Will US soften stance on nukes?

A rollercoaster ride of spurned treaties, efforts to fund new weapons and the expansion of potential targets for nuclear strikes under the Bush administration to include Iran and North Korea may be drawing to a close after eight years. Wade Boese, research director at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said he detects a new tone in the current

US presidential race following the publication of calls in the Wall Street Journal more than a year ago by former US secretaries of states Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former defence secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn for a world free of nuclear weapons.

“Today, we deploy thousands of nuclear warheads,” Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in May. “It is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller force.” Still, Boese describes arms control and nuclear disarmament as largely under-the-radar political issues in the US election. “There is not much to look at right now. They all have said the right things in the sense that we need to reduce our nuclear forces, we need to show leadership,” Boese said, adding that Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, appears willing to take a more aggressive reduction approach.

“I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance,” Obama said a year ago, with a pause, “involving civilians.” Then he quickly added, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.” Boese is concerned that other bigger issues like US military involvement in Iraq could “distract” the next US administration from tackling complexities behind disarmament.

Another arms control watcher, David Culp, foresees a substantial change in US policy whoever is elected president in November. “There is pretty broad bipartisan frustration with the Bush administration policy,” he said. Unclear, however, from either campaign is whether the Bush administration’s expanded targeting plans for nuclear strikes against Iran, North Korea and Syria will be revisited, stated Culp. Encouraging for him is that the US Congress is undertaking a review of the US nuclear posture after rejecting proposals for the financing of new nuclear weapons under the current administration, including a controversial nuclear “bunker buster” bomb that would have been aimed at Iran’s underground uranium enrichment facilities.

Martin Butcher, a policy researcher at Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, emphasises the relevance of the US nuclear posture in the wake of continued bellicose talk in US and Israeli political circles directed against Iran, which is accused of enriching uranium to create nuclear bombs.

“The US doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons to prevent a country like Iran which has the potential to produce nuclear weapons from turning that potential into reality,” Butcher said. Within NATO, he says, unresolved differences pit the European countries, which want to limit first-strike capability to major conflicts with states already armed with nuclear weapons like Russia and China, against the US, which has sought to broaden the targets to include enemy states with other weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical, biological and powerful conventional arms. — IPS