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By Robert S. McNamara and Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr.

Robert S. McNamara was secretary of defense from 1961-1967. Thomas Graham Jr. is president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security and the author of the forthcoming book "Disarmament Sketches."

-- The Bush administration has made much of its belief that the international arms control treaty regime is irrelevant. As the recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reportedly states, "that old process is incompatible with the flexibility U.S. planning and forces now require." The United States has decided to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, put aside improvements in the Biological Weapons Convention, and refused to continue the formal strategic arms reduction process. It now seems that the Administration is prepared to add the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to its list of treaties to put aside.

Should this happen, and should this administration's practice continue, nuclear weapons can be expected to spread around the world. We will then live in a far, far more dangerous world and the United States will be much, much less secure. Given the stakes, we may be approaching some of the most important decisions in decades.

During the Cold War, peace was supported by the doctrine of "mutual assured destruction," which simply meant that each side maintained forces and observed the conditions required to retain a devastating second strike capability, thereby deterring nuclear war. The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the treaties limiting strategic offensive nuclear forces were the underpinning of this doctrine and the basis for ending the nuclear arms race and enhancing strategic stability.

While the United States and Russia continue to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons -- with many remaining on hair-trigger alert -- the Bush administration has unilaterally declared mutual assured destruction to be outdated, and has decided to withdraw from the ABM Treaty to underscore this point.

Now, according to reports describing the NPR, the administration has moved to a new nuclear doctrine described by one commentator as "unilateral assured destruction." Russia is still targeted, but potentially by offensive forces rather than second-strike nuclear forces. China is also targeted, with a "military confrontation over the status of Taiwan" set forth as a possible rationale for a nuclear strike.

The NPR goes even further. It explicitly lists Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and North Korea as potential targets for United States nuclear forces, putting aside the ambiguity employed in previous reports. One thing -- perhaps the only thing -- that these five states have in common, however, is that all are nonnuclear weapon states parties to the NPT. For 30 years, this treaty has kept nuclear weapons from spreading all over the world, a development that would be devastating to U.S. security.

The problem is, however, that in 1978 -- in order to bolster the NPT -- the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union formally pledged never to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapon states parties to the treaty except in the case of an attack by any such a state in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. (No exception was made for responding to chemical or biological weapon attacks). And in 1995 the three states, with Russia replacing the former Soviet Union, joined by France and China, reiterated this pledge as a central element of the effort to make the NPT (which by its terms had a 25-year duration) a permanent treaty.

In what could be the most reasonable request in the history of international relations, in exchange for permanently agreeing to never acquire nuclear weapons, 182 nonnuclear nations asked that the five nuclear weapon states promise to never attack them with such weapons. This was done in April 1995 in connection with a UN Security Council Resolution. But the Pentagon plan undermines the credibility of that pledge, which underpins the Nonproliferation Treaty. To strike directly at this NPT pledge of nonuse is to strike at the NPT itself.

Further, the basic implication of the NPR that the United States reserves the right to target any nation with nuclear weapons whenever it chooses to do so is itself likely to increase the risk of the nuclear weapons proliferation. If a country believes it is falling out of favor in Washington, what is the first thing it is likely to do? While it is always difficult to predict the actions of nations, perhaps a quote attributed to Indian Defense Minister George Fernandez provides some insight: "Before one challenges the United States, one must first acquire nuclear weapons."

Finally, the NPR also appears to set forth a 40-year plan for developing and acquiring new nuclear weapons. It reportedly calls for new launch platforms (air, sea and land) to be developed and deployed in 2020, 2030 and 2040, and it calls for new low-yield and variable-yield warheads that very likely would require nuclear testing. Maintaining a permanent rationale for a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal and a resumption of nuclear testing would both fly in the face of vital U.S. NPT commitments.

These matters are far too important for the administration to decide on its own. There must be a full public debate on the future of our nuclear deterrent and the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It is time for Congress to schedule full and public hearings on this matter.

(c) 2002, NPQ/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 3/11/02)