by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 20, 2006
THE NUCLEAR MENACE IS BACK, THANKS TO BUSH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- For the past six decades of the Atomic Age, humankind has somehow managed to avoid nuclear annihilation.
Now, thanks to President George W. Bush, our chances of keeping the nuclear genie safely in the bottle have markedly decreased.
Until the Bush Administration came to power, it looked as if the nuclear threat was receding. The end of the Cold War and the network of arms control agreements built up since the 1960s had eased tensions somewhat.
At the height of the Cold War, there were 65,000 nuclear weapons. Now, there are about 27,000. In the 1960s, there were 23 nations with nuclear weapons programs. Most of those have since ended. Until North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon last week, none had been tested by any nation for eight years - the longest break since the Atomic Age began. And most nations have come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons have limited military utility, even as deterrents to attack.
Decades of careful diplomacy had gotten us this far. President Kennedy started the process toward reducing the nuclear threat in 1963 with a treaty with the Soviet Union that banned atmospheric nuclear tests. President Johnson continued it in 1968 with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and President Nixon pushed the process further along in 1972 with the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with the Soviets.
President Carter got the Soviets to sign the second installment of SALT in 1979. Even President Reagan, who oversaw a major arms buildup in the 1980s, achieved an nuclear arms reduction agreement with the Soviets in 1987. And President Clinton oversaw both a decrease in both the Russian and American nuclear arsenals and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1993 and 1996, respectively.
Of all these treaties, the NPT has been perhaps the most successful and most important. The terms were simple. The major nuclear powers would eventually give up their weapons in exchange for a pledge from the non-nuclear states not to acquire them.
Like many treaties, the noble thoughts behind the NPT have not been totally fulfilled. The major nuclear powers never gave up their weapons, but but most of the 183 nations that signed the NPT do not have nuclear weapons.
Only four countries have not signed the NPT - India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. All four now have nuclear weapons, joining the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China as members of the nuclear club.
The nuclear club may get even bigger in the coming decades, and we have President Bush to thank for that.
The Bush Administration saw nuclear arms agreements as limitations to American power. So Mr. Bush scuttled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972 during the Nixon Administration. President Bush walked away from the test ban agreement that the Clinton Administration secured. The President backed efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal - now about 10,000 weapons strong - and his representatives managed to block any meaningful progress during the most recent review of the NPT in 2005.
Worst of all, the United States has revised its stated military strategy regarding the use of nuclear weapons. For decades, the official policy was "no first use." In 2002, the United States decided it has the right to use nuclear weapons whenever necessary and named seven countries - including Iran and North Korea - as possible targets for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
The Bush Administration clings to the belief that military might, not diplomacy, will protect the United States. It abandoned diplomatic efforts to keep North Korea from building nuclear weapons and has refused to realistically engage Iran in serious talks about its nuclear ambitions.
Now, with last week's test by North Korea and the intent of Iran to move forward with its nuclear program, we can see how effective the Bush strategy has been. In short, the nuclear menace is back and the world is rapidly becoming less safe as a result.
With a nuclear North Korea on their doorsteps, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea may reconsider their options. All three countries are capable of building nuclear weapons, especially Japan, which has all of the components and a plentiful supply of plutonium.
Although Israel has never officially acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, it's believed that it may have up to 600 weapons and is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. If Iran, a Shiite state, gets the bomb, Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt may want their own bombs.
According to Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as many as 49 countries now have the wherewithal to build nuclear weapons. For every country such as Libya, which abandoned its secret nuclear program in 2003, there are other countries, such as Brazil, considering the development of nuclear weapons.
The problem, said ElBaradei last year, is the inherent hypocrisy of countries such as the United States and Russia, who possess thousands of nuclear weapons, telling smaller nations they can't have any of their own.
Until the world commits to eradicating the nuclear weapons, ElBaradei said "we will continue to have this cynical environment that all the guys in the minor leagues will try to join the big leagues. ... They will say 'If the big boys continue to rely on nuclear weapons, why shouldn't I.'"
When the nation with the most weapons decides it wants to rip up treaties, build new weapons and use them pre-emptively, what does that tell the rest of the world? If those 40 or so other countries with the technical capability and/or the required material to build a nuclear weapon decide to do so, the world becomes that much more dangerous.
The need for a return to the careful diplomacy that ultimately reined in the nuclear menace has never been greater. The alternative is a frantic global free-for-all that could result in even more nations with nuclear weapons and fewer inhibitions about using them.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.