The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden

About the authors
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Zia Mian is a research scientist with the programme on science and global security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. He is the co-editor of Out of the Nuclear Shadow: Pakistan's Atomic Bomb & the Search for Security (Zed Books, 2001).

"Power over life and death – don't be proud of it.
Whatever they fear from you, you'll be threatened with."

Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman)

The decisions to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were not taken in anger. White men in grey business suits and military uniforms, concluded after much deliberation that the United States "could not give the Japanese any warning; that we could not concentrate on a civilian area; but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible… [and] the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers' houses". It was justified by the belief that it would be cheaper in American lives to release the nuclear genie. Besides, it was such a marvellous thing to show Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The victorious are rarely encumbered by remorse. Headlines like "Jap City No More" brought the news to a joyous America. Crowds gathered in New York's Times Square to celebrate; there was less of the enemy left. The president responsible for giving the order, Harry Truman, said: "When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true." Not surprisingly, six decades later, even American liberals remain ambivalent about the morality of nuking the two Japanese cities.

At the end of the second world war, the United States was the dominant military and economic power, and alone had nuclear weapons. As the country dusted off its hands and moved on to try to create a new world order, elsewhere the radioactive rubble of the dead cities spawned not only a sense of dread, but also an obsessive desire for nuclear weapons. Not wanting to be left behind, the Soviet Union, which had been an American ally in the war, built its own bomb. It succeeded much faster than the US had anticipated, and the cold war was born. The other great European powers looked for their place in a nuclear-armed world. The British quickly got back to work on their own bomb, and in time the French.

In its efforts to impose its authority, the US brandished its nuclear weapons. During the Korean war (1950-53), in which more than 3 million North Koreans, a million South Koreans, and a million Chinese died, the United States repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. These threats led China to seek its own nuclear weapons. The end of the fighting did not end the war – indeed, the US technically is still at war with North Korea. North Korea, facing a nuclear-armed US army based in South Korea, eventually made its own nuclear plans; the Pyongyang regime announced in 2005 that it possessed a limited arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is a member of the Pugwash Council and is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

This article is adapted from Pervez Hoodbhoy, "When?" (Los Angeles Times, 10 July 2005) and "Bin Laden and Hiroshima" (Znet,
August 2005)

Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy in openDemocracy:

"Bizarre new world" (September 2001)

"Were we hijacked on 9/11?"
(September 2002)

"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet"
(March 2004)

It was not just the great powers and those that were directly threatened over whom Hiroshima cast a long shadow. Avner Cohen, the historian of Israel's nuclear bomb, writes that in newly independent Israel, prime minister David Ben-Gurion "had no qualms about Israel's need for weapons of mass destruction". Ben Gurion ordered his agents to seek out East European Jewish scientists who could "either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses" (see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, Columbia University Press, 1998)

The wind blew the poisonous clouds of fear and envy over other "third-world" countries as well: In 1948, while arguing to create India's department of atomic energy, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told parliament: "I think we must develop (nuclear science) for peaceful purposes." But, he added: "Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way." Just three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those "other purposes" were all too clear.

Days after Pakistan's nuclear tests in May 1998, Japan invited the country's foreign minister to visit Hiroshima's peace museum. The minister was visibly moved after seeing the gruesome evidence of mass devastation. His reaction: We made our nukes precisely so that this could never happen to Pakistan.

Many other states had nuclear ambitions. North Korea and Iran, both of whom have suffered grievously at American hands, seem determined to persist. They see that with the cold war over, the American empire is less restrained than at any time in the past sixty years. They know they were put on notice by George W Bush when he declared them in January 2002, along with Iraq, part of the "axis of evil". Iraq is now under American occupation. There are other states which may now reconsider earlier decisions to abandon the bomb. They may seek a nuclear option.

But times have changed. It is no longer just states that seem to have Hiroshima on their minds. The New York Times reported that before 11 September 2001 the US had intercepted an al-Qaida message that Osama bin Laden was planning a "Hiroshima" against America. In a later taped message, released just before the US attack on Afghanistan, bin Laden invoked the image of the bombing of Japan, claiming: "When people at the ends of the earth, Japan, were killed by their hundreds of thousands, young and old, it was not considered a war crime; it is something that has justification. Millions of children in Iraq is something that has justification".

