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[infowar.de] LAT: The Nuclear Option in Iraq (W. Arkin)
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The Nuclear Option in Iraq
The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon.
By William M. Arkin
January 26 2003
WASHINGTON -- One year after President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran
and North Korea the "axis of evil," the United States is thinking
about the unthinkable: It is preparing for the possible use of nuclear
weapons against Iraq.
At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside
planning cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, target lists are being
scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being
tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of
According to multiple sources close to the process, the current
planning focuses on two possible roles for nuclear weapons:
* attacking Iraqi facilities located so deep underground that they
might be impervious to conventional explosives;
* thwarting Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction.
Nuclear weapons have, since they were first created, been part of
the arsenal discussed by war planners. But the Bush administration's
decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such
weapons, especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq
represents a significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites
the ground rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism.
It also moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special
category and lumps them in with all the other military options -- from
psychological warfare, covert operations and Special Forces to air
power in all its other forms.
For the United States to lower the nuclear threshold and break down
the firewall separating nuclear weapons from everything else is
unsettling for at least three reasons.
First, if the United States lowers the nuclear threshold -- even as a
possibility -- it raises the likelihood that other nations will lower their
own thresholds and employ nuclear weapons in situations where
they simply need a stronger military punch. Until now, the United
States has reserved nuclear weapons for retaliation against nuclear
attacks or immediate threats to national survival, a standard tacitly
but widely accepted around the world. If the president believes that
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses that kind of danger to the
United States, he has failed to convince the world -- and many U.S.
Second, the move toward thinking of nuclear weapons as just one
more option among many comes at a time when technology is
offering a host of better choices. Increasingly, the U.S. military has
the capability of disabling underground bases or destroying
biological and chemical weapons without uncorking the nuclear
bottle, through a combination of sophisticated airpower, special
operations and such 21st century capabilities as high-powered
microwave weapons and cyber warfare.
Third, there are dangers in concentrating the revision of nuclear
policy within a single military command, STRATCOM, which until
now has been focused strictly on strategic -- not policy -- issues of
nuclear combat. Command staff members have unrivaled expertise
in the usage and effects of nuclear weapons, but their expertise
does not extend to the whys of weapons usage.
Entrusting major policy reviews to tightly controlled, secret
organizations inside the Pentagon is a hallmark of Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's tenure. Doing so streamlines
decision-making and encourages new thinking, advocates say.
But it also bypasses dissenters, many of whom are those in the
armed services with the most knowledge and the deepest
experience with the issues. The Bush inner circle is known to be a
tight bunch, prone to "group think" about Iraq and uninterested in
having its assumptions challenged. But there are opinions they need
to hear. While most military officers seem to consider the likelihood
of our using nuclear weapons in Iraq to be low, they worry about the
increased importance placed on them and about the contradictions
inherent in contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for the
purpose of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
The administration's interest in nuclear contingency plans stems
from its deeply held conviction that the United States must act
against Iraq because of a new and more dangerous terrorist threat
involving weapons of mass destruction.
"The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of
radicalism and technology," Bush declared in the introduction to his
national security strategy, issued last fall. It said enemies of the
United States "have openly declared that they are seeking weapons
of mass destruction."
In May, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17,
officially confirming the doctrine of preemptively thwarting any
potential use of weapons of mass destruction.
"U.S. military and appropriate civilian agencies must possess the full
range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use of
WMD," the president reiterated last December in his National
Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The current nuclear planning, revealed in interviews with military
officers and described in documents reviewed by the Los Angeles
Times, is being carried out at STRATCOM's Omaha headquarters,
among small teams in Washington and at Vice President Dick
Cheney's "undisclosed location" in Pennsylvania.
The command, previously responsible for nuclear weapons alone,
has seen its responsibilities mushroom. On Dec. 11, the Defense
secretary sent Bush a memorandum asking for authority to place
Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., the STRATCOM commander, in charge of
the full range of "strategic" warfare options to combat terrorist states
The memo, obtained by The Times, recommended assigning all
responsibilities for dealing with foreign weapons of mass destruction,
including "global strike; integrated missile defense; [and] information
operations" to STRATCOM. That innocuous-seeming description of
responsibilities covers enormous ground, bringing everything from
the use of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear strikes to covert and
special operations to cyber warfare and "strategic deception" under
the purview of nuclear warriors.
Earlier this month, Bush approved Rumsfeld's proposal. On the
surface, these new assignments give the command a broader set of
tools to avoid nuclear escalation. In reality, they open the door much
wider to contemplating American use of nuclear weapons. The use
of biological or chemical weapons against the U.S. military could be
seen as worthy of the same response as a Russian nuclear attack. If
Iraq were to use biological or chemical weapons during a war with
the United States, it could have tragic consequences, but it would
not alter the war's outcome. Our use of nuclear weapons to defeat
Hussein, on the other hand, has the potential to create a political and
global disaster, one that would forever pit the Arab and Islamic world
How great a change these steps represent are revealed in the fact
that STRATCOM owes its existence to previous post-Cold War
policymakers who considered it vital to erect a great firewall
between nuclear and conventional forces.
Now, with almost no discussion inside the Pentagon or in public,
Rumsfeld and the Bush White House are tearing that firewall down.
Instead of separating nuclear and conventional weapons, Rumsfeld
is merging them in one command structure with a disturbingly simple
mission: "If you can find that time-critical, key terrorist target or that
weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile, and you have minutes rather
than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach out and negate
that threat to our nation half a world away?" Ellis asked in
The rapid transformation of Ellis' command reveals his answer to
that rhetorical question. Since 9/11, Ellis and his command have
been bombarded with new demands and responsibilities. First, the
Pentagon's nuclear posture review, signed by Rumsfeld in
December 2001 and issued in final form in early 2002, directed the
military to reinvigorate its nuclear capability. STRATCOM was to
play a leading role in that reinvigoration.
Among other things, the still-classified posture review said, "nuclear
weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand
nonnuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or
The review called upon the military to develop "deliberate pre-
planned and practiced missions" to attack WMD facilities, even if an
enemy did not use nuclear weapons first against the United States or
According to STRATCOM documents and briefings, its newly
created Theater Planning Activity has now taken on all aspects of
assessing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons facilities
worldwide. Planners have focused intelligence gathering and
analysis on seven priority target nations (the "axis of evil" nations
along with Syria, Libya, China and Russia) and have completed a
detailed analysis of intelligence data available on all suspect sites.
According to U.S. Central Command sources, a "Theater Nuclear
Planning Document" for Iraq has been prepared for the
administration and Central Command.
What worries many senior officials in the armed forces is not that the
United States has a vast array of weapons or contingency plans for
using them. The danger is that nuclear weapons -- locked away in a
Pandora's box for more than half a century -- are being taken out of
that lockbox and put on the shelf with everything else. While
Pentagon leaders insist that does not mean they take nuclear
weapons lightly, critics fear that removing the firewall and adding
nuclear weapons to the normal option ladder makes their use more
likely -- especially under a policy of preemption that says
Washington alone will decide when to strike.
To make such a doctrine encompass nuclear weapons is to embrace
a view that, sooner or later, will spread beyond the moral capitals of
Washington and London to New Delhi and Islamabad, to Pyongyang
and Baghdad, Beijing, Tel Aviv and to every nuclear nation of the
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