuclear posture, to make it technically official. But in practice the new posture has already taken effect, since Bush has refused to rule out nuclear weapons use in a first-strike attack on Iran.

Finally, the reaction of physicists around the world reinforces the view that something is changing:

A proposed change in U.S. nuclear weapons policy has exploded into a controversy between the Bush Administration and physicists worldwide. Sixteen faculty members of the MIT physics department have joined over a thousand physicists in signing a petition repudiating a Pentagon proposal that would “foresee pre-emptive nuclear strikes against non-nuclear adversaries.”

Everyone quoted in the article, including people who have declined to sign the petition, sees the Bush policy as a significant departure. Theodore Postol articulates the nature and implications of the change:

Postol said he believes the new policy “tremendously stimulates” states to develop nuclear weapons. “It will cause countries to reconsider their nuclear status. “The only way to prevent preemptive attacks is to develop arms” to deter these attacks, Postol said. ... He pointed out differences in perception towards attacking Iraq and North Korea as proof that possessing nuclear weapons can deter U.S. preemptive attacks.

Postol said that the U.S. has always been ambiguous about its nuclear first-strike policy because it serves the purpose of a deterrent.

Of course this country has always had the ability to launch a nuclear first strike. We are the only country ever to use nuclear weapons at all. But since the end of World War II, it has never been our stated policy to strike first.

Until now.



At 1:26 PM, April 29, 2006, Blogger CathiefromCanada said...

Just one comment -- histories of the Vietnam War have indicated that it was only the strength of the anti-war movement that prevented Nixon from using nuclear weapons to "win" in Vietnam -- from what I have read, Nixon was very close to agreeing with the generals who were so desperate to turn things around that they thought nuclear weapons would somehow do it, but the anti-war protests in the fall of 1969 made Nixon realize that the people would never support such action.
Unfortunately, the United States now has a president who doesn't care what people think. Scary.

At 5:58 PM, April 29, 2006, Anonymous Jon said...


This isn't something I know a lot about, but I believe Gary Farber is right. We never explicitly disavowed using nuclear weapons first, even though the Soviets did (probably disingenuously). And of course on several occasions we made serious plans to use nuclear weapons first, both against nuclear and non-nuclear states.

So, I think, what's new about Bush isn't as much the underlying strategy, but the openness with which they state it.

I could say more, but that would require actually researching this and knowing what I'm talking about. And that must be avoided at all costs.

At 6:28 PM, April 29, 2006, Blogger Nell said...

Cathie, I'm as scared as I've ever been about this gang in power. No amount of cynicism seems to be enough...

Jon, LOL! As an activist, I've always been far more deeply involved in anti-intervention work than in anti-nuke-war issues. So I don't have enough background to be sure of my ground on this, either. But the way that journalists and people who follow these issues for a living are talking makes it sound as if something has changed.

As you say (and as is the case with U.S. torture), the difference may simply be the open advocacy, rather than the actual willingness in practice to launch a first strike.

At 1:57 PM, May 03, 2006, Blogger janinsanfran said...

One of the unhappy results of decades of activism against US-initiated atrocities has been losing any belief in any pronouncement by a US government. So it may come as news to us in some sense that the government proclaims an intent to use nukes in a first strike against a non-nuclear state -- but on the other hand, many of us, including I'm sure Nell, have long known that in our guts.

The problem becomes, how to go on struggling against a system which habitually lies and distorts and simply absorbs and vomits up the true implications of its claims. The only answer I find is that we literally have no alternative but to keep trying to rein this insanity in.

At 6:04 PM, September 04, 2009, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

Just noticing this (in the course of wondering what the label "the big I" means). I rather agree with Gary.

While there may even be formal statements to the effect (I believe there were during the MX missile debate), the main evidence is simply the kinds of weapons development the US always pressed forward with: MIRVs (=multiple warheads on a single missile) and high accuracy.

Neither development was necessary for threatening retaliatory strikes where, to put it awfully and bluntly, all you need to do is hit the right zip code; both were highly necessary if the goal is to knock out the other side and have weapons left over. (This was why I was quite active in the nuclear freeze movement once upon a time.)

It's as if Israel decided to announce that yes, it has nuclear weapons: nothing would have *really* changed, it had them all along.

All that said, it was disturbing news because of the openness of the threat following an era when nukes were all but forgotten, and because *this* first strike threat was much more credible: it was no longer aimed at a superpower that could retaliate in devastating fashion even if 90% of its nuclear weapons were destroyed. (In this respect, Star Wars was also a first strike weapon in development: simple arithmetic shows any such system would be much more successful in suppressing a ragged retaliatory strike than an overwhelming Soviet first strike.)


Post a Comment

<< Home