John Burroughs

On a listserv dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons on which I participate, there’s been a lot of chatter over the past few weeks about the possibility of U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Iran. Some cite this possibility as a major reason, even the main reason, for opposing military action. I offered the following comment:

“Military action, probably of a different kind (special forces, bombings) than we saw with Iraq, is well within the realm of possibility over the next weeks, months, or years re Iran; the longer term seems more likely to me. A U.S. nuclear attack as part of the opening stages of military action is not within the realm of possibility. The nuclear danger arises from the fact that wars are unpredictable. Just because in the 60 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in numerous wars, the United States did not consider the circumstance to arise where nuclear use was appropriate, doesn’t mean that the circumstance cannot develop in future conflicts. But it would be a very dire situation – use your imagination – involving escalation drawing in other states, or large-scale attacks in the US, or etc.. So what we need to do is to work to prevent military action and also to support outcomes that help or at least don’t hurt non-proliferation/disarmament.”

My reasons for saying U.S. nuclear attack as part of opening stages of military action would not happen:

First, “strategists” in the United States are well aware (how could they not be?) that a U.S. nuclear use anywhere in the world, but certainly in the Middle East, raises very dramatically the odds that a nuclear explosive will be detonated in a U.S. city one day, in months, years, or decades.

Second, while the Bush administration is obviously quite impervious to world and domestic public opinion (perhaps less so now than a few years ago), still even they cannot fail to take into account the incredibly deleterious effects that a nuclear use would have on US standing in the world and on the viability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the UN, and other international institutions/arrangements. Regarding domestic opinion, they would have to make a huge propaganda effort to manage it; however, this is possibly within their capability. (Another large-scale terrorist attack in the US would be a possible occasion, regardless of whether it was clearly established who perpetrated it.)

Third, ever since the U.S. decided not to use nuclear weapons in a major war involving very large numbers of combatants in the 1950s in which the U.S. was under very serious military stress, the Korean War, there is a culture among the political elite favoring non-use. McNamara advised Kennedy to decide, in advance, whether under *any* circumstance he would use nuclear weapons, and further advised that the answer should be no. I think that kind of thinking persists to some significant degree. Rumsfeld when asked about nuclear use said it was an accomplishment not to have used them since WWII. It certainly is disturbing that members of the “Cheney cabal” in the U.S. government are good candidates for not being terribly impressed by this sort of quasi-tradition, but they are not the only influence on G W Bush, and their influence is probably waning.

Fourth, in general, there’s no great eagerness in the military to use nuclear weapons, for various reasons, including the availability of other methods of attack and their professional ethics.

In thinking about this, three kinds of thresholds can be identified: doctrinal, operational, and political.

What people like Hirsch and Chossudofsky focus on is the first one, pointing out how the Bush administration has lowered the doctrinal threshold for nuclear use. Of course, many NGOs have been discussing this, among them the one for which I’m executive director, the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, and Western States Legal Foundation, for which I used to work and where I’m on the board. See for example the presentation to the NPT the two groups did together, Compliance Assessment: The NPT Declared Nuclear Weapon States, May 2005, and various WSLF publications, like War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament.
One thing LCNP & WSLF do (not in the NPT presentation, but elsewhere) is explain that there are a lot of continuities with the Clinton administration and with previous administrations going back to Truman. First use against non-nuclear attack has always been U.S. & NATO policy, in Europe and Korea and by late 1970s in the Middle East; and in the first Iraq war, the option of nuclear use in response to Iraqi chemical or biological use was implied in public statements, though there had not been the extended doctrinal development we have seen since then. We discuss continuities to point out it’s a systemic problem we’re dealing with, not just a sort of a Bush administration aberration; but I suppose it could also be slightly reassuring in a peculiar way to know that the Bush adm is on the same page as previous administrations, while certainly saying things more emphatically, aggressively, and publicly.

LCNP and WSLF think these issues of doctrine are terribly important for many reasons, and have been talking about them for many years, pre-dating the Bush administration. But our assessment of the implications for likelihood of use does differ from people like Hirsch and Chossudofsky. In addition to wide reading in government documents, history, etc., LCNP and WSLF, while definitely not hobnobbing with the weapons establishment and the national security apparatus, have had reason to interact with them on occasion over the years (decades now I’m afraid), in meetings in DC along with other disarmament NGOs, at the weapons laboratories in connection with environmental review proceedings or other matters, in international forums like the UN or NPT. When judging somebody’s analysis, it’s worth while looking at the arguments and the evidence offered, but also looking at the experience of those putting forward the analysis.

The second threshold, the operational one, is said to have been lowered by integrating nuclear and non-nuclear operations under one command, the Strategic Command. I don’t really know how significant this is; it depends on the details of what has been done. In the other direction, going towards keeping the threshold up, I do know that people like Arkin also like to point out that, as the Nuclear Posture Review says, that the US really is developing its capabilities, from special forces to non-nuclear missiles, to perform missions once assigned to nuclear weapons.

The third threshold, the political one, is what I was discussing with the four numbered points above. I once had a meeting with a member of the Bush administration National Security Council, in which our group criticized the 1995 Joint Nuclear Operations doctrine (which again has much continuity with the one recently withdrawn by the Bush administration which came under controversy because it identified scenarios for nuclear use against non-nuclear countries). The official said, don’t worry about that, that’s just a bunch of colonels running around, we keep the controlling policies re nuclear doctrine and use closely held around the president. I offer this not because it’s that reassuring. One can argue, as Robert Norris did when I asked about this at a panel at the Carnegie conference last fall, it’s the “colonels running around” who are called upon to offer options in time of crisis (though the implication of the NSC member’s comments is that around the president they have their own set of options and policies in place already – could be the classified “presidential decision directives”). But it does hint at the political threshold, as opposed to the operational or doctrinal ones.

Coming back to Iran, one of the disturbing things about possible conflict is that there does seem to be potential for regional conflict; there is also now the precedent of attacks within the United States; there is the lowering of the doctrinal threshold. So one of the reasons to oppose military action/war (not a central one I would say, but an important one) is that like other wars in the nuclear age, it does have the potential of going nuclear in extraordinary circumstances.