The US government is aiming at a nuclear 'strike-first policy' which could be directed against any potential adversary, writes Aziza Sami
The Bush administration is working towards the adoption of a new and aggressive nuclear policy which would widen the scope of its current arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and become an integral part the 'Bush Doctrine' of preemption devised in the wake of 11 September.
Cartoon by Ossama Qassim
The Republican-dominated Congress is consequently lobbying to secure increased funds for nuclear armament for the 2004 fiscal year. A report issued on 12 February by the House of Representatives Sub-Committee on National Security -- headed by Heather Wilson, the Republican Congresswoman from New Mexico -- requested an upgrade of the United States's nuclear stockpile, nuclear tests and ultimately, the production of new types of nuclear arms.
In a clear departure from the policies of non-proliferation and containment adopted in the aftermath of the Cold War, the report explicitly calls for "repealing the ban against research on low-yield nuclear weapons" which have less explosive power than the larger nuclear bombs currently in the US stockpile, and "increasing" the reliance on ballistic missiles defences. This last recommendation is in line with the position conventionally adopted by Republican hard-liners and President George W Bush, who has already intimated that the US will unilaterally withdraw from the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty -- signed in Moscow in May 1972 and ratified by the US Senate in August of the same year -- and rapidly move forward to deploy ballistic missile defences.
The report also recommends that the time frame provided for conducting underground nuclear tests, which is currently three years, be reduced to no more than 18 months, and possibly as little as 12 months.
It also advocates that the president should have the option to resort to the use of "conventional forces, precision conventional weapons and nuclear weapons that are capable of [holding] all targets at risk".
In late February, a leaked Pentagon document also indicated that the Bush administration was working towards a new nuclear build-up, and lifting a long-standing moratorium on the production of WMDs.
According to the document, a report of which appeared in the British daily The Guardian, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to hold secret meetings in August to discuss the possible resumption of nuclear testing and the construction of a new generation of WMDs. These will include "mini-nukes", "bunker-busters" and "neutron bombs".
This propensity to blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, has already been criticised within Congress.
A group of congressmen, led by Senator George Kennedy, addressed a letter to President Bush expressing their concern at reports that the Pentagon will resort to the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq should the latter engage in biological or chemical warfare.
The congressmen specifically referred to the potential use of nuclear arms to destroy "underground targets", which could include enemy leaders or stocks of WMDs buried deep underground.
Criticism has also been voiced by a group of prominent scientists who participated in a 1966 Pentagon study known as "the Jason Report".
The report, which remains unpopular with the Pentagon, was released under the Freedom of Information Act. It was commissioned during the Vietnam War to address reported plans by the US government to use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", a network of roads by which North Vietnam provided support to its forces in South Vietnam.
The Jason scientists say that the findings of the study -- which concluded that the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) would be "catastrophic" to America's global interests -- are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
The study indicated that the use of TNWs in Southeast Asia would result in a "greatly increased long-term risk of nuclear operations in other parts of the world (such as) the Panama Canal, oil pipelines and storage facilities in Venezuela and (even) Tel Aviv". US forces would be vulnerable to nuclear attack with "portable weapons" carried in small boats or trucks and possibly deployed in a mortar or recoilless rifle.
The study concluded that maintaining the ban against nuclear weapons was 'key' to reducing chances of their use. "The risk of nuclear guerrilla activity is likely to arise to some degree during the next 20 years. But the risk will certainly become more acute if the US leads the way by initiating tactical nuclear war in Southeast Asia."
But it is not only Iraq which is on the list of potential states targeted for a possible US nuclear offensive.
Last December, the Pentagon issued its Classified Nuclear Posture Review which designated Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and North Korea -- some of them not officially labelled "nuclear states" -- as potential threats to US security.
The House of Representatives Sub-Committee report for its part, has also named other "hostile" groups who possibly pose a threat to US security and who may be working to acquire WMDs, which justifiably makes them potential targets for a US nuclear offensive. These include "sub- states or entities, fanatics, (such as Al-Qa'eda and 'terrorist' groups) determined to kill and destroy, and who wish to acquire nuclear materials and devices".
Scepticism is expressed that nuclear arms inspections can succeed in countries deemed hostile by the US.
"There is some potential to strengthen International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, and develop stronger export control regimes with like- minded states," says the report, "but these efforts alone are marginal and cannot be relied upon to significantly increase America's security against those who threaten it."
Ultimate security may only be attained by means of a policy of nuclear preemption even in cases where countries might speculatively -- and not certainly -- pose a threat to the US. "There is no obligation to wait to be hit first. There is a limited right to anticipatory self-defence in some circumstances, even if it is not certain that a strike is imminent," concludes the report, giving the US government the leeway to launch preemptive attacks at will.