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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 23, February 1998

Miscalculated Ambiguity:
US Policy on the Use and Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons
By Stephen I. Schwartz


With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, members of the public could be forgiven for thinking that the nuclear era is on the wane. The implementation of START I, the preparations underway for START II, the negotiating framework for START III, the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), symbolic detargeting agreements and other events seem to signal, if not an end to the nuclear age, at least a significant scaling back of its worst excesses. Appearances to the contrary, however, nuclear weapons - and the institutions overseeing their maintenance and targeting - continue to play an important role in US military planning, at a cost of some $25 billion a year. The use of nuclear weapons to achieve political ends is also alive and well.

That became evident this past month when Russian President Boris Yeltsin said during a meeting at the Kremlin on 4 February that a US attack on Iraq could provoke a world war. "One must be careful in a world that is saturated with all kinds of weapons," said Yeltsin. "By his actions, Clinton might get into a world war." Yeltsin's spokesman attempted to explain the startling statement by blaming American journalists for misinterpreting his words, but the next day Yeltsin reiterated his remarks, adding that Russia "would not allow" a US military strike on Iraq. (1)

Press reports speculated that Yeltsin's comments (which triggered a brief plunge in world financial markets but otherwise received only passing mention in the US media) were the result of stories in the Russian press about US plans to drop nuclear weapons on Iraq and resolutions by Communist and nationalist deputies in the Duma calling for Russian military support of Iraq in the event of a US nuclear attack on that country. But whatever the reasons for Yeltsin's remarks, including longstanding Russian opposition to US policy against Iraq, they were not based on rumor.

Just three days before Yeltsin injected a Cold War-era chill into the dispute over Iraq's compliance with United Nations inspection agreements, Newsday published a detailed article describing how a revised US nuclear guidance signed by President Clinton last November - known as Presidential Decision Directive 60 (PDD 60) - allowed US forces to target nuclear weapons against 'rogue' States, including Iraq, in retaliation for the use of weapons of mass destruction. While the report did not state that the United States had actually targeted Iraq or that it intended to launch a nuclear strike, quotes from unnamed administration officials made clear that such an option was available. (2)

Nor was Newsday the only newspaper to pick up the story. Two months earlier, the Washington Post broke the news of the new guidance, reporting that PDD 60 requires "general planning for potential nuclear strikes against other nations that have what [national security adviser Robert] Bell called 'prospective access' to nuclear weapons and that are now or may eventually become hostile to the United States. A separate official described these countries as 'rogue States,' specifically listed in the directive as possible targets in the event of regional conflicts or crises." But this information was buried deep inside the article; the Post chose to focus instead on how PPD 60 eliminated a requirement dating back to 1981 calling for the United States to be able to fight and win a prolonged nuclear war. (3)

US officials were sufficiently troubled by Yeltsin's outburst to issue an extraordinary statement through the US embassy in Moscow that evening. It began, "The press reports that the US is planning to use nuclear weapons to destroy chemical or biological weapons storage facilities in Iraq have no basis in fact. The US has no plans or intentions of using nuclear weapons against Iraq. We are aware of the enormous implications of using nuclear weapons." The statement stressed that "swift, devastating, and overwhelming" non-nuclear responses were available should US forces come under chemical or biological attack, but added, "Nevertheless, we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us." State Department spokesman James Rubin read a nearly identical statement at his press briefing the following day. The inherent and obvious contradiction in these remarks - categorically denying that nuclear weapons were being considered yet simultaneously refusing to rule them out - received even less coverage than Yeltsin's declaration. (4)

If all this seems familiar, it is. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, US officials from President George Bush on down issued subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messages that nuclear weapons might be used against Iraq should it use chemical or biological weapons against US forces. Although no ground-based nuclear weapons were deployed to the region, hundreds of nuclear weapons were in the area aboard submarines and surface ships. (5)

Publicly, most officials adhered to longstanding policy of neither confirming nor denying anything about nuclear weapons; off-the record they sometimes told reporters no such use was contemplated. Indeed, before the start of the war, President Bush privately ruled out the use of nuclear weapons even if Iraq used chemical weapons (although this decision was apparently never communicated to the Defense Department or the military leaders planning the war). Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III called this policy of secretly planning not to use nuclear weapons yet publicly threatening just the opposite "calculated ambiguity." Iraqi officials viewed the conflicting statements in the context of their own pattern of saying one thing and doing another; in other words they did not believe the United States any more than US officials believed them. (6)

