“Butler is highly motivated in his quest to ban nuclear weapons, but then again he knows what those weapons can do when perhaps the rest of us have forgotten.”

Retired Gen. George L. (Lee) Butler is among the very few whose job description has included the power to destroy the planet. As he recalled during a telephone conversation last week: “I lived for three years, every day of my life, with the requirement to answer a phone within three rings and be prepared to advise the president on how to retaliate with respect to the real or perceived threat of nuclear attack. I found it extremely sobering.”

Butler, 59, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a much-decorated Vietnam air-combat veteran, came to that awesome responsibility upon ascending to the post of commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. He held that job between 1991 and 1994 in the Bush administration, just after the Cold War came to an abrupt end. But the U.S reliance on nuclear deterrence did not.

While working for the Joint Chiefs under the direction of General Colin L. Powell, Butler was charged with reevaluating the U.S. nuclear deterrent in the aftermath of the Cold War. It was Butler’s recommendation to stand down the U.S. nuclear force from hair-trigger alert for the first time in 30 years, and the Bush administration acted on his recommendation, with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, following suit.

“So I felt when I retired in 1994,” Butler recalled, “that nuclear-arms control was on a pretty good track. START 11 was signed and starting the ratification process, and I had a great sense of relief and gratification that all had begun to change fairly quickly.” But he ruefully concedes that his optimism was misplaced: “Here we are, years later, and things look pretty much the same.”

The impasse on nuclear-arms control deeply worries Butler as he assays a Russia close to ruin with deteriorating control over its still deadly nuclear arsenal. “The Russians survey a strategic landscape in which our Senate has imposed a moratorium on any sort of cuts that we might make, so here we are with 6,000, 7,000 operational weapons, about half of them on alert; and they are struggling to keep about a third of that many viable.”

While everyone is focused on the fighting in Kosovo, Butler considers Russia’s weakness and instability a prescription for disaster and so has devoted his retirement years to getting arms control back on track. The father of two and grandparent of three, Butler is highly motivated in his quest to ban nuclear weapons, but then again he knows what those weapons can do when perhaps the rest of us have forgotten.

Question: The whole effort to abolish nuclear weapons, which you have been involved with, seems to be on a back burner as relations with the Russians deteriorate. Are you worried about their ability to control their own weapons?

Answer: I am, to some extent. My own view is that, with regard to the operational weapons, I think they’re as concerned as we, if not more so, about keeping those accountable and safe and secure. I worry more about the components back in the labs and in the multiplicity of storage sites that they built over the years, and I just can’t believe they have the resources to keep those to the same standards that they did during the Cold War. I’ve been following some of the reports coming out of the secret cities — for example, Krasnoyarsk, where that reactor is still running, cranking out maybe 40 tons of plutonium a year and folks are on half-wages and dispirited and poor morale and God knows what kind of discipline they’re able to maintain, and that’s an enormous temptation. So I guess I worry more about that stuff getting into the wrong hands than I do about accidental launch.

Q: Speaking of stuff getting into the wrong hands, what do you make of the charges of China stealing secrets from the Los Alamos lab?

A: I’m not so much outraged that China is spying on us. Everybody spies on everybody else–even our friends spy on us. That’s one thing, but that just simply means we all have the greater obligation to safeguard those secrets we feel could be most damaging to our national security if revealed. So I put a lot of responsibility on our own doorstep here.

Q: In terms of arms control, what right do we have, aside from that they shouldn’t steal, to tell China not to develop an arsenal of this sort?

A: We don’t, we clearly don’t have that right. Part of the cross we bear by continuing to maintain this Reaganesque nuclear-weapons policy is that we’re hoist on the petard of our own nuclear-weapons rhetoric. I keep thinking about that phone call the president must have had with his counterparts in India and Pakistan, trying to persuade them not to test or to develop nuclear weapons when we still have words that say nuclear weapons are essential to our security. In fact, they are the cornerstone of our security, when we have no reasonable threat that we can point to; and yet any of those nations can say, “Look at us, our survival is threatened.” It puts us in a terrible position with regard to containing proliferation, or just to bring moral suasion to bear in terms of trying to end the nuclear era after half a century.

Q: Why hasn’t there been more progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons?

A: It’s a whole host of things. I thought there was a kind of a cosmic roll of the dice, in the sense that, at the very moment the Cold War was coming to a spontaneous, unanticipated conclusion, George Bush failed at reelection and, consequently, at a moment when what we needed more than anything else was continuity in our national-security and foreign- policy team, it was totally disrupted.

Q: But why is the Clinton administration not more aggressive on nuclear-arms control?

A: It’s really puzzling. If I had to put my finger on it, in this arena real progress comes down to one thing, and that is motivation and guidance from the top. It has to come from the Oval Office, and that’s why I hark back to the latter days of the Bush regime, because that’s the way all that got done. There was no anguishing negotiation with our own bureaucracy, much less that in Moscow. We just made a political calculation of what the new state of the Russia-U.S. relationship would tolerate safely, measures that we could take independently that would send a signal of trust. There was a willingness to exercise boldness and leadership and vision, and I don’t think that this administration came to town prepared to do that on the international front. They had a very ambitious domestic agenda and tackled things like Medicare right out of the bag. Got off on a terrible foot with the military, and I think all that soured the relationship and, to some extent, poisoned the well.

Q: Also, with Bush, it was good having a war hero as president who couldn’t be baited as being a dove.

