Perils of Bush's Nuclear Policy

News & Politics

In the annals of the nuclear age, this week is historic for two reasons.

June 12 was the twentieth anniversary of the million-person disarmament march in New York's Central Park. The march helped turn the tide in an era of perpetual, spiraling arms race, creating the impetus for major reductions in nuclear weapons.

The next day, June 13, marked the official US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

The two events have sparked contradictory responses.

On Wednesday in Washington, the Heritage Foundation hosted a "celebration" of the imminent demise of the ABM Treaty featuring John Bolton, the Bush administration's virulently anti-arms control Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs.

Later that day in Manhattan, Peace Action and the Nation magazine sponsored a rally to commemorate the 1982 Central Park disarmament demonstration and to promote an "Urgent Call" for verifiable nuclear arms reductions.

The convergence of these historic events and the ongoing conflict between the nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan raises an obvious question: are we on the right track to reduce nuclear dangers in the decades to come, or are we on the verge of a new global arms race?

We already know President George W. Bush's answer.

Bush recently touted the loophole-laden new strategic arms agreement with Russia as a historic step that will "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War." Administration officials argue that the Pentagon's new freedom to pursue a multi-tiered missile defense system will protect Americans from nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, whether launched by a rogue-state or accidentally by an established nuclear-weapon state. These new-age nuclear conservatives also insist that the Bush White House is carrying on the unfinished legacy of Ronald Reagan, who called for an ambitious missile defense shield and deep nuclear reductions.

Unfortunately, these comforting views of the administration's nuclear policy are a gross distortion of recent history and current realities.

It's true that Ronald Reagan rode into Washington like the ultimate nuclear cowboy, joking that "the bombing will start in five minutes." But by his second term, it was clear that he was committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, if he wasn't so taken with the notion of an impenetrable missile shield, Reagan might have overruled his top aides and agreed to a plan presented by Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik summit to eliminate all US and Soviet nuclear weapons.

As it was, Reagan negotiated two major arms reduction accords, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and he endlessly reminded Gorbachev that when it comes to arms reductions, nations must "trust but verify."

In stark contrast to Reagan's record of supporting verifiable arms reductions -- which was clearly shaped by a vibrant anti-nuclear movement and the historic changes in Moscow -- the Bush administration is committed to a policy of nuclear unilateralism disguised as arms control.

Even after 10 years, last month's Bush-Putin accord will leave both sides with massive nuclear overkill capability arsenals in the range of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads each. More critically, the new agreement doesn't require either side to destroy the weapons removed from active deployment, leaving the fate of thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons unresolved.

Worst of all, the new US nuclear posture review emphasizes developing "usable" lower-yield weapons and expanding the number of scenarios under which we might use or threaten to use nuclear arms. This is a clear endorsement of the idea that these ultimate terror weapons have legitimate uses -- a dangerously hypocritical stance to adopt at a time when the White House is trying to convince other countries to forego or cut nuclear arsenals to reduce chances that they might end up in the hands of terrorists.

If President Bush truly wants to fulfill Ronald Reagan's legacy, he should agree to the prompt destruction of the thousands of nuclear weapons taken out of deployment under the Bush-Putin accord. He should also move quickly to broker a deal to destroy all tactical nuclear weapons on both sides, and to revive plans to cap the nuclear arsenals of states like Iraq and North Korea through verifiable diplomatic initiatives, rather than scattershot military threats.

That would be a nuclear policy worth bragging about.

William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of "About Face," an analysis of the Bush administration's nuclear policy. This article originally appeared in

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