It is worth recalling as well that on 11 April 1996, on the very day the US signed the protocols to the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (ANFZ) - which, once ratfied, would prohibit it from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons anywhere in Africa - National Security Council staffer Robert Bell told reporters that the treaty "will not limit options available to the United States in response to an attack by an ANFZ party using weapons of mass destruction." Translation: the United States promises to abide by the treaty (which the administration has not yet forwarded to the Senate for ratification), but it reserves the right to ignore this unequivocal legal commitment if attacked with weapons of mass destruction.

Less than two weeks later, Harold Smith, assistant secretary of defense for atomic energy, speaking to reporters about the suspected Libyan underground chemical munitions factory at Tarhunah, asserted that should the United States seek to destroy the facility, a nuclear weapon was the only option because it was buried too deeply to be attacked with conventional weapons. The remarks created a flurry of interest and raised serious questions about US nonproliferation policy. Within two weeks, Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters that, "There is no consideration to using nuclear weapons and any implication that we would use nuclear weapons against this plant preemptively is just wrong." The issue faded away and has not been raised again.

Deterrence and Utility: One Policy or Two?

What's going on here? Are US nuclear weapons considered viable instruments of force in certain contingencies or do they exist solely to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States? The answer, it appears, is yes to both. Even as the US and Russian strategic arsenals shrink to levels not seen in decades, both countries continue to rely on nuclear deterrence and continue to maintain their forces on high levels of alert, ready to launch at a moment's notice.

Moreover, Russia's worsening economic situation has caused it to depend more and more heavily on its nuclear weapons as it is unable to pay for the troops and equipment necessary to field and effective conventional fighting force. This is both troubling and ironic, given that more than 40 years ago the United States chose to base its defense (and the defense of Europe) on nuclear weapons by rationalizing that they provided "a bigger bang for a buck" and were therefore less expensive than equivalent conventional firepower (an assumption never subjected to rigorous economic analysis).

Along with Communism, nuclear weapons appeared destined for the ash heap of history with the end of the Cold War. But the successful outcome of the Gulf War provided US nuclear planners with a new lease on life. Because Iraq did not use its chemical or biological weapons during the war, officials argued that US nuclear threats had worked and that nuclear weapons should now be used to deter or respond to threatened attacks of weapons of mass destruction. Adherents to this point of view point to comments by Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in August 1995 that fear of nuclear attack was the reason Iraq did not use its chemical arsenal.

However, there are reasons to doubt this claim. First, Rolf Ekeus, the then-head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq and the man to whom Aziz was speaking, told independent military analyst William Arkin six months later that, "I'm quite sure that it was not the factor that was decisive for them. It is a line Iraq has taken" to end the UN imposed sanctions by showing how they were victims of the United States and have been "unfairly treated." In fact, just days before the start of the air war on 17 January (local time), Iraq moved 157 bombs filled with botulinum, anthrax, and aflatoxin to airfields in western Iraq. In addition, 25 warheads for Al Hussein missiles filled with the same biological agents were made ready for use at additional sites. But the quick pace and scale of the war appeared to catch Iraq off guard. The widespread destruction of Iraqi military equipment (including deliberate targeting of all known delivery systems) and command and control systems, coupled with the equally swift ground offensive, most likely prevented Iraq from being able to mount a successful attack. "They never managed to get their act together," argued Ekeus. (7)

Furthermore, the poor condition and distribution of Iraqi chemical defensive equipment and bad weather at the outset of the ground war (including winds which would have sent a gas attack back on Iraqi soldiers) were almost certainly important factors in Iraqi planning. Given all this, it would be a mistake to conclude that nuclear deterrence played a major role in preventing chemical or biological weapons attacks during the war.