A: Yes. In my view, the single most important set of arms-control accomplishments were George Bush’s unilateral measures back in ‘9 1. We took all of the tactical nukes off the ships and brought them home from Europe and took the bombers off alert and accelerated the retirement of the Minuteman H force. And [Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev kind of unilaterally followed suit shortly thereafter and accelerated retirement of some of their programs that we’re standing down under START 1. It’s kind of ironic that, today, we have a Republican Congress that thwarts arms-control progress and yet it was a Republican administration that really moved the ball down the field.

Q: What about the threat from China and from the so-called rogue nations?

A: I’ve been through this so many times–it was my business, and this stuff about rogue nations, it just infuriates me to hear responsible people use bumper-sticker labels like that. As if you can reduce the complexity of sovereign entities with complex histories and cultures and bureaucracies to a label in order to avoid having to think about them seriously. We call Iran a rogue nation, and 20 years ago they were our closest ally; when the shah was in power, they were our friends.

Q: If one accepted the idea of a sort of rogue or terrorist nation or force, it is difficult to think of thwarting them with sophisticated nuclear delivery systems.

A: Exactly. I went through this in the Persian Gulf, because I was the planner and had to think through the question of what if Saddarn [Hussein] has a so-called weapon of mass destruction, which is another term I just really dislike because it lumps together three weapons of enormously disparate consequence. But it doesn’t take long to parse that out. If he’d employed chemicals, there is no circumstance I can imagine under which the United States should or would have replied with a nuclear weapon, or biological for that matter. Those are terrible weapons, but we’ve faced chemical weapons for years. And biological weapons, when you look at them from a battlefield perspective, which I’ve done much of my years as a planner, they’re pretty difficult to even think about how you use them without threatening yourself as much as anybody else.

And as far as a nuke is concerned, my sense was that even if he’d had a nuclear weapon, I cannot imagine he would have employed it except in extremis, which means that we were going to occupy his country and either kill him or put him on trial as a war criminal–in which case, I suspect, where he would have employed the weapon, presuming it actually worked, would not have been against us or Saudi Arabia but probably in Israel. In which case there is nothing we could have done to stop that; it would have been an extraordinary catastrophe.

But in terms of using a nuclear weapon in retaliation, the political and military and economic consequences or obstacles were just overwhelming.

Q: Let me ask again about China and the risk of their putting a sophisticated warhead on a ballistic missile.

A: You’re out there worrying about the prospect of ballistic missiles, but for most nations that would be the last thing in the world you’d ever want to resort to in terms of a desire to explode a nuclear device against the United States. There are more technologically efficient ways of getting that done. Suitcase bombs or offshore launching of a cruise [missile] strapped to the hull of a freighter are far more plausible than any ballistic-missile attack.

But all of that presupposes an urge on the part of China to make a nuclear attack on the United States, which is effectively to commit suicide, and that’s where it all breaks down for me.

China has only been re-demonized here recently. Even in the latter stages of the Cold War, we didn’t treat China as much of a threat. All of a sudden now, they’re being elevated again. That’s still a country that is fragile and, in some respects, perishable as any nation that size could possibly. be. To me it’s part and parcel of the business of not thinking responsibly or even intelligently about the international environment in which we operate, what U.S. interests are and how we deal with the nations that intersect most importantly with those.

Q: What do you think about this revival of the Strategic Defense Initiative?

A: I have a lot of reservations about it. I feel a sense of personal responsibility because the Rumsfeld Report, which I helped author, is being touted by the proponents of ballistic missile defense as being justification for getting on with it. But what I told [former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld] and said to committees on the Hill in private, when we took our report over at their request, was I see no need to proceed to ballistic missile defense until the following requirements are met: One, we see threats that are commensurate with that level of effort, and nothing that we had in our report portrayed that. Secondly, that the technology is in hand; you just can’t wish and make it happen. And third, that whatever we do, we don’t unilaterally abrogate the [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty], that we make this a cooperative negotiation with Russia that finds a way to square the circle of our security concerns and theirs.

Q: Finally, what are the risks of accidental nuclear war?

A: What one would worry more about is the kind of event that happened in January of 1995, when that experimental rocket was launched in the coast of Norway. That was initially assessed by the Russian command-and-control system as having been a Trident launch, and that was passed on all the way up to [President Boris NJ Yeltsin as a prospective ICBM attack from the United States. That information was only headed off in the final few moments.

The Russian command-and-control system and early-warning system is in a state of great decline. About two-thirds of the satellites they relied on for early-warning capability are inactive or failing. That means there are very large sectors of the United States they either can not see or can not see for several hours each day–which puts them in a much more fragile posture with regard to the single most critical aspect of this deterrence equation, which is adequate forewarning of an attack. They are experiencing false alarms now on almost a routine basis. And I shudder to think about what the state of the morale and discipline of their rocket forces are, who are suffering along with everyone else with regard to not being paid and inadequate wages and an extremely dismal quality of life.

There are worrisome aspects to all of that, but those are circumstance that we can deal with the simple step of reducing the alert status of these weapons. That’s why people like myself are so puzzled and dismayed that our government won’t even address that.

“By continuing to maintain this Reaganesque nuclear-weapons policy … we’re hoist on the petard of our own nuclear-weapons rhetoric.”

“This stuff about rogue nations, it just infuriates me … As if you can reduce sovereign entities with complex histories and cultures and bureaucracies to a label.”

“You’re out there worrying about the prospect of ballistic missiles, but for most nations that would be the last thing in the world you’d ever want to resort to.”

* Robert Scheer is a Contributing Editor to The Los Angeles Times and the author of “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War.”