My post earlier this week questioning the administration’s policy of pursuing research (at least) into a new type of ‘mini-nuke’ (the so-called bunker buster) produced many e-mails in response, mainly disagreeing and often citing various examples drawn from America’s Cold War arsenal. The problem is that that precedent doesn’t apply. Throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were, for all practical purposes, almost always seen (by the US certainly, and the USSR probably) as a weapon of last resort. Even so-called ‘theater’ nukes were only contemplated in the context of a NATO collapse in Central Europe.
Now the situation is very different. We live in an age of nuclear proliferation, and about the only thing that may dissuade some countries from building a nuclear weapons technology is the thankfully widespread taboo that endures against the use of such weapons. The prospect that Saddam might not have abandoned his attempts to develop a nuclear capability (whatever the reality turns out to be) brought the US a lot of (often silent) support in the Iraq war – and it shows that the taboo still endures. It’s not a taboo that will carry much weight with the Bin Ladens of this world, but it still, clearly, has some force. To the extent that the US lowers the threshold on its own willingness to use nuclear weapons, it weakens that taboo, and that is, clearly, a mistake.