The Pentagon's Nuclear Weapons Reduction Proposal: "An Exercise in Provocation and Futility"

The Pentagon's Nuclear Weapons Reduction Proposal: "An Exercise in Provocation and Futility"

The Pentagon's Nuclear Weapons Reduction Proposal: "An Exercise in Provocation and Futility"
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Jan. 10 2002 12:45 PM


Dear Stuart,


Good morning. First, in reply to your last uncurmudgeonlike message, I might agree with you that the administration probably "never intended" to have its military tribunals execute people on 2-1 votes. But President Bush's executive order provided precisely for that possibility. So that shows again what a terrible job of lawyering that order was.

Your point about the 2nd Circuit decision disallowing a racially tailored jury is fair enough. The court was surely right in saying that jurors are not political representatives. But I think you are too quick to analogize the jury case to employment, college admission, etc. There is a danger, as you say, of affirmative action making us all too race-conscious. But in each of those other situations, there are countervailing interests in favor of affirmative action. Years ago I was on one of those Fred Friendly constitutional programs with William Bradford Reynolds, then the assistant attorney general for civil rights and a flaming opponent of affirmative action. The time was shortly after Reagan had appointed Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman Supreme Court justice. She was clearly not the single most qualified lawyer in the country to go on the Supreme Court. So I asked Reynolds whether it was wrong to put her on the court. Of course he answered no—he had to. He thus effectively conceded that diversity is sometimes more important than "merit" in making appointments. The same seems to me true in college admissions. If you want Harvard not to be without significant numbers of black students, as you rightly said the other day, then you cannot just admit the l,800 young people who got the highest SAT scores that year. Diversity is a proper goal in our society. That is why Texas passed a law requiring the University of Texas to admit the slice of every public high-school senior class, though they differ greatly in scores. It is why Professor Nathan Glazer of Harvard, who formerly was a leading opponent of affirmative action, changed his mind. He thought it was too important for the leadership of the country to have numbers of African-Americans at the top universities.

Today's most interesting story, for me, is in the Financial Times (of London, but printed and delivered in this country). The Page One headline is, "Bush nuclear 'sleight of hand' under fire." The sleight of hand is a Pentagon proposal to carry out the sharp reduction in nuclear weapons promised by President Bush not by destroying nuclear warheads but by removing them from active duty and putting them in reserve status. Defense experts from the Cato Institute, a libertarian organization, and the centrist Brookings Institution told the Financial Times that such a step would foil the purpose of the proposal made by Bush in his election campaign, that the major nuclear powers should cut their weapons in tandem, the United States going down from its present 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,000 over the next decade.

"If the U.S. retains more weapons, so will Russia," Charles Peña of Cato said. "And the Chinese will likely view the entire U.S. strategic arsenal, not just deployed weapons, as a threat and react accordingly. This is an accounting sleight of hand, bad arms control and bad policy." Ivo Daalder of Brookings said the plan was particularly disappointing in light of current tensions between India and Pakistan. "The message that one implicitly sends to countries like India and Pakistan," he said, "is: 'If you want to be truly secure, having nuclear weapons and maintaining them in large numbers is a good idea.' "


Pentagon officials said that in the past, too, a certain number of nuclear warheads counted in reductions by the United States were actually put in storage rather than being destroyed. The logic of the new plan, they said, was in "an extreme situation" the warheads could be reinstalled in weapons. That would take a month or so.

What strikes me about the last point is its unreality. If we ever come to the point of nuclear conflict, we are not going to have a month to refit nuclear warheads. It is also grotesquely unreal to think we could use more than the l,700 to 2,000 nuclear weapons envisaged by Bush in his campaign. A mere 100 would be enough to obliterate the civilized world.

The further oddity is that in recent years military thinking has moved away from nuclear weapons. We are now in the age of smart bombs and all kinds of advanced conventional weapons, as the war in Afghanistan has demonstrated. Our huge conventional bombs have devastated the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan just as effectively as nuclear weapons would have and without the political cost. Who, now, can imagine nuclear weapons as militarily useful?

Today a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Yakovenko, denounced the Pentagon plan. Agreed arms reductions should be "irreversible," he said, not just "on paper." President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last November on parallel reductions in nuclear weapons. For Putin, that took some of the sting out of Bush's decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And cuts in nuclear warheads are important to Russia for a practical reason. It does not have the money to safeguard large numbers of the weapons or check them regularly for continued safety and effectiveness.

All in all, this plan looks to me like an exercise in provocation and futility.


Anthony Lewis was a New York Times columnist for 32 years.