Cute Nukes 

Is a new generation of nuclear weapons about to be developed?

Thinking about nuclear weapons is sort of like looking directly at the sun: If you do it for more than a split second, you go blind. Or insane.

Our government is now contemplating such a ne plus ultra of idiocy that it's enough to make one yearn for the dear, departed days of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). MAD was such a sane policy. Dr. Strangelove, report for duty immediately. The Bush administration needs you!

We are about to get a new nuclear-weapons policy -- cute nukes. Teeny, tiny nukes. I was betting the Pentagon would name them "precision nukes," but I have once again underestimated our military's ability to obfuscate with mind-numbing language. The cute nukes are "offensive strike systems."

Now here's a sane sentence from the Pentagon's new Nuclear Posture Review: "Non-nuclear strike capabilities may be particularly useful to limit collateral damage and conflict escalation." That means we won't wipe out entire populations and start World War III if we stick to non-nukes. A point to be considered.

But our busy military planners like to plan for all contingencies (except terrorists with box-cutters) and are proposing "a new generation of nuclear weapons" -- just what we need. The cute nukes are to be "employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapons facilities)."

The drawback to cute nukes is that they're more "useable" than the old-fashioned, clunky kind -- it's so much more tempting to just use a tiny nuke. But cute nukes do have the same charming property as the grown-up kind -- they're made of lethal radioactive materials no one on God's green earth knows how to get rid of.

When the Cold War ended, we really did think we could finally start "building down" the world's supply of these ungodly weapons. So who signed us up to build a whole new generation of them? Did we vote on this? Anybody recall Bush mentioning cute nukes while he was running for office? Since we have to pay for it, don't we get a say?

Naturally, the rest of the world thinks we're nuts, and they're not even using diplomatic language to say so. A Russian legislator inquired if Americans "have somewhat lost touch with the reality in which they live."

We could spend some time relishing the glorious black humor MAD produced, but let's take a few steps back and look at the Big Picture. Here are the questions: What do we think we are doing? And what kind of country do we want to be?

According to the State Department, the federal budget in 1949 for international aid and diplomacy (that is, efforts to settle conflicts peacefully) was $66.4 billion. In the 2002 budget, it is $23.8 billion (from Harper's Index). We spend less on foreign aid per capita than any other industrialized country. Japan spends $3.5 billion more in total than we do. Some world leader.

We are also neglecting our own people and infrastructure. How pathetic is it that we're going to put another trillion dollars into the military while we cut back on child care for women moving from welfare to work?

We are, as we probably remind ourselves too often, the most powerful nation on earth. How do we want to use that power? What do we stand for? Democracy, human rights, and global prosperity? Do we really think we can make the world a better place by building a new arsenal of nukes? And how much money does that take away from building democracy, human rights, and global prosperity?

In Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the end of the relentless tragedy, one of the title characters says to the other, "There must have been a time, somewhere near the beginning, when we could have said no." As the beloved Robert Frost put it, "Two paths diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." We have been down the well-traveled path of spending insane sums for unspeakable weapons many times before, and we know where it leads. The state of the world today is not much of a recommendation for it. Before we lurch off onto that path again, let us at least stop and think and ask questions and demand answers and consider alternatives.

Before the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, before we become a shape with a lion's body and the head of a man with a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, before we become that rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born ... let's stop. And think. Because this may be our only chance to say no.

Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate.

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