The Sounds of Silence:
Nuclear Arms in the US Elections
by John Burroughs


In a May press conference, George W. Bush criticized the Clinton Administration for remaining "locked in a Cold War mentality", said "the United States should remove as many [nuclear] weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status [which] may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch", and stated he would "pursue the lowest possible number [of nuclear weapons] consistent with our national security" regardless of the size of the Russian arsenal. "Our mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror," Bush averred.

However, Bush also said that the extent of reduction would depend upon an assessment by the Pentagon. The Pentagon has always found it "needs" very large numbers, and future requirements for the START process are currently set at a minimum of 2000-2500 deployed strategic (long-range) warheads, plus thousands more tactical (short-range), spare, and reserve units. At present the United States has about 7,000 deployed strategic warheads, scheduled for reduction to 6,000 when START I is fully implemented. Absent Senate approval of START II, Congress has also purported to bar the president from deploying nuclear forces at levels lower than those authorized by START I.

Bush additionally insisted that an expansive, Reagan-style missile shield to protect the US and its allies "must" be built, regardless of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Some of Bush’s advisors envisage a system with interceptors that are sea- and space-based as well as land-based. But Bush failed to provide any persuasive explanation of how such a system would be compatible with his plans for dealerting and arsenal reductions. In contrast, in his inimitable cover-all-fronts manner, on September 1 President Clinton, in announcing his deferral of a decision on a "limited" anti-missile system with ground-based interceptors only, gave decisive reasons for not deploying any anti-missile system:

Russia has been reluctant to agree to [modification of the ABM Treaty], fearing I think, frankly, that in some sense, this system or some future incarnation of it could threaten the reliability of its deterrence and, therefore, strategic stability.... As the next President makes a deployment decision, he will need to avoid stimulating an already dangerous regional nuclear capability from China to South Asia. Now, let me be clear: no nation can ever have a veto over American security, even if the United States and Russia cannot reach agreement; even if we cannot secure the support of our allies at first; even if we conclude that the Chinese will respond to NMD by increasing their arsenal of nuclear weapons substantially with a corollary, inevitable impact in India and then in Pakistan, the next President may nevertheless decide that our interest in security in 21st century dictates that we go forward with deployment of NMD. (Emphasis supplied.)

Bush also displayed ignorance regarding the disarmament obligation imposed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference in May, the United States joined the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China in accepting that under Article VI they have given an "unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals". Asked about this, Bush said, "I will never reduce the levels of the nuclear stockpile of the United States to a position where we jeopardize our safety and security". But a legally binding decision has already been made in the context of the NPT that the right level for safety and security for the United States and every country is zero.

Despite the fundamental flaws in Bush’s positions, the press briefing was a promising, even provocative, performance. Was there finally going to be a mainstream, probing discussion of issues that after all bear on human survival? No … The response from Albert Gore was muted, not surprisingly given the Clinton Administration’s abysmal record. The Gore campaign criticized Bush’s opposition to the CTBT; pointed to the destabilizing consequences of anti-missile systems, hypocritically since Gore maintained he would deploy the "limited" system now under development if demonstrably workable and needed; made some references to the dangers of "unilateral" reductions; and promised to pursue START III negotiations on the basis of the Pentagon approved level of 2000-2500 deployed strategic warheads.

That was it. End of discussion. Nothing at the conventions. Nothing in the debates. Back to the sounds of silence, which remarkably have been the norm since the Soviet Union disintegrated.

The only breath of fresh air since May has come from Ralph Nader, who clearly has consulted with Abolition 2000. In a response to a set of questions posed to presidential candidates by a group of religious leaders (see, Nader said that "working toward total elimination is the only moral and rational course", that the United States "has the responsibility to take the lead", and that he favors "multilateral negotiations to achieve a global nuclear weapons convention that provides for total elimination of nuclear weapons within a timebound framework".

Nader also linked disarmament to his well-known opposition to nuclear power, stating: "I would phase out the use of nuclear power in the United States, stop the US government from promoting nuclear power abroad, and work toward the global abolition of nuclear energy. History shows it is impossible to separate the ‘peaceful atom’ from the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons."

The next president, as well as the next Congress, would do well to follow Nader’s advice on matters nuclear.


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