Keep Nuclear Options Open

David J. Smith, chief operating officer of the National Institute for Public Policy, was U.S. chief negotiator for defense and space in the first Bush administration.

In a matter of weeks, Saddam Hussein might reach for his weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological and radiological -- in a perceived last-ditch effort to save his regime, or simply to strike one final blow at his enemies. He might target U.S. or coalition forces; ports or airfields; nearby countries such as Qatar, Turkey or Israel; or even Britain and the United States.

Hussein is a clear and worsening threat. And he is just one of the heavily armed cutthroats around the world, a leading example of what President Bush described in his 2002 West Point speech when he said “the gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.” In the post-Cold War era, otherwise insignificant nations, or even terrorist groups, can vault onto the world stage with readily available technology.

That’s why in today’s ugly world the United States needs to be prepared with a tough, effective array of military options -- including nuclear options -- and plans for their employment to deter, if possible, or to defeat, if necessary.


Deterrence, revised to fit post-Cold War challenges, remains an important facet of U.S. security strategy. We cannot deter every potential adversary in every circumstance; however, dictators such as Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il exhibit remarkable rationality in pursuit of rogue objectives. Often they can be deterred.

For example, although Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait put him on a collision course with conventional war in 1991, there is some evidence that he was deterred from resorting to weapons of mass destruction. In January 1991, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III told Tarik Aziz, then Iraq’s foreign minister, that use of weapons of mass destruction would be met with overwhelming force -- a diplomatic euphemism for a nuclear option. Iraq was defeated, but it did not use WMD.

The United States had sent similar signals to others before. NATO’s flexible response doctrine called for a nuclear response to a Soviet conventional attack on Central Europe. President Carter threatened any means necessary -- again, a euphemism -- to block a Soviet sweep to the Persian Gulf. And Clinton administration officials reserved the legal right to respond to WMD use with nuclear weapons, suggesting that the Libyan underground chemical weapons facility at Tarhunah might be a target of the then-newly deployed B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear weapon.

Today, Bush is right to tell a thug like Hussein that he must not cross the line to WMD use -- even if we go to war. This is one reason the U.S. maintains nuclear options and plans. Without our demonstrating the capability and will to use these options under certain limited circumstances, deterrence would not work and the risk of facing chemical, biological and radiological weapons would be greater.

Even if we believe that Hussein would use weapons of mass destruction, a U.S. nuclear strike will remain a remote option. Known WMD sites and communications infrastructure can be destroyed quickly, removing WMD options from Hussein’s control. Iraq would be defeated rapidly with conventional arms, Special Forces and nonlethal weapons that disable computers, electricity and communications.

Looking beyond Iraq, Bush’s January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review called for “nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose [to] complement other military capabilities.” To the extent that nonnuclear options are effective, the need for nuclear options will be reduced.


Nonetheless, there are, and will probably remain, certain hard and deeply buried WMD targets that can be neutralized only with a nuclear weapon. A president must have a full range of options.

Whether for deterrence or to protect the nation, it would be disingenuous for a U.S. strategy review to suggest that nuclear weapons do not remain an important part of our national security strategy. Bush is also honest to recognize that the post-Cold War confluence of savagery and technology may occasionally require preemptive action.

Weapons of mass destruction and modern delivery systems can inflict millions of casualties in minutes. And some potential adversaries -- those who seek martyrdom, for example -- may be undeterable. Does anyone doubt that the killers of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 would hesitate to kill 3 million or 30 million? In such cases, I want the president to act before an attack.

Thugs, martyrs and WMD are tough fare, and Bush has devised an equally tough, intelligent strategy that recognizes that.