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Is Bush readier to use nukes?

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As if the Bush Pentagon hadn't been busy enough lately, last weekend it emerged that officials there have revamped the nation's nuclear-war plans. A classified portion of the latest "Nuclear Posture Review," which was presented to Congress Jan. 8, lists the countries the U.S. considers contenders for a nuclear assault: Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria. In the past, policymakers generally didn't name specific targets, or if they did, the list wasn't leaked. The document advocates that the military develop a new class of smaller, earth-penetrating nuclear arms suitable for destroying bunkers, as well as buried nuclear, chemical and biological stores.

The retooled plan seems to reflect a loosening of the traditional constraints the U.S. has placed on its nuclear arms--which limited their use to retaliation against biological, chemical or nuclear attack or to extraordinary combat situations. The review--first reported by the Los Angeles Times--says the U.S. might consider nuclear strikes if Iraq attacked Israel, if China moved militarily against Taiwan or if North Korea reinvaded South Korea.

Officials in Washington insist there has been no change in policy. They note that even if Iraq was never acknowledged to be on a target list, Washington during the 1991 Gulf War did issue a veiled threat that it might unleash nuclear fury if Iraq used chemical weapons on U.S. troops. That might have been what kept Saddam Hussein's sarin gas sidelined. Officially, the Pentagon insists the congressionally mandated review "does not provide operational guidance on nuclear targeting or planning." Unofficially, some defense officials describe it as little more than a "self-licking ice cream cone"--a report designed to keep money flowing into military budgets for the maintenance of existing nuclear arms and the development of new ones.


Cover Date: March 18, 2002


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