A dangerous world just grew more dangerous. Reports that the administration is contemplating the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in Iraq should set off alarm bells that this could not only be the wrong war at the wrong time, but it could quickly spin out of control.
Initiating the use of nuclear weapons would make a conflict with Iraq potentially catastrophic.
President Bush had an opportunity Tuesday night to explain why he believes such a radical departure from long-standing policy is justified or necessary. At the very minimum, a change of this magnitude should be brought to Congress for debate before the U.S. goes to war with Iraq.
The reports of a preemptive nuclear strike are consistent with the extreme views outlined a year ago in President Bush's Nuclear Posture Review and with the administration's disdain for long-standing norms of international behavior.
According to these reports, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has directed the U.S. Strategic Command to develop plans for employing nuclear weapons in a wide range of new missions, including possible use in Iraq to destroy underground bunkers.
Using the nation's nuclear arsenal in this unprecedented way would be the most fateful decision since the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Even contemplating the first-strike use of nuclear weapons under current circumstances and against a nonnuclear nation dangerously blurs the crucial and historical distinction between conventional and nuclear arms. In the case of Iraq, it is preposterous.
Nuclear weapons are in a class of their own for good reasons -- their unique destructive power and their capacity to threaten the very survival of humanity. They have been kept separate from other military alternatives out of a profound commitment to do all we can to see they are never used again. They should be employed only in the most dire circumstances -- for example, if the existence of our nation is threatened. It makes no sense to break down the firewall that has existed for half a century between nuclear conflict and any other form of warfare.
A nuclear bomb is not just another item in the arsenal.
Our military is the most powerful fighting force in the world. We can fight and win a war in Iraq with precision bombing and sophisticated new conventional weapons. The president has not made a case that the threat to our national security from Iraq is so imminent that we even need to go to war -- let alone let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.
By raising the possibility that nuclear weapons could be part of a first strike against Iraq, the administration is only enhancing its reputation as a reckless unilateralist in the world community -- a reputation that ultimately weakens our own security. The nuclear threat will further alienate our allies, most of whom remain unconvinced of the need for war with Iraq. It is fundamentally contrary to our national interests to further strain relationships that are essential to win the war against terrorism and to advance our ideals in the world.
This policy also deepens the danger of nuclear proliferation by, in effect, telling nonnuclear states that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter a potential U.S. attack and by sending a green light to the world's nuclear states that it is permissible to use them. Is this the lesson we want to send to North Korea, Pakistan and India or any other nuclear power?
The use of nuclear weapons in Iraq in the absence of an imminent, overwhelming threat to our national security would bring a near-total breakdown in relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world. At a minimum, it would lead to a massive rise in anti-Americanism in the Arab world and a corresponding increase in sympathy for terrorists who seek to do us harm. Our nation, long a beacon of hope, would overnight be seen as a symbol of death, destruction and aggression.
In the introduction to his national security strategy last fall, the president declared: "The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology." On that he was surely right -- and the administration's radical consideration of the possible use of our nuclear arsenal against Iraq is itself a grave danger to our national interests, our nation and all that America stands for.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy represents Massachusetts.