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A shaky premise for waging new war

As the Bush administration prepares for a “regime change” in Iraq, it helps to go back more than 50 years, to the dawn of the nuclear age, to get a wider grasp of the moment.

The year was 1945. Humanity was just awakening to the horrifying meaning of life in a world with weapons of mass destruction. To find a quick end to the war against Japan, the United States had dropped atomic bombs on that Asian nation, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945.

In the months following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the newly formed United Nations unanimously passed its first resolution, calling for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

Sobered by the new moment in history and having looked deeply into the dark side of the human will and imagination, for a fleeting moment the world’s leaders were of the conviction that weapons of mass destruction simply had to go. Human knowledge had overtaken human wisdom, with potentially even more catastrophic possibilities.

The logic was clear and simple at the time. If any nation were allowed to keep weapons of mass destruction, it opened the door, at least morally, for all nations to keep them. And if many nations were eventually to gain them, it would only be a matter of time before the weapons would be used. Meanwhile, of course, the scope and terror of such weapons would only increase.

The rest of this story, having played out over only one or two generations, a mere mini-second in human history, is well known to us. Almost immediately, the Cold War broke out between the Soviet Union and the United States, between East and West. It provided both the energy and the rationale not only to maintain, but also to increase in number and size new weapons of mass destruction.

Soon the will to eliminate weapons that could end all human life on earth, if that will ever really existed, vanished, buried under a combination of economic ideology, mass hysteria and narrowly defined national interests. In time the imagination of the consequences of the course humanity was taking also seemed to escape.

As the Cold War ended, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons had embedded themselves into the human body.

The dramatic defeat of communism left the United States as lone superpower, possessing the most sophisticated and most powerful arsenals of destructive weapons. If there was a moment to begin to carry out the earliest United Nation’s mandate, it had come.

By then, the nuclear genie was well out of the bottle. Five countries already possessed nuclear weapons -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. None was willing to give them up. In 1998, India and Pakistan exploded a series of nuclear devices.

When India and Pakistan began testing their weapons, to the horror of many, it was clear they were not welcome to join the nuclear club. But the obvious question is, why not? Why should other countries be denied admission?

The five existing nuclear powers had all tested their devices by the early 1960s, when a movement began to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. In a policy that many critics have called discriminatory, those five countries crafted a treaty that said, in effect, the nuclear club is closed. Under terms of a non-proliferation treaty signed in 1968, the members of the club struck a deal with those on the outside: The haves would reduce their arsenals. And the have-nots wouldn’t acquire them.

It is worth reminding ourselves once again what the United States agreed to by signing the 1968 treaty. Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed July 1, 1968, and ratified by the U.S. Senate and entered into force on March 5, 1970.

Article 6 of the treaty reads: “Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

We have not lived up to the treaty.

Meanwhile, even the modest caps the previous Washington administrations have placed on developing new nuclear technologies are slowly being removed by the Bush administration, further dimming any flickering flame of moral authority the nation might claim.

The collective U.S. decision to maintain our weapons of mass destruction and not to make their elimination the highest of national priorities sets the real context for logic of dealing with Iraq.

If the Bush administration is to be taken at its word, then the rationale for going to war against Saddam Hussein is to dislodge from his threatening grasp his weapons of mass destruction.

In two days of Senate hearings several weeks ago, lawmakers heard testimonies about the enormous difficulties the United States would face in any attempt to forcibly do so. But even if this nation were successful, however one might plausibly define “success,” a serious question remains to be answered.

Short of a major reversal of course, has it now become the mission of the United States to police the world and to go to war each time an unsavory world leader gains access to weapons of mass destruction?

In other words, if it is Iraq today, is it Iran and North Korea tomorrow? Will it be Indonesia or Saudia Arabia in five years?

The American Constitution sought above all to guard our nation from reckless, ill-considered recourse to war. It required a declaration of war by the legislative branch, and gave Congress the power over appropriations even during wartime.

As Washington becomes poised on the slippery precipice of a preemptive war, the nation needs to consider not only the enormous stakes in this war, but the logic of a U.S. foreign policy that will almost certainly lead to many more wars.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002