The nuclear terror of Bush 'negligence' policy

Mushroom cloudIt was not widely reported, but in February the Bush Administration enacted what may turn out to be one of the most significant policy decisions it has made in response to 9/11. President Bush signed new presidential guidance that provides an entirely new mission for US nuclear forces. The White House has effectively developed a new policy on the deterrence of nuclear terrorism.

The policy was announced in a little-noted closed speech given by Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, at Stanford University. He stated that, 'as part of this strategy to combat nuclear terrorism, the President has approved a new declaratory policy to help deter terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our friends, and allies'.

He also stated that, 'as many of you know, the United States has made clear for many years that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force to the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our people, our forces and our friends and allies'. The phrase 'overwhelming force' has always been understood to refer to the employment of nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration has seemingly developed a far-reaching policy that is partly designed to deter the acquisition of fissile material by terrorists. It would seek to deter al Qaeda indirectly by deterring state actors from providing assistance, such as knowingly transferring fissile material to terrorists.

But more may be at play here. The United States may actually have developed a 'negligence doctrine' for the deterrence of nuclear terrorism. As former Bush Administration official Elbridge Colby observed of the new policy, 'any and all thinking of participation, complicity, or negligence in the face of a catastrophic attack against the United States or its allies should have reason to worry about the retaliation that would follow'.

If through nuclear forensics the fissile material used in a nuclear terrorist attack were attributed to a Russian or Pakistani facility, the United States may well respond, under the new policy, by striking Russia or Pakistan using nuclear weapons. This would be a proportionate attack, most likely employing low-yield B61-11 nuclear weapons.

A negligence doctrine would involve striking even if the fissile materials were stolen, not just knowingly leaked, from one of their facilities on grounds that they were 'negligent' in their handling of fissile materials.

Most analysts argue that should fissile material be stolen and used to fuel an improvised bomb it would most likely come from a Russian facility. The central aspect of any deterrence posture is credibility — advocates of a negligence doctrine argue that this type of deterrence would be credible because the United States has, or will soon have, a nuclear first strike capability against Russia.

This is extremely wishful thinking. By no means can the US be said to have a first strike capability. In fact, a negligence doctrine increases the chance of what should properly be regarded as the leading security threat facing the world, namely inadvertent nuclear war.

Imagine if a nuclear weapon was detonated in New York that employed fissile material attributed to a Russian nuclear facility, and that, immediately thereafter, the US decided to adhere to a negligence policy and strike back with a limited low yield nuclear strike.

Russia would likely respond in kind. This would set off a chain reaction leading, at best, to limited and controlled exchanges or, at worst, to an all out exchange.

Quite literally, the Bush Administration may have handed al Qaeda the keys to Armageddon.

The negligence doctrine quite clearly violates the most elementary principles of natural justice. It is clear that the civilian population of, say, Pakistan would in no way be liable for negligence. If implemented — and policies such as this can create 'commitment traps' — the negligence doctrine will properly be taken as a monumental act of injustice throughout the Islamic world, which would support al Qaeda's political objectives.

In the so-called 'war on terror' there is more to be gained through consideration of issues such as Middle East policy and inter-cultural and religious dialogue than there is in military posturing.

Remarks by Stephen Hadley to the Center for International Security and Cooperation
'Why nuclear disarmament is not enough to abolish nuclear danger' (Online Opinion)

Marko BeljacMarko Beljac is interested in the interface between science and global security. He wrote his PhD at Monash University and teaches at LaTrobe University and the University of Melbourne.


Image courtesy National Archives via

Topic tags: marko beljac, bush administration, negligence doctrine, nuclear strikes, war, weapons mass destruction



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