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Last week the U.S. administration took another step on the dangerous road toward turning nuclear weapons into a legitimate military instrument used for offensives even if the U.S. is not facing an existential danger. This is a genuine revolution in attitudes toward nuclear weapons and has far-reaching implications regarding their use. The new American concept also has an influence on Israel's own nuclear weapons policies.

While during the Cold War, atomic bombs were meant as a deterence against a rival's use of such weapons, in the last year the Bush administration has been conducting a process of legitimization of nuclear weapons as valid instruments for use against countries that are not armed with nuclear bombs and, according to the six-page memo issued by the president, against terror organizations as well. America has thus abandoned one of the traditional cornerstones of its nuclear policy. Nuclear weapons are no longer a weapon of last resort, when America is in grave danger, but rather a legitimate and desirable weapon for the management of war.

"The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including through resort to all of our options - to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies," the president's memo emphasized when it was published last week under the title "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction." In a briefing to reporters, meant to clarify the president's intentions, a senior official said the "options" Bush was referring to included nuclear weapons.

The innovation in the doctrine adopted by the president appears on its third page. Since it is very possible that U.S. deterrence could fail, says the administration, the U.S. will have no choice but to take preemptive action to destory storehouses of weapons of mass destruction held by countries or organizations that might use those weapons against U.S. citizens. In other words, for the first time, the U.S. is threatening to undertake preemptive nuclear strikes against potential threats that are not nuclear. That is precisely the case in Iraq, which does not yet have nuclear bombs but only chemical and biological weapons. There can be no doubt that among other things, the U.S. administration is preparing the ground for its assault.

The administration went a step further, when it made clear that it plans to change its traditional policies regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, policies that until now have been based on diplomatic measures and economic pressure. Bush emphasizes that he means to undertake an activist policy also based on the use of military force, and if necessary, nuclear weapons, to prevent the proliferation of weaponry that endangers the free world.

In a secret appendix to the memo, the administration proposes targets in addition to Iraq for this new activist enforcement policy: Syria, Iran, North Korea and Libya, adding Libya and Syria to the "axis of evil," making them declared targets of American military operations if they do not comply with demands to cease equipping themselves with weapons of mass destruction.

The new doctrine is the third step taken by the White House this year on the way to the banalization of nuclear weaponry. Previously there was a document leaked at the start of the year, under the title Nuclear Posture Review, and then the president's National Security Strategy paper was issued in September. In both cases, the administration began formulating a new nuclear policy that was finalized in the document issued last week.

One of the interesting aspects of the policy is the intent to accelerate development of "small" nuclear weapons, to enable the activist enforcement policy to hit well-defined targets in countries and terrorist groups that do not comply with American demands. Of course there's no operational or moral justification for this and the use of "small bombs" is as grave as the use of strategic nuclear weapons. However, the Bush administration is trying to give logical and rational cover to its policies. Thus, tactical nuclear weapons, which both superpowers had the sense to remove from the European continent decades ago, are back as just another routine instrument of war.

The new legitimacy granted by the U.S. to the use of nuclear weapons against "rogue states," most of which are in the Middle East, has ramifications for Israeli policy. If nuclear weapons are legitimate weapons that can be used for "preemptive" strikes, then seemingly the nuclear threshold has also been lowered for Israel's commitments.

That could be the start of a dangerous slide down the slope toward a national security policy that we got as glimpse of this month in declarations by top-level political and military policymakers about the need to respond with "strategic weapons" in case of any Iraqi attack. In that context it's worth reminding the policymakers that they should not forget that what superpowers are allowed to do, little countries that depend on the superpowers are prohibited from doing.