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Bush adds new chapter to the nuclear nightmare

In a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, between 9 million and 12 million people would die and another 2 to 7 million would be injured. Unknown millions more would die of starvation, disease and radiation. Most of the bombs would explode on the ground, spreading radioactive debris over large areas and destroying agriculture for years. The contamination would spread far beyond India and Pakistan.

Even a limited nuclear exchange would have cataclysmic results, overwhelming hospitals across Asia and the Middle East and requiring vast foreign assistance, particularly from the United Sates, which would be forced to contend with the radioactive mess.

Thus reads the summary of a U.S. intelligence report published last week. The scope of the tragedy defies human comprehension. Yet the plausibility of such a nuclear exchange was likely enough to be placed on the front page of The New York Times.

We live at a dangerous moment in world history, a time when human knowledge has vaulted to the point of wiping out vast swaths of human population but human wisdom only tiptoes forward against the tide. Meanwhile, both Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India and Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, neither man known for imagination or statesmanship, have irresponsibly escalated the threats of war.

Coincidentally, just as the frightening possibility of a nuclear exchange was growing, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin signed a treaty in Moscow billed as an arms-control breakthrough. Were it only true! In fact, the treaty is not a breakthrough and places no new constraints on the forces spinning us forward into further madness and potentially unimaginable destruction.

The accord reveals a startling lack of understanding of the real dangers we face.

Consider that the agreement limits only the numbers of long-range nuclear warheads that are deployed, or ready for use, by both sides by 2012. It allows Russia and the United States to store as many warheads as they want. It does not require either to destroy bombers, missiles and submarines removed from nuclear service, and, instead, it permits both nations to re-arm those systems with stored warheads by withdrawing from the treaty with a three-month notice.

Both sides also remain free to keep thousands of short-range nuclear arms, such as artillery shells, and to modernize their nuclear arsenals. Finally, neither side will have to meet the proposed ceiling of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads, a two-thirds reduction, until the last day of the treaty at the end of 2012.

The Bush-Putin treaty represents a profound shift in four decades of U.S-Russian arms-control efforts. During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington spent years negotiating complex accords designed to lower the risks of a nuclear holocaust by setting precise limits on each other’s nuclear forces. To reach those limits, both nations committed themselves to destroy missiles, submarines and bombers. The process has now stopped.

Bush insists that the new deal “will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War” by overcoming lingering U.S.-Russian mistrust and accelerating Russia’s integration into Western political, economic and security arrangements. Arms-control advocates contend that the treaty will perpetuate the U.S.-Russian nuclear rivalry and keep the door open to further nuclear proliferation. By permitting Russia and the United States to maintain large nuclear forces, the treaty does nothing to dissuade countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea from trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is taking significant steps toward resuming the development of new nuclear weapons as part of a multibillion-dollar drive to upgrade the country’s aging nuclear weapons production facilities and research laboratories.

A recent leak of a top-secret 2001 Pentagon review of U.S. nuclear policy also revealed plans for a new U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile, missile-firing submarine and nuclear-capable bomber. U.S. officials believe that Russia’s nuclear plans include fitting three warheads on its new intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the SS-27 or Topal M. The missile, of which about 30 have been deployed, carries one warhead.

If this is peace preparation, what then is war?

War is madness. And wars are spawned by our collective inability to comprehend real dangers and our inability to imagine new paths toward lasting peace.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002