For most Americans, nuclear weapons are a distant concern, and deciding what to do about them is a low priority. As a culture, we are relatively comfortable possessing nuclear weapons, believing that they are, on balance, a good security hedge in a dangerous world. We leave it to our leaders to determine what should be done with these weapons. But our leaders may be moving in exactly the wrong direction.
Seymour Hersh reported in the April 17, 2006 New Yorker magazine that the US government is developing plans for the possible preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Iranian nuclear facilities. Although George Bush dismissed such reports as “wild speculation,” he did not deny them. The reports should awaken the American people to some relevant issues. First, our political and military leaders are considering the preemptive first-use of nuclear weapons, an act that would undoubtedly constitute aggressive war and a crime against humanity. Second, these leaders hold open the possibility of using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state, despite official pledges not to do so. Third, the decision about whether or not to use nuclear weapons preemptively rests in the hands of a single individual, the president.
The framers of our Constitution could not have imagined the circumstances of the Nuclear Age, in which the possibility exists of one leader triggering a nuclear holocaust, yet they wisely stipulated that the consent of Congress, the political arm of the people, would be necessary to initiate any war.
We need an open and vigorous discussion in every village, town and city about the anti-democratic and anti-Constitutional tendencies inherent in the presidential control of nuclear weapons. Without such discussion, we relegate the fate of the country and the world to the whims of a single individual.
In addition, an equally fundamental question must be confronted – have nuclear weapons increased or decreased our security as a nation? In today’s world, nuclear weapons are a far more powerful tool in the hands of a weak actor than in the hands of a powerful state. Thus, Pakistan can deter India and China can deter the US and Russia. A powerful state, such as the US, has everything to lose and very little to gain from the possession of nuclear weapons. This concern isn’t being effectively addressed in the US.
The more the US relies on nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that other countries will do so as well. The most reasonable course for the US to take is to provide leadership to bring the world back from the nuclear precipice by working to achieve global nuclear disarmament.
An argument can be made that a small number of nuclear weapons are needed for deterrence until they are all eliminated. But any threat or use of nuclear weapons for purposes other than minimum deterrence will certainly encourage other states to seek their own nuclear arsenals, if only to prevent being bullied by nuclear weapons states. This is the position that North Korea and Iran find themselves in today.
Current US nuclear policy favors allies, such as Israel and India, and threatens perceived enemies, such as Iran and North Korea. We are already engaged in an aggressive, illegal, protracted and costly war against Iraq, initiated on the false basis that it had a nuclear weapons program. Iran, because of its uranium enrichment, is currently within US gun sights.
There is no conceivable US use of nuclear weapons, with their powerful and unpredictable consequences, that would not turn the US into a pariah state. The US engenders animosity by pushing beyond the limits imposed by minimum deterrence and failing to take seriously its disarmament obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It also creates a climate in which other states may seek to develop nuclear arsenals and in which these weapons may end up in the hands of terrorists. This should be a major concern for all Americans because it could lead to US cities being the targets of nuclear weapons used by extremist groups.
Polls show that Americans, like most other people in the world, favor nuclear disarmament. However, as a nation, we neither press for it nor question the nuclear policies of our government. But we refrain from such actions at our peril, for a bad decision involving nuclear weapons could destroy us. Inattention and apathy leave the weapons and the decision to use them beyond our reach.
Thus, we continue with nuclear business as usual, drifting toward the catastrophic day when our policies will lead either to nuclear weapons again being used by us or, as likely, against us by extremist organizations that cannot be deterred by threat of retaliation. We are long past time to bring our nuclear policies back onto the public agenda and open them to thoughtful public discourse.