In the latest rattling of the saber in the expanded war on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration has apparently leaked the secret results of a sweeping review of U.S. nuclear policy--the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)--which calls for developing new nuclear weapons that would be targeted mainly against Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea. The leaking of the Pentagon’’s nuclear roadmap seems meant to further intimidate those “rogue states,” but the blueprint has implications that are much broader and more serious.

Making public the Department of Defense’s view that the United States needs to develop new weapons targeted at those nations is the surest way to encourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States made a long-standing pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--which all of those nations are--as long as those states do not attack the United States or its allies in alliance with another nuclear-weapons state. That pledge was designed to dissuade non-nuclear nations from developing nuclear capability. The leaked nuclear review may well cause the aforementioned rogue states to redouble their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could deliver them to U.S. soil. It would be obvious to those nations that their conventional forces or even chemical and biological weapons might not deter a U.S. nuclear attack.

Even if the United States does not explicitly say that any use of chemical or biological weapons will result in a U.S. nuclear strike, the start of a program to develop a low-yield earth penetrating nuclear weapon that could attack deeply buried bunkers--which could store such unconventional weapons--would indicate to those nations that the United States was prepared to violate its pledge.

Of course, to develop an earth penetrating nuclear weapon, the United States would probably need to break the worldwide moratorium on underground explosive nuclear testing that has been in effect for a decade. That ban is seen as a firewall to the development of new kinds of nuclear arms and thus a retardant to nuclear proliferation and expansion. Testing by the United States would most likely lead other countries to breach the moratorium. With already by far the most potent nuclear force in the world--and no need for testing at the current time--the United States should have no incentive to give other nations any excuse to develop or expand their nuclear arsenals.

If all of these ill-effects of the NPR are not bad enough, the document’s blurring of the line between the use of conventional and nuclear forces may be the most dangerous. The NPR notes that there are new contingencies in which nuclear weapons might be used: an Iraqi attack on its neighbors, a North Korean invasion of South Korea or a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. It is unclear whether the review is saying that a U.S. nuclear response might be forthcoming even if the initial attack involved only conventional weapons. With the demise of a rival superpower and the current bone-crushing dominance of U.S. conventional forces, the United States should be reducing the number of planning contingencies that might require the use of nuclear weapons-not thinking up new ones. The cataclysmic use of U.S. nuclear weapons should be reserved as a last resort--only when interests so vital to the United States cannot be safeguarded by any other means (for example, in the case of a threatened or actual nuclear attack against the United States). This criterion clearly is not met if Iraq again attacks one of its neighbors or North Korea invades South Korea. Even if either of those actions were allowed to stand, U.S. security would only be marginally affected; there is certainly no need to cause thermonuclear destruction.

The same would be true if a confrontation occurred in the Taiwan Strait, and the costs of using nuclear weapons there would be much higher because it would mean attacking another nuclear power. The future worst-case scenario would be if China launched an invasion of Taiwan. Should the United States risk getting its cities incinerated in retaliation for a nuclear strike against China to preserve the sovereignty of a small non-strategic island?

The NPR is simply another manifestation of the Bush administration’s foreign policy of aggressive unilateral primacy. But a neo-imperialist foreign policy should not masquerade as national security policy. It is quite the opposite.