Nevertheless, the notion that calculated ambiguity was a success served to revitalize a nuclear bureaucracy in search of a mission. A 1991 report prepared at the request of General Lee Butler, then head of the Strategic Air Command, called for the creation of a 'Nuclear Expeditionary Force' to protect allies such as Israel or Taiwan by attacking their enemies with a small number of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. So-called rogue States such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea were added to nuclear targeting lists, contravening US assurances dating back to 1978 (and reiterated as recently as 1995) that the United States will not attack any non-nuclear party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless attacked with nuclear weapons or if such nations are carrying out an attack in association with a nuclear power. (8)

In 1997, a newly-configured nuclear gravity bomb - the B61-11, a 12 foot-long (3.7 meters), 1,200 pound (545 kilograms) bomb with a variable yield estimated at .3-340 kilotons - became part of the operational nuclear stockpile. The B61-11, capable of being delivered by B-2A and B-1B bombers and the F-16 fighter, is designed to burrow some 50 feet (15 meters) underground to destroy hardened Russian command bunkers (though other underground facilities are certainly vulnerable to its effects). The ensuing debate (such as it was) over whether this was a new weapon or merely modified obscured the more fundamental point: that the United States continues to view nuclear weapons as useful and even necessary instruments of military force at the same time as it seeks to reduce its own arsenal and stem the further proliferation of such weapons. (9)

Limitations and Dangers of the Current Approach

Is this a sound policy, one that will strengthen US military and political interests? In addition, even if the United States never uses nuclear weapons again, is it effective to threaten to do so, and to never publicly rule out their use under any circumstances? A look at the recent crisis with Iraq may prove useful.

As we have seen, the policy of calculated ambiguity has already backfired with respect to Russia. The United States can certainly deal with Iraq without Russia, but the ongoing diplomacy and, if necessary, military action would be easier with Russian support. Moreover, the lack of support or even outright opposition would complicate both the Iraqi situation as well as other US-Russian relations, particularly concerning the long-delayed ratification of the START II Treaty, the expansion of NATO, and the issue of Russian nuclear sales to Iran.

Although the likelihood that the United States would use nuclear weapons is remote, even keeping open the possibility has ignited controversy. Nor is Russia the only country with which the United States has to be concerned. Although they have not done so publicly, it seems likely that the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments have privately raised the issue with the United States, much as they did during the Gulf War.

Basing a policy of using nuclear weapons to deter attacks by other weapons of mass destruction on the belief that this worked in the Gulf War is problematic. There is no hard evidence that this in fact occurred and much evidence that other factors were involved. In addition, Iraq is an aberration, a country which regularly defies the international community and shows profound disregard for the consequences of its own actions. Saddam Hussein has demonstrated his willingness to violate international law, to use chemical weapons against his own people, and to risk the lives of millions of his citizens and, indeed, the existence of his nation, in order to further his own ends. This suggests he is a poor model for the sort of leader whom nuclear policymakers have in mind, the kind who carefully weigh the consequences of their actions and do not take risks which will leave them or their countries worse off. Deterrence can only function if the threat is perceived as credible and if both sides behave rationally. (10)

Whatever their other faults, Saddam Hussein and other 'rogue' leaders are not ignorant of history. There is a well known record of implicit and explicit US threats to use nuclear force, dating back to the Berlin blockade in 1948, yet in no case has the United States ever carried out such a threat (11). With regard to Iraq, if the United States did not use nuclear weapons to repel the invasion of Kuwait then it is much less likely to use nuclear weapons to compel compliance with arms inspections, particularly when the US has had difficulty rounding up international support for attacking Iraq.

Threatening to do so may sow doubts in the minds of the Iraqi leadership, but it is equally likely to have a far more pernicious effect. Such threats demonstrate that weapons of mass destruction may be required to deter the United States.

Is this really the message the United States wishes to communicate to the international community, that threatening the use of nuclear weapons is an acceptable means of diplomacy, much less warfare? This posture is needlessly counterproductive, giving comfort not only to those in other countries who view such weapons as useful but also to the US nuclear bureaucracy which uses such threats to justify its continued existence and high levels of funding.

Current US nuclear policy allows officials to avoid making the hard choices and instead fall back on the 'proven' worth of nuclear deterrence, using the avoidance of World War III as evidence that nuclear deterrence works (ignoring the fact that something which did not occur is not direct proof of anything; the US spent far more money on conventional weapons during the Cold War, and these were used repeatedly, most notably in Korea and Viet Nam. How can we be certain that nuclear weapons were the sole or even major contributor to a lack of direct conflict between the US and Russia, especially when evidence from the former Soviet archives to support or refute such a position has not yet been fully assessed?).

