Where No Bad Idea Ever Dies

The "National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century" document is a direct continuation of President Bush's reckless nuclear policy.

"With the Bush administration, no bad idea ever dies." This was how the New York Times aptly described the "policy paper" that was initialed last month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. The document, which was titled "National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century," is a direct continuation of the president's reckless nuclear policy. It analyzes the anticipated threats in the years to come, evaluates the safety of America's nuclear weapons stockpiles, and reaches the conclusion that there is no alternative but to develop a new generation of nuclear warheads. This is yet another aggressive step taken by George W. Bush, who apparently does not miss an opportunity to breathe new life into the dark winds of the cold war. Under his leadership, when it comes to matters related to nuclear policy, the United States is behaving like the schoolyard bully. It is as if Washington is convinced that all the others must come to terms with its unbridled behavior.

It began with the U.S. president's decision to expedite the development of anti-ballistic missile defense systems. It continued with his decision to unilaterally abrogate the treaty banning the development of missile defense systems, which the U.S. signed in 1972. The situation further deteriorated when the U.S. announced its intention to position missile defense components on Polish and Czech soil, a step that has served to flagrantly provoke Russia. Bush's stubborn refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty only served to highlight his intentions, while making clear that he has no plans to attempt to allay the fears of Russia and China. And now comes the move to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons - after two decades during which there was no development or manufacturing of nuclear weapons in the U.S.).

If the goal of developing new nuclear weapons were a matter decided between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, perhaps it would be possible to observe these developments with a calm tinged with bewilderment over the president's conduct. But this decision will also have significant implications for our region, as well as on Iran's continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons. After all, it is clear that the American plan to arm itself with a new generation of nuclear weapons will undermine international cooperation in stemming the spread of nuclear arms. It will likely result in less pressure on Iran and North Korea to renounce their nuclear programs. It would also deal a serious blow to efforts to shut down the secret trading of nuclear materials, equipment and technology. Development of new nuclear weapons will fuel the already deep concerns over U.S. motives and its judgment, and play into the hands of those countries seeking to join the nuclear club.

An analysis of the arguments put forth by Gates and Bodman in favor of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons only shows how little substance their their case holds. Their central claim is that current U.S. stockpiles of nuclear weapons are becoming more hazardous as time passes. In order to prevent mishaps, accidents or other disasters, the paper argues, there is no alternative but to develop new weapons systems to gradually replace the decaying arsenal.

Yet a close examination of the American stockpiles reveals that the existing nuclear weapons are safe, secured, protected and not hazardous. Their dependability is very high. With proper maintenance, the weapons' reliability and safety can be preserved indefinitely. Parts of antiquated warheads can be replaced by identical components that can be manufactured without the need for development of a completely new arsenal of weapons. The current warheads have endured a long series of tests, which have confirmed their safety and reliability, while new weapons systems will serve as a pretense to justify a renewal of nuclear testing, which the U.S. abandoned in 1992.

In addition, the threats cited in the Bush administration's position paper do not justify the development of new nuclear weapons. The document divides the threats into three categories. There are "states of concern," like North Korea and Iran; "violent extremists and non-state actors," namely organizations "that are motivated by goals and values at odds with our values"; and "major existing nuclear states outside of NATO," a reference to Russia and China. Obviously, the current American arsenal provides a sufficient deterrent against the likes of Iran and North Korea. In addition, there is no logic or justification for considering use of nuclear weapons when dealing with terrorist organizations. That leaves Russia and China. Instead of emphasizing the need to calm security tensions with these two countries, the document provides details of Chinese and Russian modernization of their armed forces, while making clear that they represent a threat to the U.S. In the Bush White House, the cold war has not died.

Bush will bequeathe his plan to develop new nuclear warheads to his successor. One must hope that whoever enters the White House in January will make haste and cancel the program and will instead opt to strengthen cooperation with Russia and China. Such a policy is likely to promote efforts to convince Iran to cancel its plan to develop nuclear weapons.