Start Worrying, and Learn to Fear the Bomb
24 June 2001
This week's edition of Newsweek contains the news that President Bush expressed astonishment at a recent briefing about the size of the American nuclear arsenal. Newsweek cited "a knowledgeable source" who indicated that Bush said, "I had no idea we had so many weapons. What do we need them for?" He does deserve credit for noting that the number of nuclear weapons is ludicrously high. But there is more to the report than that. If the report is true, then the President's remarks reveal a number of flaws in the Bush administration. If the report is false, then the Bush administration has engaged in a most cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion.
Let us first assume that the report is true. In that case, the report illuminates four serious flaws of Bush administration and the Republican party in general.
First, one of the main jobs of the President of the United States is to prevent nuclear war. It is dangerous at worst and stupid at best to keep the president in the dark about the very nuclear weapons that he supposedly controls. Newsweek reported that the 20-minute briefing occurred in May of this year. Did President Bush really not have any inkling about the size of the nuclear arsenal for the first 100 days of his term in office? A great deal about the U.S. nuclear arsenal is unclassified. A brief overview of the nuclear forces, with a synopsis about recent developments is available every March in the Nuclear Notebook feature of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All of the facts about the arsenal mentioned in the Newsweek article were in fact published by the Bulletin well before the President''s meeting.
Certainly some of the President's key advisors had the knowledge to brief the President on nuclear matters well before May 2001. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense during the original Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice has spent her professional life analyzing the Soviet and Russian militaries. Did they really not bring up the nuclear arsenal with the President before last month?
Second, a serious candidate for President needs to know at least the basic facts about defense matters, at least to avoid embarrassment during the campaign. During the 1976 campaign, Gerald Ford famously replied to a question in a Presidential debate that the Soviet Union did not dominate Poland. The Newsweek story implies that Bush went into his debates with Al Gore not knowing the number of nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals.
Third, the report indicates that President Bush is remarkably divorced from important decisions about the federal budget. According to the Brookings Institution, the federal government spends over $35 billion every year on nuclear weapons and related programs. According to the Nuclear Notebook, current projects include ongoing flight testing of Trident submarine missiles, replacement of propellant and warheads on Minuteman III missiles, and ongoing upgrades to B-52 and B-2 bombers. A large part of the expenditures of the Department of Energy are the costs of the nuclear weapons laboratories in New Mexico and California. Did anyone tell the President what these expenditures were for?
Fourth, the number of existing nuclear weapons is a reminder that both Republicans and Democrats in Washington find it difficult to say no to almost any new nuclear weapon. There are almost too many cases to count. We spent billions of dollars over the years for a "strategic bomber" to replace the B-52 bomber. First, the new bomber was going to be the supersonic B-70. Then, it was going to be the B-1. Then it was going to be the B-1B. Then it was going to be the B-2. We now have 21 B-2 bombers. They cost over 3 times the cost of gold by weight; they cannot be flown in the rain; and they might be vulnerable to detection, not by expensive radar systems, but by ordinary cell phone antennas. In current dollars, we spent over $5 billion on the Midgetman missile in the 1980s, at the same time that we were implementing the MX missile. In spite of the continued invulnerability of our nuclear submarines, we have spent billions of dollars on replacing the old Trident C-4 missiles with Trident II D-5 missiles. They are marginally more powerful and marginally more accurate. The improvements are useless unless we are trying to win a nuclear war. We have also spent over $70 billion on absolutely useless defensive systems.
Despite the absurd amounts of money spent on weapons systems that sane persons of every political persuasion agree never should be used, many members of Congress are afraid of arms control treaties, even though the START II treaty is the only reason that the main American and Russian arsenals have less than 10,000 nuclear weapons apiece. Given that the President has peered into President Putin's soul and found him to be a good man, perhaps it is time for these two fast friends to negotiate the START III treaty. Why should North Korea agree to a treaty to end its nascent missile program when we won't even seriously negotiate with our purported friend?
I would be the first to cheer if President Bush ordered a full review of the United States nuclear program, with the goal of a large unilateral reduction of our nuclear forces to a level necessary for national security. I think it very likely, however, that at least part of the story in Newsweek is an intentional ploy by the Bush White House to gather public support for its revival of the defective "Star Wars" scheme of the Reagan White House. Whenever the Bush White House has mentioned cuts in nuclear arsenals, it has done so in conjunction with Star Wars, Episode Two. Already, Russia has put the United States on notice that it would counter any national missile defense with a large increase in its nuclear warheads. China would almost assuredly do the same, and Pakistan and India might be close behind. A new, multilateral arms race would surely not make the world any safer.
The threat of a multilateral arms race should strike fear in the hearts of the President's advisors. They surely know that the rationale for the ABM Treaty was to prevent a nationwide defense that could serve to supplement a first-strike attack. They surely know that both the United States and Russia have more nuclear weapons than they would ever need. They surely know that their planned national missile defense is terribly flawed. It is shocking enough that the President's handlers are willing to let others see him as completely ignorant of one of the most important issues that he will face as President. They appear willing to risk a new nuclear arms race for the political benefits that a deployed missile defense system might bring. Shame on them.
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