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News Review Special Edition

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International Developments, November 15, 2002 - February 1, 2003

US Unveils National Strategy to Combat WMD

On December 11, the White House released a six-page unclassified version of its new 'National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction', pledging "a comprehensive strategy to counter this threat in all of its dimensions". Following on from the National Security Strategy in late September - with its controversial advocacy of selective 'pre-emptive' military action - much media and political attention was focused on the 'strike first' dimension of the new document, particularly as such a posture may, in extremis, encompass the use of nuclear weapons to prevent or respond to imminent or 'gathering' WMD threats. Although the Strategy - known in its official, classified form as National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 17 - essentially reaffirms America's long-standing and explicit refusal to rule out the first use of nuclear weapons, some critics pointed to a new stridency of language, as well as suggesting that the release of the document was timed in part to send a clear message to the Iraqi regime not to contemplate the use of chemical or biological weapons in the event of conflict.

The Strategy describes three 'pillars' of US anti-WMD policy: "counterproliferation to combat WMD use"; strengthened non-proliferation to combat WMD proliferation"; and "consequence management to respond to WMD use". In its depiction of the counterproliferation 'pillar', the document notes: "We know from experience that we cannot always be successful in preventing and containing the proliferation of WMD to hostile states and terrorists. Therefore, US military and appropriate civilian agencies must possess the full range of operational capabilities to counter the threat and use of WMD by states and terrorists against the United States, our military forces, and friends and allies." Three main elements of counterproliferation are then considered: interdiction, deterrence, and "defense and mitigation". The section on deterrence deals with nuclear-use policy:

"Today's threats are far more diverse and less predictable than those of the past. States hostile to the United States and to our friends and allies have demonstrated their willingness to take high risks to achieve their goals, and are aggressively pursuing WMD and their means of delivery as critical tools in this effort. As a consequence, we require new methods of deterrence. A strong declaratory policy and effective military forces are essential elements of our contemporary deterrent posture, along with the full range of political tools to persuade potential adversaries not to seek or use WMD. The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including through resort to all of our options - to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."

The section concludes: "In addition to our conventional and nuclear response and defense capabilities, our overall deterrent posture against WMD threats is reinforced by effective intelligence, surveillance, interdiction, and domestic law enforcement capabilities. Such combined capabilities enhance deterrence both by devaluing an adversary's WMD and missiles, and by posing the prospect of an overwhelming response to any use of such weapons."

Observing that "deterrence may not succeed", the section on 'Defense and Mitigation' argues that "US military forces and appropriate civilian agencies must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through pre-emptive measures. This requires capabilities to detect and destroy an adversary's WMD assets before these weapons are used. In addition, robust active and passive defenses and mitigation measures must be in place to enable US military forces and appropriate civilian agencies to accomplish their missions, and to assist friends and allies when WMD are used."

The theme of 'robust' capacity is then developed: "US military forces and domestic law enforcement agencies as appropriate must stand ready to respond against the source of any WMD attack. The primary objective of a response is to disrupt an imminent attack or an attack in progress, and eliminate the threat of future attacks. As with deterrence and prevention, an effective response requires rapid attribution and robust strike capability. We must accelerate efforts to field new capabilities to defeat WMD-related assets. The United States needs to be prepared to conduct post-conflict operations to destroy or dismantle any residual WMD capabilities of the hostile state or terrorist network. An effective US response not only will eliminate the source of a WMD attack but will also have a powerful deterrent effect upon other adversaries that possess or seek WMD or missiles." It is in this context that the possible development and deployment of new, 'low-yield' nuclear weapons - 'bunker-busters', or 'mini-nukes', designed to destroy underground WMD-related facilities - is under consideration by the Pentagon.

In its final section, 'Targeted Strategies Against Proliferants', the Strategy stresses the selectivity inherent in the three-pillar approach: "All elements of the overall US strategy to combat WMD must be brought to bear in targeted strategies against supplier and recipient states of WMD proliferation concern, as well as against terrorist groups which seek to acquire WMD. A few states are dedicated proliferators, whose leaders are determined to develop, maintain, and improve their WMD and delivery capabilities, which directly threaten the United States, US forces overseas, and/or our friends and allies. Because each of these regimes is different, we will pursue country-specific strategies that best enable us and our friends and allies to prevent, deter, and defend against WMD and missile threats from each of them."