The greatest risk of chemical or biological attack today comes not from nations but terrorists. A nuclear response to such an act is hardly feasible. Even if one were able to link definitively a terrorist group to a State, would nuclear weapons of any size offer an acceptable response? At the lowest yields currently deployed by the US - 0.3 kilotons, or 300 tons of TNT - they are hundreds of times more powerful than the largest conventional bombs and are therefore too indiscriminate to use as instruments of discrete retribution. The political and environmental fallout following the use of such weapons would be too severe.

In 1991, when Representative Dan Burton (Republican - Indiana) called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iraqi troops after the Gulf War had started but before the ground offensive had begun, then Republican minority whip Newt Gingrich (Republican - Georgia) offered compelling reasons against such a course of action. To do so, he warned, would "establish a pattern out there that it is legitimate to use those kinds of weapons [and] our children and grandchildren are going to rue the day." To this he added, "We would not want to live in a world in which we had sent a signal to every country on the planet to get nuclear weapons as fast as we can." Even the editors of the staunchly conservative Washington Times saw the shortsightedness of Burton's approach, when they wrote: "The fallout from American nukes will not be limited to the fields of fire in the Persian Gulf. It will rise like a dark cloud to enshroud the world, inviting anti-American recriminations everywhere, destroying what moral leadership we might enjoy in the world, and inciting unpredictable and ungovernable passions in the Arab world... We want a stable Middle East so that we might enjoy the fruits of new economic production and competition. Tactical nukes may save a few American lives, but they could also explode any chance of achieving the political goals for which some of our soldiers have already died." (12)


Short of a direct attack on the United States, it is inconceivable that a US President would ever order the use of nuclear weapons. Keeping the threat alive and developing and maintaining targeting plans which suggest otherwise is a waste of resources and a diversion from the real issues, the need to delegitimize and eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, devise effective defensive measures, and address the economic and political inequities which give rise to conflict. It also serves to disguise the fact that, as in the Gulf War, the US, working in concert with its allies, has very powerful, accurate, and effective conventional means of dealing with aggression.

There is today a troubling schism between declared nuclear intentions and operational US nuclear policy. President Clinton lauds the detargeting of US and Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), an important yet largely symbolic step which both sides can reverse at any time in a matter of seconds. The President similarly expresses strong support for the CTBT, but his administration's desire to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks involving other weapons of mass destruction threatens to derail that agreement by giving opponents an opening to argue that such a posture requires further testing to develop new weapons, especially tailored for use against 'rogue' States. The President affirms his commitment to reduce the nuclear threat and rid the world of nuclear weapons, but behind the scenes a small cadre of military and civilian officials, working in secret and accountable largely to themselves, continues to develop concepts for new weapons and to refine nuclear war plans to allow for near real-time targeting of installations anywhere in the world. (13)

US military and political leaders need to stop basing nuclear policy on the perceived short-term benefits of using one weapon of mass destruction to deter another and instead examine carefully the long-term risks of such an approach. Doing so will reveal that ending reliance on nuclear weapons and creating usable offensive and defensive strategies will do more to strengthen US and world security than being able to rattle the increasingly anachronistic nuclear sword.

Notes and References

1. Michael Specter, 'Yeltsin Says Clinton Could Blunder Into a World War; Press Imagines Nuclear Attack,' New York Times, 5 February 1998, p A6; Carol J. Williams, 'Yeltsin's Anger May Be Fed By Rumor,' Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), 5 February 1998, p. A3; David Hoffman, 'Yeltsin Warns US Again on Using Force,' Washington Post, 6 February 1998, p. A36.

2. Patrick Sloyan, 'New Nuke Policy by Clinton Directive Allows Atomic Retaliation,' Newsday, 1 February 1998, p. A7.

3. R. Jeffrey Smith, 'Clinton Directive Changes Strategy On Nuclear Arms,' Washington Post, 7 December 1997, p. A1.

4. Text of documents available online from the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers http://www.clw.org/pub/clw/coalition.

