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World Court Project: 

President Promotes Use of Nuclear Weapons


John Burroughs
January 1, 2003
Distributed by Minuteman Media, www.opedresource.com

The Bush administration recently released its "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD). Unfortunately, what the strategy really does is promote nuclear weapons.

The administration declared in December that the United States "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."

"All of our options" encompasses both "conventional and nuclear response" capabilities, employed in "appropriate cases through preemptive measures."

While elements of this policy have been signaled in various ways in past administrations, this is the first time it has been unambiguously stated in an unclassified document with a presidential imprimatur. It comes at a time of preparation for a war on Iraq in which, as the CIA warned, U.S. forces could confront Iraqi use of chemical or biological weapons. Reflecting a decade long campaign of the U.S. nuclear establishment to create a new mission for nuclear arms following the collapse of the Soviet Union, 60 percent of Americans support a U.S. nuclear response in that circumstance, according to a recent Washington-Post ABC News poll.

The policy should be renounced. It is irrational, illegal, and immoral.

It is irrational because increased U.S. reliance on nuclear arms encourages other states - and possibly terrorists - to acquire them, and ultimately increases the risk that a nuclear explosion will take place on American soil. In December North Korea took initial steps towards resumption of production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, notably disruption of international monitoring with cameras and seals of spent nuclear fuel and a facility that could separate plutonium from that fuel.

Emphasizing the nuclear threat also increases pressure to resort to nuclear weapons in the event of enemy use of chemical or biological weapons even though common sense would dictate otherwise. Otherwise the threat, and U.S. credibility, will come to seem hollow. The assumption of equivalence among nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons underlying the threat is false. Nuclear arms are orders of magnitude more destructive than the other "weapons of mass destruction."

The WMD strategy, together with the “September 2002 National Security Strategy,” also invites imitation by other states of the “preemptive measures” doctrine, by which the Bush administration really means preventive war of the kind planned for Iraq. Other states may decide that their security demands a similar approach, for example India in relation to Pakistan, or Russia in relation to bordering Islamic countries.

The new policy is illegal because nuclear weapons cannot be used in a discriminate and proportionate fashion as required by international law acknowledged by the U.S. military services. There is much talk now of the need for “bunker busting” nuclear explosives. But earth penetrators are likely to cause large numbers of civilian deaths because of the immense amounts of radioactive dust they would kick up.

The policy is also illegal because the U.N. Charter – part of the supreme law of the land under our Constitution - does not allow preventive war. Under the Charter, use of military force is permitted only when authorized by the U.N. Security Council or in response to an actual or imminent attack.

 Finally, the policy is immoral because it reinforces the threat of mass nuclear destruction at the core of U.S. foreign policy, and introduces a new element at odds with U.S. tradition, the right to initiate war, not simply to respond to an attack.

Before his death on December 6, nuclear weapons resister and former Catholic priest Philip Berrigan affirmed that "nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth ... a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself." There is great wisdom in Philip Berrigan’s dying words, and great folly in the Bush nuclear pronouncement released a few days later. We should heed Berrigan's words and embark on a path of abolition of nuclear weapons, at home as well as abroad. That would meet the demands of law and morality and make all of us much more secure.


John Burroughs is executive director of the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, New York, and co-editor of Rule of Power or Rule of Law? An Assessment of U.S. Policies and Actions Regarding Security-Related Treaties, Apex Press, 2003.


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