World Policy Institute


Nuclear Weapons
The Good, the Bad and the Ignored

Extra! —
November/December 2003
By Michelle Ciarrocca

Hardly a day goes by without some mention of “North Korea’s revival of its nuclear program” (New York Times, 9/6/03) or how the “U.S. aims to put pressure on Iran” over its nuclear activities (London Financial Times, 9/4/03). Iraq’s “development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons” (USA Today, 9/8/03) was a media staple in the run-up to the invasion of that country, and the so-far fruitless search still makes headlines. Yet within the abundant news coverage on weapons of mass destruction, there is rarely a reference to the thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by the major nuclear weapons states: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.

When it comes to mainstream media coverage on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there are three kinds of nukes: good, bad and ignored. The “good” ones number almost 30,000 and make up the arsenals of the major nuclear powers. The “bad” nukes are the real or imagined weapons of Iraq, North Korea and Iran–George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” The 100 to 200 ignored–or tolerated–nuclear weapons are in the hands of Israel, India and Pakistan.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in March 1970, and “ultimately seeks to eliminate weapons of mass destruction” (Japan Times, 08/23/03). More than 180 non-nuclear states agreed to forgo the pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for the declared nuclear states agreeing to share the peaceful applications of nuclear power and eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The nuclear states also assured non-nuclear nations that they would not use nuclear weapons against countries that have given up the option to develop weapons of their own.

Clearly, the NPT is far from perfect. However, a number of countries, including Brazil, Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa and Argentina did give up significant nuclear weapons programs upon signing the treaty, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted (7/6/03).

None of the countries in the “good” or “bad” categories, though, are living up to their commitments as outlined in the NPT. But just as the Bush administration has selectively chosen when and how to interpret and comply with the NPT, the media have been equally selective in coverage of treaty violations.

Focus on the “Axis”

Iraq: The bad nuclear weapons have yet to be found in Iraq. After more than four months of searching, “the team of U.S. military officers and intelligence agents headed by former U.N. arms inspector David Kay has not produced hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction,” reported the Boston Globe (8/28/03).

As Extra! pointed out (7=8/03), despite years of United Nations inspections, the idea that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction became an article of faith to much of the media, and in turn much of the public. The belief that possession or pursuit of these weapons by a country not to the Bush administration’s liking is grounds for war has also become something of an article of faith. While that notion may be part of Bush administration policy*, an editorial in the Baltimore Sun (7/2/03) usefully reminded readers that “there is no international statute that permits the U.S. or any other nation to take military action to halt nuclear weapons proliferation”

In the case of the Bush administration’s preemptive attack on Iraq, justified in part by warnings of nuclear proliferation, the American Prospect (7=8/03) was in the minority of outlets that noted how the policy “may well have convinced other nervous nations that nukes are their only hedge against a similar fate.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (4/6/03) agreed that the Bush policies have indeed encouraged proliferation. “Today’s ‘hot spots’ of proliferation are North Korea and Iran–the second and third points on President Bush’s ‘axis of evil.’ Since Bush coined that label in January 2002, both countries have stepped up their nuclear programs.”

North Korea: When North Korea announced its intention to become the first country to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty, NBC Nightly News (1/10/03) described the country as “defiant.” But according to Article X of the treaty, any nation has the right to withdraw if it decides that extraordinary events have endangered the supreme interests of its country. Not one article covering North Korea’s withdrawal mentioned this stipulation.

One could certainly argue that the dramatic changes in U.S. nuclear policy, as part of the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, were “extraordinary events” in the meaning of the treaty. As part of the review, submitted to Congress at the end of 2001, the Pentagon expanded its nuclear “hit list” to include a wide range of potential adversaries, such as North Korea, Iraq, Libya and Syria, whether or not those nations possessed nuclear weapons. The circumstances under which the use of nuclear weapons might be considered was also expanded beyond situations threatening the national survival of the United States, to include retaliation for a North Korean attack on South Korea, or simply as a response to “surprising military developments.” The new Bush doctrine also sanctioned the first use of nuclear weapons to “dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends.”

