George W. Bush’s Vision for Nuclear Security: Vestiges of the Cold War

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Questions have been raised in the Republican presidential campaign --perhaps unfairly -- about Texas governor George W. Bush's expertise inforeign policy. Yet a recent Bush speech -- in which the governor calledfor discarding the "Cold War mentality" of U.S. nuclear policy -- raisesnew, more legitimate questions about his savvy in foreign affairs. Despitehis high-minded rhetoric, the candidate advocates new initiatives that mightunnecessarily start a new Cold War with Russia.

Bush claims that Russia is no longer an enemy and that the major threats tothe United States emanate from rogue states and terrorist groups seeking toobtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to deliver them. Yetthe candidate's willingness to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic MissileTreaty with Russia and explore the feasibility of robust missile defenses(including space-based systems) should make the Russians leery that they arenot regarded by him as the primary threat. Bush wants to assure theRussians that the United States is a peaceful nation but that it would notrule out building an expensive missile defense that could further underminethe effectiveness of Russia's already deteriorating offensive nucleararsenal. Bush's pronouncement has the same audacity as the Clintonadministration's neo-Cold War policy of expanding the NATO military allianceeastward toward Russia and then telling the Russians they should be happyabout the enlargement because "stability" in their neighborhood willincrease.

The presumptive Republican nominee has also advocated significant cuts --perhaps unilateral -- in offensive nuclear warheads in the hope that Russiawill reciprocate with reductions of its own. But those reductions areunlikely if the United States builds a robust missile defense; in theRussian view, after any U.S. first strike, the limited number of survivingRussian warheads could be intercepted by comprehensive U.S. defenses. Thus,the Russians would probably be inclined to keep more warheads to increasethe chances of penetrating U.S. defenses.

Furthermore, Bush's proposed cuts -- unilateral or otherwise -- wouldprobably not go below 2,000 to 2,500 warheads -- the level to whichPresident Clinton and former President Yeltsin agreed in the 1997 frameworkagreement to guide Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) III. Thecandidate maintains that the premises of nuclear targeting during the ColdWar should not govern the size of the U.S. arsenal, but he also implies thathe would not reduce the number of warheads below what the military plannerssay they need for targeting. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff recentlytestified before Congress that they would not support cutting the arsenalbelow 2,000 to 2,500 warheads. The Pentagon's current blueprint for nuclearwar -- the Standard Integrated Operating Plan -- retains roughly 2,260warheads on alert to be aimed at nuclear, conventional military, defenseindustrial, and leadership sites in Russia. But by retaining enoughwarheads to kill those targets, the U.S. indicates that its nuclear doctrineis still aimed at fighting and winning a nuclear war -- a nuclear posturethat is dated and dangerous in a post-Cold War world.

Bush also would like to lower the high-alert status of U.S. nuclear forcesand hopes for similar measures by the Russians. Such preparations for aquick launch of missiles on warning of an incoming enemy attack increase therisk of an accidental or unauthorized launch -- especially with thedeclining number of survivable Russian warheads and the unreliability ofRussia's early-warning system. But such reciprocal de-alerting by theRussians is unlikely if the possibility exists that the United States willbuild robust missile defenses. With a limited number of survivable warheadsremaining, Russia might choose to launch missiles on warning of attack sothat it could maximize the number of warheads that might penetrate the U.S.defense shield.

If the United States simply walks away from the ABM Treaty, Russia's angermay result in less cooperation in safeguarding its dangerous nuclearstockpile. Most important, the Russians could simply sell rogue statessophisticated countermeasures that might undermine even fairly robustdefenses.

In a post-Cold War world, scrapping the ABM Treaty and building anambitious and costly NMD system to defend wealthy allies -- who can affordto defend themselves -- are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

If Bush seeks a radical departure from past U.S. nuclear policy, he shouldsupport the reduction of the U.S. arsenal to the 1,500 warheads proposed byRussia in order to win Russian agreement for the United States to buildlimited land-based defenses. Russia probably would eventually agree torenegotiate the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of a limited number ofinterceptors that would be clearly intended to defend against smallintentional or accidental attacks by rogue states. A larger NMD system issimply not warranted by the limited threat posed by rogue states and willmake Russia -- a nation with thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert --very nervous. Bush is right to declare that the Cold War is over, but hemust also transcend it in his own policy prescriptions.