5. William Arkin, Joshua Handler, and Damian Durrant, 'US Nuclear Weapons in the Persian Gulf Crisis,' Greenpeace USA, January 1991.

6. William Arkin, 'Calculated Ambiguity: Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf War,' Washington Quarterly, vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn 1996, pp. 3-18. Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan told the Christian Science Monitor on 14 August 1990 - less than two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait - that, "The US has no plans" to use chemical or nuclear weapons against Iraq (Dugan was fired by Defense Secretary Cheney one month later for disclosing that US war plans called for targeting Saddam Hussein, his family, and even his mistress). Lawrence J. Goodrich, 'US Won't Use Chemical Arms in Gulf, Air Force Chief Says,' Christian Science Monitor, 14 August 1990, p.1. General Norman Schwarzkopf wrote in 1992 that following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, if Iraq had chosen to execute US prisoners, "Central Command had little to offer short of a nuclear strike on Baghdad. I would never have recommended such a course of action, and even if I had, I am certain the President would never have approved it." General Colin Powell has written that in 1990 he was asked by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney to examine possible nuclear strike options. The results: "To do serious damage to just one armored division dispersed in the desert would require a considerable number of small tactical nuclear weapons. I showed this analysis to Cheney and then had it destroyed." General H. Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf: The Autobiography - It Doesn't Take A Hero (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 313; Colin L. Powell with Joseph E. Perisco, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 485-486.

7. Arkin, 'Calculated Ambiguity: Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf War,' pp. 7-9; William J. Broad and Judith Miller, 'Iraq's Deadliest Arms: Puzzles Breed Fears,' New York Times, 26 February 1988, p. A1.

8. Thomas C. Reed and Michael O. Wheeler, 'The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the New World Order,' October 1991. On 12 June, 1978, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance issued the following statement on behalf of President Jimmy Carter: "The United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapons State party to the NPT or any comparable internationally binding commitment not to acquire nuclear explosive devices, except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by such a State allied to a nuclear-weapons State or associated with a nuclear-weapons State in carrying out or sustaining the attack. It is the President's view that this formulation preserves our security commitments and advances our collective security as well as enhancing the prospect for more effective arms control and disarmament. On 5 April 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher reiterated this position: "The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State." (Text available online at http://www.clw.org/pub/clw/coalition/)

9. Hans Kristensen, 'Targets of Opportunity,' Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 53, no.5, September/October 1997, pp. 22-28; Greg Mello, 'New Bomb, No Mission,' Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 53, no. 3, May/June 1997, pp. 28-32.

10. Nevertheless, a partially declassified 1995 assessment conducted by the US Strategic Command actually argued that irrationality could work to the advantage of the United States. Having US military or civilian leaders "appear potentially 'out of control'" could create doubts and fears in the minds of adversaries about US intentions. "That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project." Quoted in Kristensen, 'Targets of Opportunity,' p. 25.

11. For a critical treatment of this subject see Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987).

12. Quoted in McGeorge Bundy, 'Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf,' Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, no. 4, Fall 1991, pp. 85-86; 'No Nukes,' Washington Times, 11 February 1991, p. D2.

13. On new weapons development, see Christopher E. Paine and Matthew G. McKinzie, End Run: The US Government's Plan for Designing Nuclear Weapons and Simulating Nuclear Explosions Under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, August 1997. Available online, address http://www.igc.apc.org/nrdc/nrdcpro/endrun/erinx.html.) Understanding of, and control over, the nuclear targeting plan by civilian political officials is essentially nonexistent. The extreme secrecy surrounding nuclear war plans has been used by the targeting staff to frustrate efforts to review the process since the 1950s. Indeed, the staff has considered such attempts to be unwarranted interference and has fiercely resisted them. For their part, civilian officials responsible for overseeing the preparation of nuclear war plans frequently excused themselves for bureaucratic reasons, leaving junior military officers in charge of writing and rewriting the plans. See Janne Nolan, Guardians of the Arsenal: The Politics of Nuclear Strategy (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1989), pp. 254-256; Peter Douglas Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 59-60.

Stephen I. Schwartz is a guest scholar with the Foreign Policy Studies program of the Brookings Institution and editor and co-author of 'Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940', to be published by the Brookings Institution Press this spring (for more information, see the Brookings Institution web-site, www.brook.edu.)

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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