Anger in Muslim countries at the United States has never been higher than today. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and then Iraq, the torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo by American interrogators, and instances of Qur'an desecration have added to already existing resentments. The oldest and bitterest of these is, of course, the unequivocal US military, economic and political support for Israeli occupation of Arab lands. The desire for an atomic weapon to seek vengeance – utterly immoral, foolish and suicidal though it is – is not limited to extremists. The "Islamic bomb" is an increasingly popular concept.

The double challenge we face now is to understand and confront both a militant American imperialism and a violent Islamic radicalism.

Nuclear-armed imperialism

In George W Bush's America, nuclear weapons are here to stay and are viewed as weapons for fighting wars. The US "Nuclear Posture Review 2002" recommended continued reliance for the indefinite future on nuclear weapons "to achieve strategic and political objectives". It mandated new facilities for the manufacture of nuclear bombs, research into new kinds of nuclear weapons, new delivery-systems, and much more. It laid out a new strategy, in which nuclear weapons were to be used to "dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies." It named as possible targets Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya, and opened the door to the use of nuclear weapons to respond to "sudden and unpredicted security challenges."

It may seem difficult to understand why the US should hunger for nuclear weapons in addition to all else that it has. Why does it want to goad other nations towards also craving nukes? And what does it seek to achieve by announcing that it may, if need be, target even non-nuclear adversaries? The answer is obvious: imperial hubris, runaway militarism, and the arrogance of power.

The continued insistence on a nuclear-armed American future has come despite growing public opposition from senior US officials with long experience with these weapons. None is more prominent than General Lee Butler, commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Air Command (1991-1992) and then of the US Strategic Command (1992-1994) with responsibility for all US air force and navy nuclear weapons.

Butler came to believe that "nuclear war (has) no politically, militarily or morally acceptable justification." Why then does the United States keep nuclear weapons and insist on its right and willingness to use them? Butler's explanation is a rare first-hand account of the terrifying madness that lies at the heart of the nuclear-weapons complex. He writes:

"I have no other way of understanding the willingness to condone nuclear weapons except to believe that they are the natural accomplices of visceral enmity. They thrive in the emotional climate born of utter alienation and isolation. The unbounded wantonness of their effects is a perfect companion to the urge to destroy completely. They play on our deepest fears and pander to our darkest instincts. They corrode our sense of humanity, numb our capacity for moral outrage and make thinkable the unimaginable."

For Butler, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons by the United States is due to the nuclear complex. The institutions that make and plan to use nuclear weapons are, he says, "mammoth bureaucracies with gargantuan appetites and global agendas… beset with tidal forces, towering egos, maddening contradictions, alien constructs and insane risks."

This complex was built during the cold war. But the end of the cold war has brought no relief. Butler explains that:

"The Cold War lives on in the minds of those who cannot let go the fears, the beliefs and the enmities born of the nuclear age. They cling to deterrence, clutch its tattered promise to their breast, shake it wistfully at bygone adversaries and balefully at new or imagined ones. They are gripped still by its awful willingness not simply to tempt the apocalypse but to prepare its way."

The United States is now without doubt the dominant military power in the world. With twelve battle-carrier groups and hundreds of military bases spread around the world, the US spent $455 billion on its armed forces in 2005, with another $82 billion marked for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is more than the total sum spent by the next thirty-two countries down the list, and is close to 50% of total world military spending. The quadrennial defence review released by the Pentagon on 3 February 2006 and the federal budget for fiscal year 2007 released on 6 February schedule further increases both of military spending and of the range of operational programmes.

openDemocracy's global security correspondent Paul Rogers points out: "As these budgets increase, almost every other area of federal spending is reduced – clear evidence of the overarching priority of fighting the war… This is clearly a global war, and the world as a whole is involved, whether or not it wants to be" (see "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Moreover, the United States shows every sign of determination to use as well as expand this military power. US military doctrines have shifted away from deterrence to pre-emption, unilateral military intervention, and simultaneously fighting several local wars overseas. The US military has put in place a 2004 "interim global strike alert order" from Donald Rumsfeld that requires it to be ready to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea. The military claims to be able to carry out such attacks within "half a day or less" and to use nuclear weapons in such an attack.