Such changes violate at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the NPT. Yet the Far Eastern Economic Review (11/21/02) was one of the few outlets that commented on the connection between U.S. nuclear policies and the nuclear stalemate with North Korea, saying, “North Korea’s rejection of full-blown IAEA inspections and a perceived reluctance by the U.S. to back international security treaties has weakened the NPT’s moral force.”

Iran: There are no known nuclear weapons in Iran as of yet. Marking a challenge to the Bush administration, however, is the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is “being built not in the shadows but in plain sight, and just inside most of the rules designed to foil nuclear proliferation” (Wall Street Journal, 06/19/03). Signatories to the NPT are allowed to acquire most nuclear technology, as long as it is used for peaceful purposes and under international monitoring. Glossing over this distinction, headlines such as “Bush Steps Up Pressure on Iran Over Nuclear Plans” (Washington Post, 09/26/03) and “Iran Has Even Larger Nuclear Weapons Program Than Previously Thought” (CBS Evening News, 10/14/03) may be a bit misleading.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor 05/08/03) was among those quick to compare the situation in Iran to the one in Iraq, saying, “It is almost eerie–we have weapons of mass destruction.” Aside from there not being any weapons of mass destruction yet found in Iraq, the differences between Iraq’s situation and Iran are profound–notably, Iraq under Saddam Hussein agreed to intrusive regulation of its weapons-making capacities under a ceasefire agreement with the U.N., whereas Iran is not under the same obligations.

Looking the other way

Of particular concern should be the nuclear nations that are entirely outside of the treaty: Israel, India and Pakistan. Instead of demanding inspections, threatening sanctions, or all-out attack, Washington rewards those nations with arms sales and military assistance.

The Christian Science Monitor (5/6/03) wrote that the U.S. “has made clear its main concern in the region is nuclear proliferation–India and Pakistan announced themselves as nuclear powers in 1998 and came under U.S. sanctions thereafter.” But the article goes on to note that the sanctions have since been lifted. Bush is requesting more than $3 billion in military aid for Pakistan over the next five years, in addition to the $1 billion Pakistan received after September 11 for its help in the war on terror (L.A. Times, 6/25/03). For balance, military aid to India has also been increased to $50 million (Melbourne Age, 2/6/02).

Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. aid, is expecting about $1 billion in military aid and $9 billion in loan guarantees in over the next three years to offset the economic impact of the war in Iraq (Boston Globe, 4/12/03), in addition to the almost $3 billion a year in aid it regularly receives. None of the news coverage mentioned nuclear reductions or disarmament as a condition to receiving aid.

The “ignored” nukes in the arsenals of Israel, Pakistan and India encourage proliferation. Iran points to its nuclear neighbors–Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel–to justify its nuclear program (London Guardian, 6/16/03). Pakistan (along with Iran) is believed to have sold various weapons technologies to North Korea (San Francisco Chronicle 8/3/03).

No good nukes

As much as the nuclear developments of North Korea, Iran and potentially other nations deserve media attention, so too do the thousands of existing nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the declared nuclear states. As stated in the original treaty and reaffirmed during the 2000 NPT review conference, the U.S. and 186 other countries came to a global consensus on nuclear disarmament, declaring it the “only absolute guarantee against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

But rather than pointing out the major nuclear powers’ obligation to work for disarmament, articles such as “U.S. Sees Renewed Role for Nukes in Military Arsenal” (Christian Science Monitor, 5/27/03) and “Bush Pushes for New Nukes” (USA Today, 7/7/03) treat the United States’ efforts to develop new forms of nuclear weapons as legitimate, potentially necessary military policies. The debates over these new weapons, which could include low-yield mini-nukes and bunker-busters that target underground military facilities or arsenals, are reported and acknowledged, but there’s not a peep in daily news coverage about these being counter to the NPT.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Germany’s Stern weekly (Reuters 08/26/03), “The U.S. government demands that other nations not possess nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, it is arming itself.” He continued with a point seldom included in U.S. media discussion: “In truth there are no good or bad nuclear weapons. If we do not stop applying double standards we will end up with more nuclear weapons.”

* And not just the Bush administration: Citing the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Los Angeles Times (10/14/03) reported that Israel “had identified several hidden nuclear weapons installations in Iran and was making plans to destroy them if necessary.” The newspaper’s formulation accepts the idea that it is sometimes necessary to attack other countries to prevent nuclear weapons development.

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