An issue worthy of national consideration was discussed by a panel of serious people at the National Press Club last week. The subject: taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. They hope it will make its way into the presidential debates.
The coalition of nuclear experts and environmentalists pushing this project calls itself Back From the Brink. The group's members are taking their campaign to the grass roots. They are armed with videos, a Web site and plans for mobilizing the campuses in the cause.
They hope that public pressure will force the presidential candidates to take a stand in favor of measures that would make it less likely for the planet to be incinerated by mistake. Of course, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had 80 percent support in the polls but went down to ignominious defeat, anyway. Former senator Dale Bumpers, the Arkansas Democrat who is now director of the Center for Defense Information and a participant in the "Brink" campaign, says "de-alerting" is much less controversial and easier to understand. "It's just a question of giving the presidents of the two nuclear powers more than 10 minutes before deciding to blow up the world," he says.
The GOP candidates have so far discussed nuclear matters solely on the basis of what the United States should do about other countries' missiles, not about our own. All the talk has been about building a defense system to deflect nuclear strikes launched at us by rogue nations. The idea that we are in mortal danger of a nuclear attack from North Korea, a country that cannot feed its people, seems exaggerated, rather like Ronald Reagan's alarms about the danger of invasion from down-at-the-heel Nicaragua. That nation's capital, he told us solemnly, is but two-and-a-half days' drive from Harlingen, Tex.
Many scientists also believe that a national missile defense system won't work. But President Clinton opted to develop one. The decision on deployment is scheduled to be made next summer. Advocates of de-alerting repeatedly tell the harrowing story of a 1995 episode when Russian President Boris Yeltsin came within two minutes of starting a nuclear war because of a false alarm. A U.S.-Norwegian research rocket appeared on Russian radar, looking like a multiple-warhead missile hurtling toward Moscow. Russian missiles--which, like ours, are on hair-trigger status--were put on higher alert. Two minutes before deadline, the mistake was discovered and Yeltsin saved the world from what the coalition called "an unimaginable nuclear disaster."
Since that time, conditions in the Russian military and Russia's nuclear arsenal have deteriorated almost as much as U.S.-Russian relations. The fear of accidental attack has increased accordingly. At the news conference, Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institution, a former Air Force missile control officer, said that the situation makes the case for removing the hair triggers from our nuclear arsenal, and for persuading the Russians to follow suit. "If the bomb's not on the missiles, if it takes a day to put the bomb back on the missiles, there can't be any unauthorized launch by demoralized, disaffected nuclear units out in Siberia who are finally fed up," Blair said.
Bill Clinton's history is that he does not oppose the Pentagon. In 1997, Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was invited to the Pentagon with Blair, his collaborator on a Post op-ed article in favor of de-alerting. The Joint Chiefs seemed receptive, but when the idea got to the Strategic Air Command, Omaha objected, and that was the end of it.
Surprisingly, the most likely Republican candidate to take up the cause would be Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose father had to cope with the heart-stopping possibility that nukes in the disintegrating Soviet Union could be launched by its provincial governors. In September 1991, a shaken President Bush withdrew virtually all U.S. tactical weapons from deployment and ordered the de-alerting of many large strategic missiles. Gorbachev reciprocated a week later. Blair said it was "the most important arms control step of the '90s."
The younger Bush desperately needs more heft in his fluffy debate appearances. He is alarming and dismaying Republicans who think he looks less and less as if he is up to the job. During his latest debate gig in Arizona, it was clear he had worked on his smirk. But another part of his anatomy needs attention--his feet. The GOP front-runner is not fast on his.
He was a fall guy for, of all people, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the high-collared Mormon elder who provided the laugh riot of the evening by offering to make Bush his vice president. Bush's handlers had not anticipated such a bold and preposterous sally. George W. could not think of a rejoinder.
If he were to espouse an issue of cosmic significance, W. could get out of Texas, where he seems rhetorically stuck. Taking up the de-alerting cause would give him a hold on "the vision thing" that so plagued his father.