Since originally writing the above, George Bush announced an abrogation of the ABM treaty, mid-December 2001. The tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America and the resulting War on Terror was a significant factor for this. However, March 2002 saw Pentagon Nuclear Posture documents describing nuclear options at named countries. As a result, fears about nuclear weapons being turned from deterrents to possible weapons increased further. The New York Times captured some of this quite well:
Before the Iraq invasion in 2003, nuclear weapons were considered as an option. While eventually they were not used against, the fact that they were considered, and how they were considered is what is of issue here.
Arkin highlights that 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. (Emphasis is original)
Nuclear weapons have long been considered to be used as either a matter of immediate national survival, or in retaliation to a nuclear strike.
But now, to raise the possibility of using these weapons in a preemptive strike sends a hypocritical message to the rest of the world, especially other nuclear powers, or states considering their nuclear options, who could conceivably choose to lower their own thresholds for nuclear use.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would also both be breached.
Arkin adds another concern that the decision-making of nuclear use options is being more and more concentrated, thus making dissent harder to hear:
Furthermore, options are being considered to use nuclear weapons in the event that chemical and biological weapons are used:
In an interview with the BBC (see the previous BBC page for a link to a Real Audio of the interview), Dan Plesch of the Royal United Services Institute, an organization that studies defence and international security, said that the U.S. position amounted to a policy which is do as we say, not as we do, when it comes to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. We have nuclear weapons; other people can't have it.
For additional information see
An interview with William Arkin for additional discussions, by Democracy Now! radio, January 30, 2003, archived online).
Nuclear Weapons Conference, February 14, 2003 from the nuclear watchdog, Los Alamos Study Group, which released a leaked Pentagon document (from January 10, 2003) detailing the planning process for developing and building new nuclear weapons for small strikes.
This site’s section on the Iraq crisis for further background and issues relating to the sanctions, build up for war, etc.
The Pentagon can make an understandable point about other nations possibly developing weapons of mass destruction. However, there is an increasing risk that the U.S. rhetoric could also become a self full-filling prophecy.
That is, (using an over-simplified scenario, for sake of explanation), if the U.S. claims the need to create more nuclear weapons or to pursue more nuclear options for attack purposes on the grounds that others might develop and use them, then other countries might become more concerned at the advantage the U.S. military will have, and may feel threatened by such a formidable nuclear superpower.
Hence, it is very possible that these nations might spend more on military to increase their abilities
As a result, we would have a scenario where the U.S. seemed right to pursue such policies, but it was instead a self full-filling prophecy.
For a while now, even before September 11 and its aftermath, it has been argued that an arms race and large military build ups by the more powerful nations in general can be detrimental to global security because of the insecurity it may cause to smaller nations who might feel that they need to arm themselves even more so. (See for example, this site’s page on foreign policy.)
From Mutually Assured Destruction, we are moving to a Nuclear Use Theory.
In addition to the New York Times citation above, the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, while commenting on the build up for possible war with Iraq at the end of 2002, highlights well the potentially dangerous changes in the nuclear policy and doctrines: