At the height of Operation Desert Storm, people throughout the United States advocated the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, as the appropriate U.S. response to an Iraqi chemical attack against allied forces, thus expediently ending the war and reducing allied casualties. It is possible that this threat dissuaded Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, in which case nuclear weapons effectively played their role as deterrents.The disconcerting fact is that these nuclear advocates were ready to use these weapons regardless of the moral implications such actions would bring to the world stage. It was especially frightening to see that these proponents were not fringe elements of society but constituted a wide range of people, from the man on the street to the high level politician.
First of all, to counter one weapon of mass destruction with another weapon of mass destruction, chemical versus nuclear in this case, gives little moral credence, because both kill and maim innocent civilians. The latter is simply more sophisticated and more devastating than the former. Then, to claim that these weapons could safely be used by Allied troops in the field of battle, and that their aftereffects could be kept localized has about as much logic as the containment of chemical blasts. But the most devastating aftermath would be that the psychological inhibitions against the use of nuclear weapons would forever disappear. A decision which would irrevocably undermine the United States’ credibility to stop nuclear proliferation and would in effect set a precedent to sanction the use of such weapons.
When the United States dropped the nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the argument then was also that these weapons could save countless Allied lives by preventing a massive ground assault. Whether or not this was justified, the difference then was that the novelty of these weapons could somewhat justify their use because of unknown aftereffects, coupled with the decisive advantage that the U.S. held the nuclear monopoly.
Then, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s parity with the United States made these weapons tactically viable only as deterrents because in the case of a superpower conflict, the devastation incurred on each nation would be so great that there could be no winner. Thus the principle of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
Now that the Cold War is over, the assumption seems to be in the minds of many, that the Soviet counterbalance is no longer a major threat and that it would be feasible to use these weapons on a limited scale. One must not forget however that the same old threat is still present in a much more chaotic world where the Soviet Union and many other nations are in mounting disarray. Whereas before nuclear weapons were not used because of MAD, setting a precedent now would plunge the world into chaos and a renewed, more dangerous arms race, with a wider range of participants.
The complexity of nuclear weapons combined with the high technology required to deliver them has so far kept their proliferation in check. Proliferation will increase when nuclear technology becomes more affordable. Tactical nuclear weapons offer such an alternative versus long range strategic nuclear weapons because they are smaller and do not need the sophisticated delivery systems of their long range counterparts. Furthermore, since these weapons make tactical sense against an opponent who does not have a nuclear capability, when proliferation spreads, it will do so quickly, because other nations will then need them as deterrents.
It is already a grave mistake that we use double standards and turn a blind eye to certain nations who acquire a nuclear capability (e.g.,India, Israel, South Africa), while we have no problem understanding the danger of proliferation when it comes to Iraq. In our war against Saddam Hussein, our underlying fear was always Iraq’s acquisition of such weapons at a future date, like their acquisition of chemical weapons, which the West provided. If Iraq had indeed waited to acquire a nuclear capability, they would have been invincible. However, one must keep in mind that more benign countries could revert to nuclear weapons if threatened. One must not rule out that in a future war over Kashmir, India could go nuclear against Pakistan, just like Israel could go nuclear if they felt cornered in a future Middle Eastern conflict. A nation’s internal democratic principles will not necessarily create eternal restraint in light of external aggression, and furthermore, these new members of the “nuclear club” are far from stable, and it is not unreasonable to believe that Saddam type figures could emerge in India or South Africa at a future date. We are now watching the Soviet Union and its disintegration – something that just three years ago was unthinkable.
The U.S. cannot and must not be the policeman of the world, but it can and must check nuclear proliferation. The reason being that it is the only stable superpower left, which gives it greater legitimacy. But in order to do so it must not set the wrong example – by ever utilizing its nuclear arsenal – which would legitimize other nations to follow suit and permanently break the nuclear threshold. If we are to gage military superiority, we should do so in light of the accuracy and effectiveness of conventional weapons, and never allow ourselves to throw in our nuclear arsenal as an extension of that superiority. To do so would be a grave mistake with unknown aftereffects, uncertain ramifications, and dubious moral justifications. If – as the democratic superpower – we still have a certain de facto moral leadership, then we must take every step to retain that leadership; at least where nuclear weapons are concerned. An important priority in this post war environment is to set strong guidelines to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in conjunction with effective organs of control (international security systems and a forceful central agency) to uphold these decisions. The success of international cooperation in the Gulf could provide a model for international cooperation via the United Nations in the area of nuclear proliferation control. There is still a chance to prevent a future scenario where there will be no other option but to use nuclear weapons against another nation with suchlike weapons. In an ever complex and chaotic world, if we fail to act now, we will certainly face a very bleak and chaotic future.
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