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As nukes go, let’s leave Cold War in the past

The recent to-and-fro over China and its nuclear weapons program may have been intended to send up trial balloons. Or it may have been the work of leaking bureaucrats out to undermine opponents’ positions.

Whatever the case, the important point is that either President Bush is so smitten with the idea of a missile shield or his advisers are so in need of an international enemy that he is willing to risk the perception that his administration is inviting China to update its nuclear arsenal. It is time to dust off the U.S. bishops’ 1983 statement on war and peace.

It sounded a lot like an invitation on Sunday when The New York Times reported that senior administration sources had said Bush was willing to set aside objections to China’s “plans to build up its relatively small fleet of nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States.” In exchange, the administration hopes, China would set aside its objections to the proposed missile defense program.

The administration somewhat altered the story in response by saying that it was not openly encouraging China, it was just recognizing reality -- that China was going to update its missiles anyway -- and would not get in the way. That latter spin was attributed to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, thus lending more than a little credibility to the original tale.

Whether it be for love of a missile defense shield or need of an enemy or both, the latest language coming out of the White House betrays a frightening willingness to jump back into the mannerisms of the Cold War. It also betrays a striking lack of imagination in contending with post-Cold War reality and in shaping a vision for the future that is not built on the insanity of mutually assured destruction.

Bush’s missile shield presumes, as even its progenitor, the old-style nuclear brinkmanship, did not, a world of winners and losers. In that old scenario there can only be losers. The poison of nuclear fallout does not confine itself to boundaries.

One of the most cynical interpretations of the China speculation holds that a number of people in the Bush administration would love to return to testing nuclear weapons, now forbidden by treaty, and would feel more confident in crossing that line again if China went first, a prospect not unlikely if China updates its arsenals.

Both the missile shield and the unofficial encouragement to China to proceed with updating its nuclear weapons violate the spirit of the U.S. bishops’ statement, which condemns further development of nuclear weapons and sees nuclear deterrence as tolerable only as a step toward “progressive disarmament.” Such initiatives, combined with U.S. intents to abrogate past international treaties in order to go ahead with the missile shield scheme, upend the arduous work of the disarmament community, which can only see the latest initiatives as a step back toward Cold War terror.

As the bishops wrote in their pastoral, “Of primary importance in this [disarmament] process is the need to prevent the development and deployment of destabilizing weapons systems on either side.”

The new folks at the White House may be sending trial balloons, but this is not child’s play. With all the work remaining to be done in ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction, Bush’s handling of the nuclear issue so far has been inept and dangerous.

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001