All Options, Still, on the Table

by , April 09, 2010
During the press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday, April 6th, announcing the Obama Administration’s new "Nuclear Posture Review" (NPR), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates momentarily brandished America’s sharp nuclear teeth. In doing so, he caused the United States to violate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Live on C-SPAN. Three separate times. 

Although Gates said the NPR did pledge that America would not attack or threaten non-nuclear weapon states with nuclear weapons, he indicated that states "not in compliance with the NPT," specifically naming North Korea and Iran, had been placed by the drafters of the NPR in an entirely different category. For these states, he said, three times, "all options are on the table."

Such words can have only one meaning. The Obama Administration has now said to North Korea and Iran, "If you do not do what we tell you to do, we may launch a nuclear first strike upon you." 

Indeed, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran immediately took the words to mean precisely that. Speaking the next day on Iranian state television, he said, "I hope these published comments are not true… he has threatened with nuclear and chemical weapons those nations which do not submit to the greed of the United States." 

Leave aside that the question of who may or may not be "in compliance with the NPT" today is far from universally agreed-upon. Nor is the question of who decides. The International Atomic Energy Agency? The UN Security Council? The current occupants of the White House in Washington D.C. — be it the Obama Administration or the Palin Administration? Leave aside too that for most non-nuclear-weapon states it is the nuclear-weapon states who perpetrate the greatest violation of the NPT, because of their failure to comply with their 40-year old Article VI obligation to eliminate their entire nuclear arsenals. 

When the treaty was originally under negotiation in the 1960s, the non-nuclear weapon states asked — in return for their promise to remain non-nuclear — that the nuclear weapon states promise never to attack or threaten them with nuclear weapons. This, said the late Robert McNamara and Thomas Graham, Jr., "could be the most reasonable request in the history of international relations." 

But the nuclear weapon states refused, prostrating themselves before the altar of "military flexibility."

The issue arose again before the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Under intense pressure from several non-nuclear weapon states that were actually threatening to withdraw from the treaty, France, Russia, Britain, and the United States issued "harmonized security assurances," declaring they would neither attack nor threaten non-nuclear weapon states with nuclear weapons. (They did introduce a caveat regarding nuclear retaliation against non-nuclear-weapon states aiding any kind of attack by a nuclear weapon state). On April 11th, 1995, they incorporated these assurances into U.N. Security Council Resolution 984. And in the final document adopted by the Review Conference a few weeks later, the signatories expressed their hope that the resolution would eventually become a "legally binding instrument." 

That’s quite a convoluted process, and admittedly not as good as if such an unambiguous promise had made it into the original text of the treaty itself (or been added later as a formal amendment). Nevertheless, most international legal experts now agree that the promise not to launch or threaten nuclear attacks against non-nuclear weapon states has become an integral part of the NPT bargain.

Flash forward a decade. The Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review explicitly envisioned attacking non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear weapons – even naming seven states as possible targets of an American nuclear first strike. Moreover, as both Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker and The Washington Post revealed in 2006, the administration clearly contemplated launching a nuclear attack upon the non-nuclear-weapon state of Iran – and publically threatened to do so. 

One might think that if Barack Obama wanted to disavow any element of the legacy of George W. Bush, it would be this. Instead of renouncing it, however, he has chosen to refine it. To say, as Obama himself put it in Prague on April 8th at the signing of the new START treaty with Russia, "those non-nuclear weapons states that are in compliance with the NPT and their non-proliferation obligations will not be threatened by America’s nuclear arsenal" is also to say that the United States intends to employ the threat of nuclear attack to "persuade" non-nuclear-weapons states (the NPR uses that very word) to comply with their NPT promise not to obtain nuclear weapons. 

But none of the declarations made in 1995 made any reference to conditioning the non-attack pledge on compliance with the NPT. Nowhere does either the text or the spirit of the treaty itself remotely contemplate that compliance with its terms might be enforced by nuclear arms. The administration of Barack Obama – a former law professor – has apparently just conjured a new interpretation of the NPT, and a new principle of international law, entirely out of thin air. By doing so, and in making an overt nuclear threat against a non-nuclear-weapon state, it has committed an overt violation of the NPT bargain itself. 

In January of 2003 – one year after George Bush identified three states uniquely as constituting an "axis of evil" and as he stood on the verge of invading and decapitating one of the three — North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT. Article X provides that any party can do so, if it concludes, "extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." Perhaps Mr. Gates, Mr. Obama, and the drafters of the NPR ought to contemplate whether the unilateral fabrication of a new version of the NPT — not to mention the loud rattling of America’s long nuclear saber – might cause Iran, and other non-nuclear weapon states, eventually to arrive at the same conclusion. And to head off down the same nuclear road.