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Nuclear Option Still Unthinkable

ALL fall and into December, US military officials ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a Gulf war. Now that Saddam Hussein has said he has nuclear weapons (no one believes him), US generals have remained circumspect, presumably for strategic reasons, about coalition use of such weapons. The issue is being raised, however, in connection with the ground war expected to come this month. Reports about the difficulty of a ground war in Kuwait vary widely; some feel Saddam's capacity has been overrated. Yet the tactical nuclear weapons issue is sometimes raised in the context of an ugly, losing ground war with extremely high coalition casualties - or if a US Army division, say, is backed into a corner and Saddam uses chemical weapons. Then, goes the discussion, one asks the question whether to go nuclear, or accept major losses.

We hope, of course, that such a question will never be asked. The Pentagon's previously stated policy of ruling out use of nuclear weapons was, and is, right. US generals should exclude nuclear as a realistic option.

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The political, moral, and strategic reasons to avoid use of nuclear weapons hardly need recounting. The precedent would be horrific. Use of nuclear weapons would tell other nations, and other Saddams, that nuclear war is now acceptable. The scramble to acquire such weapons would intensify; the simple fact of use of nuclear weapons could override nonproliferation treaties, arguments for just wars, and years of careful diplomacy.

The use of nuclear weapons would have unforeseen repercussions. Some experts believe radical Muslims could resort to a campaign of terror against US civilians overseas. Radiation from tactical weapons is supposedly containable, but this isn't certain.

An unforeseen crisis might tempt planners to put nuclear use on the table. Such a decision would take place in a stressful situation and be presented as a pragmatic option, requiring decisiveness. Nonmilitary factors could be ruled out.

A no-use policy should be reaffirmed now.

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