To generations of Americans who grew up in the post-World War II era, the notion of using nuclear weapons is a distinctly unnerving one, even in the context of the new and dangerous war on terrorism.
Since “the bomb” was last employed to prompt Japan's surrender in 1945, the potential for resuming its use in armed conflict evolved from the concept of mutually assured destruction between two Cold War enemies to one as a weapon of last resort.
Now, the leak of a Pentagon policy review outlining various nuclear options and targets for President Bush portends the disquieting possibility that what once was unthinkable no longer is.
Or maybe it's all a bluff.
Maybe, as Secretary of State Colin Powell insists, the report is merely “sound military conceptual planning” and not an indication Mr. Bush is lowering the threshold for use of atomic weapons against a terrorist target any time soon.
More likely, it is an extension of the administration's “axis of evil” strategy, which is evidently aimed at creating doubt in the minds of our enemies about how the U.S. would respond in the event of further terrorist attacks of the Sept. 11 variety or worse.
“This is, again, not a plan,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This preserves for the President all the options that a president would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction.”
So long as Mr. Bush does not mind being characterized in the international community as some sort of nuclear cowboy, such a strategy of studied unpredictability might succeed.
That the President likes using calculated overstatement to emphasize a point was evident in the “axis of evil” declaration that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were part of the terrorist threat to the U.S. No one really believed these “rogue nations” constituted an immediate danger, but the statement sure got the attention of the world community.
The potential nuclear targets, according to the Pentagon report, are nuclear powers Russia and China, along with Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
One is that it might bolster the determination of U.S. enemies to acquire nuclear weapons and speed up the process of nuclear proliferation, which is contrary to long-standing U.S. and international policy.
Another is that it might satisfy the questionable logic of those who believe that relatively small and less destructive nuclear weapons can be used on a limited basis without triggering a wider war and, potentially, worldwide Armageddon.
One of the greatest dangers in believing in a nuclear deterrent in the current conflict is that it ignores a basic ingredient that characterizes terrorism as practiced by Islamic fundamentalists - the motivation for martyrdom, the path to paradise.
The old concept of mutually assured destruction worked because the two sides in the Cold War - the U.S. and the Soviet Union - were ultimately interested in staying alive. Invoking tenets of questionable religious origin, today's Islamic terrorists say they're just as eager to die.
Reviving the old nuclear balance of terror carries extreme risk against an elusive enemy in a chaotic world. And, besides, why give the terrorists what they want?