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U.S.: Officials Consider Using Nuclear Weapons To Counter Massive Attack

  • Andrew Tully

As the U.S. continues its war against international terrorism, the American newspapers are publishing what was supposed to have been a classified report on the country's options for responding to an attack with weapons of mass destruction. The report says Washington should reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in such a case. As our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Washington, the conclusion has caused concern both in the U.S. and overseas.

Washington, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent news reports about the U.S. government's contingency plans on the possible use of nuclear force have set off a debate over whether President George W. Bush is too vigorously threatening America's potential enemies.

During the weekend, the "Los Angeles Times" reported that the Defense Department recently sent to Congress the latest revision of its "Nuclear Posture Review." The report said the U.S. is prepared to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to respond to possible attacks by countries that use weapons of mass destruction.

The classified report mentioned the three nations that Bush calls the "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- as well as Russia, China, Libya, and Syria.

The Bush administration has not denied the news report, and in fact its highest-ranking diplomats publicly defended it and explained its significance in television interviews on 10 March.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said on NBC TV's "Meet the Press" that it is proper for Washington to consider every possible option to defend the American people.

"It has been long-standing American policy that the president reserves his options in determining how to respond should some state use weapons of mass destruction against us. The only way to deter such a use is to be clear that it would be met with a devastating response."

And Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing on a separate program, CBS TV's "Face the Nation," said it is important to remember that the use of nuclear weapons is being considered only as a hypothetical option, not as a concrete plan of action for the immediate future.

"In the last several years, we have seen a number of nations that are developing weapons of mass destruction, and we have to take that into account -- not that we are planning to make them nuclear targets, but we have to take that into account as we do all of our military thinking."

Such comments did not satisfy government officials of some of the countries listed in the review. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov says it is incumbent on the U.S. administration to convince the world that it does not plan to use nuclear weapons against its enemies. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also demanded an explanation.

And Abdollah Ramezanzedeh, a spokesman for the Iranian government, was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency of accusing the Bush administration of embracing the use of force as a tool for advancing its foreign policy.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL agreed with Powell that the "Nuclear Posture Review" should not be viewed as a plan per se, but an option to be considered under various scenarios that are, for now, entirely hypothetical.

One such analyst is James Phillips, who specializes in national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private, independent policy center in Washington. "The Pentagon continually refines its plans against possible enemies. This does not mean that these plans are imminent or will be executed soon. But they're contingency plans in case something happens."

According to Phillips, the U.S. had a contingency plan for defending Saudi Arabia and Kuwait long before the 1991 Gulf War. For years, he says, the American government believed that the plan was unlikely ever to be realized.

Phillips says the current Pentagon report probably was deliberately shared with the American media as a warning to countries that Bush calls "rogue states."

"That could be a press leak to warn some of the countries on that list that if they use chemical weapons or biological weapons against the U.S., then the U.S. would reserve the option to use nuclear weapons."

But Ivan Eland, the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, says he is disturbed by the review. He notes that when Bush was running for president, he spoke of a more modest U.S. involvement overseas, including a reduction in the U.S. military presence in the Balkans.

Since then, Eland told RFE/RL, Bush has decided to have a more assertive military presence overseas. And he said the president has taken what he calls a unilateralist approach to foreign policy, such as ignoring Moscow's wishes and abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed in 1972.

Eland says the current nuclear posture review is a potentially dangerous example of the Bush administration's unilateralist approach. "One of the big problems is it blurs the distinction between when you use nuclear [weapons] and when you use conventional [weapons]. I think that's a bad idea. I think nuclear weapons should be [to] deter other countries from using nuclear weapons."

Phillips, of the Heritage Foundation, says he is not concerned that the report mentions Russia and China as possible targets of nuclear retaliation. And he says the governments in Moscow and Beijing should not be concerned either.

According to Phillips, Russia and China have been listed in all previous versions of the "Nuclear Posture Review," and that it would a mistake to remove them from the current update. But he says both countries -- particularly Russia -- should be aware that Washington considers an attack by either country to be only remotely hypothetical. He says the point of releasing the report was not to threaten Russia or China, but countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

"I think President [Vladimir] Putin knows that the U.S. and Russia are cooperating in Afghanistan in the war against terrorism. So I think he realizes that this is aimed more at the 'evil axis,' not at Russia."

Eland, of the Cato Institute, agrees, but only to a point: "I think this was mainly aimed at the so-called 'rogue' countries, but it does have implications for China and Russia certainly."

For one thing, Eland says he believes that Washington wants China to be aware than any military action it may take against Taiwan -- which China considers a renegade province -- would not come without cost.

As for Russia, Eland says Putin may smile and speak of increasingly warming relations with Bush and America. But he says that despite Bush's own assertions that the Cold War is over and that Russia is no longer an enemy, the American keeps "kicking the Russians in the pants," as he put it, by abandoning the ABM Treaty and stationing U.S. troops in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

According to Eland, the "Nuclear Posture Review" is just another example of the Bush administration knowing it can annoy Moscow with impunity.