Speaking on the day of the Strategy's release, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer implied that the text was, indeed, designed primarily to send a clear message to potential adversaries that the United States is determined to combat "weapons of mass destruction through counterproliferation, through non-proliferation and, if necessary, through response." The document, Fleischer noted, is a "reiteration" of different strands of US policy, "but, this time, it ties it all together to make clear that the United States will, indeed, respond."

On December 16, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, worried in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Chicago that the tone of the Strategy risked "playing into the hands of those who wish to keep the world off balance, frightened, and anti-American." Hagel wondered: "What purpose is served by reiterating this policy so publicly at this time?" Earlier, speaking in his home state of Nebraska on December 11, Hagel had cautioned that "it is very dangerous to be talking too much about these kinds of responses that the United States would take, or actions in anticipation of another nation's actions." This "mucky schizophrenia" on nuclear use, the Senator warned, "essentially nullifies the last 50 years. It sets in motion a series of uncontrollable actions that could be taken by China, by Russia, by Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, nations that...possess nuclear weapons."

The Strategy was likewise lambasted by US arms control and disarmament advocates, perhaps most severely by John Isaacs, President of the Council for a Livable World: "Dr. Strangelove is alive and well in the Bush Pentagon. ... The administration's new strategy, its quest to explore building new nuclear weapons such as a 'nuclear bunker-buster', and its refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signal to the world that the US has extensive plans to build and use nuclear weapons in the future. For 57 years, the world has avoided nuclear weapons use despite many grave crises. The Bush administration is now dangerously lowering the threshold for wreaking nuclear devastation across the planet."

Such alarm, however, was clearly not shared in Moscow, where the Russian Foreign Ministry issued (December 15) a notably relaxed statement: "Moscow continues to carefully study the new US Strategy... Competent American agencies have done a serious analysis and outlined very far-reaching tasks in countering one of the main global threats of today - the proliferation of WMDs. In so doing, they correctly point out that today a flare of international terrorist activity has aggravated this danger. It is known that in the last few years, primarily thanks to the important agreements reached in the course of Russian-American summit meetings, it has been possible to noticeably advance cooperation between our two countries in questions of counterproliferation. We hope that the published National Strategy of the United States will contribute to further developing and deepening such bilateral and multilateral collaboration on the basis of international law and mutual consideration of national interests. Good prerequisites for the Russian-American partnership in the field of non-proliferation...are created by the clearly defined strategic directive for enhancing the traditional instruments of diplomacy - arms control, multilateral agreements, threat reduction assistance, and export controls."

A week before the release of the Strategy, former Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov referred in chilling terms to Russian nuclear-use policy with regard to the terrorist dimension of the conflict in Chechnya. In an interview published in Izvestia on December, Mikhailov stated: "If the Chechen militants attempts to seize a nuclear power plant or dare to spread radioactive materials to pollute land and air, that would be equivalent to the declaration of nuclear war against Russia. The response to the Chechens will be very cruel. ... [The] rebels must realize that their entire people will bear responsibility for their actions... If the Chechens engage in nuclear blackmail, there will be no Chechnya left in the world." Speaking in more general and less brutal terms on January 18, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov told a meeting of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow: "A key aspect of Army development is the maintenance of the nuclear forces on a level that guarantees deterrence of aggression against us and our allies..."

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: Former official says Chechnya will disappear from map if rebels use mass destruction weapons, Associated Press, December 4; National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, The White House, December 2002, released December 11; Preemptive strikes part of US strategic doctrine, Washington Post, December 11; Text - Bush administration releases new WMD strategic plan, Washington File, December 11; White House Report - WMD Strategy, Washington File, December 11; President says US defense strategy will confront threat from weapons of mass destruction 'with confidence and determination', Associated Press, December 11; US sees nuclear deterrence against WMD attack, Reuters, December 11; Bush administration's strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction fatally flawed, Council for a Livable World Press Release, December 11; Regarding new US National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 2578-15-12-2002, December 15; Russia praises new US strategy on weapons of mass destruction, Associated Press, December 15; Senator urges cooler rhetoric on weapons, Reuters, December 16; Russian defense minister - nuclear forces play key role in deterring aggression, Associated Press, January 18.

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