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June 1, 2018
Bush Administration Releases Strategy on WMD Threat
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Wade Boese

On December 11, the Bush administration released a three-prong strategy for tackling threats posed by biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Divided into sections on counterproliferation, nonproliferation, and consequence management, the strategy reiterates the administration’s readiness to act pre-emptively against potential adversaries and to consider using nuclear weapons in retaliation for any attack on the United States using weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Released about three months after the Bush administration unveiled a document explaining its overall national security strategy, the new National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction focuses on the Bush administration’s approaches to stopping and defending against the spread of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Its release came as the United States faces escalating tensions with Iraq and North Korea over their weapons programs.

The strategy is based on a classified document, National Security Presidential Directive 17 (NSPD), which the president signed in September, according to an administration source familiar with the document. A NSPD sets out official U.S. policy.

All of the substance of the new strategy has been laid out in previous administration statements, particularly the Pentagon’s January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. (See ACT, January/February 2002.) But a spokesperson for the National Security Council explained in a January 2 interview that the White House “wanted to go into more detail,” because weapons of mass destruction in the hands of hostile countries or terrorists are the “preeminent threat” facing the United States.

The administration contends in its new strategy that there is no single solution to every country’s pursuit or possession of WMD. “Because each of these regimes is different, we will pursue country-specific strategies,” the document states. This approach is seemingly reflected in the different tactics the White House is taking toward Iraq and North Korea.


Claiming that experience shows the United States cannot always thwart proliferation, the Bush administration says in its new strategy that it is ready to counter or deter the potential use of WMD through interdicting weapons and technology transfers, punishing WMD use, and striking adversaries before they attack.

To stop dangerous cargo from moving between hostile countries or from regimes to terrorists, the United States must improve its capabilities to intercept such trade before it reaches its destination, according to the strategy. Interestingly, the day the strategy was presented to reporters, the administration announced that, at its urging, Spanish forces had seized an unidentified ship loaded with North Korean ballistic missiles en route to the Middle East. The NSC spokesperson said the two events were not linked, however, and the ship with its missiles continued on its way after Yemen claimed to have purchased them. (See ACT, Jan/Feb 2003.)

Like past administrations, the Bush team is ambiguous about whether it would use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack with biological or chemical weapons—though it has taken the extra step of making that ambiguity official policy. The strategy reads, “The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options—to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies.” The administration source said NSPD 17, the classified version of the strategy, explicitly states that “overwhelming force” potentially includes nuclear weapons.

In February 2002, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated that President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 declaration that the United States would only use nuclear weapons against countries without atomic arms if they attacked in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state remains Bush policy. However, he added, “If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

Since the Carter administration first formally articulated its “negative security assurance,” later administrations have reaffirmed the pledge, particularly within the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). At the same time, U.S. officials have implied from time to time, for instance just prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to a biological or chemical weapons attack. The Bush administration has now adopted that ambiguity as standing U.S. policy.

The Bush strategy further stresses that the United States might not wait on an attack to act. U.S. forces must be prepared to “detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD assets before these weapons are used.”

To better deal with potential WMD-armed adversaries, the United States “must accelerate efforts to field new capabilities to defeat WMD-related assets.” The Bush administration is researching modified nuclear warheads for destroying hardened and deeply buried targets, which Washington contends could be used to hide and store deadly weapons stockpiles.

Bush officials have not said whether the United States would consider using nuclear weapons to pre-emptively destroy weapons of mass destruction before they are used.


Although the Bush administration devoted scant attention to arms control measures in its September strategy document and regularly expresses skepticism about the value of international agreements, the newly released strategy states that the United States will “actively employ diplomatic approaches in bilateral and multilateral settings in pursuit of our nonproliferation goals.”

According to the document, the United States will seek to strengthen existing agreements and regimes, including the NPT, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Missile Technology Control Regime. However, the strategy offers few proposals on how the administration plans to bolster each.

The White House strategy further declares that the United States will seek new agreements as needed, specifically listing negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty. U.S. diplomats have been trying to launch negotiations at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament for several years on a fissile material cutoff treaty, which would halt production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. Their efforts have been bogged down, however, by demands from other countries for parallel negotiations that the United States opposes, namely formal talks on prevention of an arms race in outer space and nuclear disarmament.

No reference is made to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the administration has said it does not support. Some Bush officials have suggested the United States may need to resume nuclear testing, a move that would be at odds with the U.S. 1996 signature of the CTBT and a ten-year U.S. moratorium on testing.

In addition to multilateral agreements, the Bush administration asserts it will continue to support bilateral programs to better secure and destroy WMD stockpiles and materials in Russia and other former Soviet states. Efforts to improve security of dangerous goods and technologies in other countries will also be pursued, although the administration does not name specific countries.

In the strategy, the administration also pledges to tighten controls on exports that could aid another country’s pursuit of WMD, and it promises to “develop a comprehensive sanctions policy.”

“Consequence Management”

In the event that the United States is attacked with a weapon of mass destruction, the White House Office of Homeland Security is assigned the responsibility for coordinating the federal government’s response and making sure that local and state governments are prepared for such a contingency.

The WMD strategy document provides little additional information on how the United States would respond domestically to a WMD attack, noting that the issue is covered more extensively in the National Strategy For Homeland Security, a 90-page report the White House published last July.