There are demands from the US air force for authority to put weapons in space. A former acting secretary of the air force, Pete Teets, explained in 2005: "We haven't reached the point of strafing and bombing from space... nonetheless, we are thinking about those possibilities." "Full-spectrum dominance" – in land, sea, air, and space – is necessary to achieve the goal of total planetary control.

US foreign policy in the post-cold-war world owes much to "The Project for the New American Century" (PNAC), a Washington-based neo-conservative think-tank founded in 1997. PNAC was clear that the US must rule the world: "[the new world order] must have a secure foundation on unquestioned US military pre-eminence... The process of transformation is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalysing event – like a new Pearl Harbor". That Pearl Harbor-like event came on 11 September 2001.

After 9/11 there was no lack of spokesmen for the American empire. In unabashedly imperial language, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who initiated the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, writes in his book The Grand Chessboard that the US should seek to "prevent collusion and maintain dependence among the vassals, keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together".

To keep the "barbarians" at bay, Pentagon planners have been charged with the task of assuring American control over every part of the planet. Ralph Peters, an officer responsible for conceptualising future warfare in the office of the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, and author of New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy, is clear about why his country needs to fight:

"We have entered an age of constant conflict.

"We are entering a new American century, in which we will become still wealthier, culturally more lethal, and increasingly powerful. We will excite hatreds without precedent.

"There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. The de facto role of the U.S. armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing."

But there is a downside to this. And the long-term consequences will not be to the advantage of the U.S. because the nuclear monopoly has broken down. There are others who would be nuclear warriors.

Can the Islam-US clash go nuclear?

The notion of an "Islamic bomb" is now almost thirty years old. Addressing posterity from his death cell in a Rawalpindi jail, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme, wrote in 1977: "We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish, and Hindu civilisations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilisation was without it, but that position was about to change."

Another Muslim leader stressed the need for a bomb belonging collectively to Islam. Addressing an Islamic conference in Tehran in 1992, the Iranian vice-president, Ayatollah Mohajerani said: "Since Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons, we, the Muslims, must cooperate to produce an atomic bomb, regardless of UN efforts to prevent proliferation."

In the celebrations following the 1998 nuclear tests, the Jamaat-e-Islami party paraded bomb and missile replicas through the streets of Pakistani cities. It saw in the bomb a sure sign of a reversal of fortunes and a panacea for the ills that have plagued Muslims since the end of Islam's golden age. In 2000, we captured on video the statements of several leaders of jihadist, rightwing political parties in Pakistan — Maulana Khalil-ur-Rahman and Maulana Sami-ul-Haq — who also demanded a bomb for Islam (see the documentary film Pakistan and India under the Nuclear Shadow, Eqbal Ahmad Foundation, 2001).

One important bin Laden supporter, Pakistan's General Hameed Gul — an influential Islamist leader and former head of ISI, the country's powerful intelligence agency — has made clear how he feels. In a widely watched, nationally televised debate with one of us (PH) in July 2005, General Hameed Gul snarled: "Your masters (that is, the Americans) will nuke us Muslims just as they nuked Hiroshima; people like you want to denuclearize and disarm us in the face of a savage beast set to devour the world."

Nonetheless, it is impossible to conceive of any Muslim state declaring that it has an Islamic bomb that would be used for defense of the umma against the United States or Israel (but it is worth recalling that this kind of "extended deterrence", as it was called, was practicised aggressively by both superpowers in the cold war, including during the Cuban missile crisis). From time to time, the media reports the speculation that Pakistan would provide a "nuclear umbrella" for Arab countries in a crisis. But nothing in the history of Pakistan has shown a substantial commitment to a pan-Islamic cause.

Pakistan, so far the only Muslim nuclear state, is unlikely to risk devastating retaliation from Israel or the United States if it did attempt to provide nuclear weapons for use in the middle east. Its earlier clandestine nuclear cooperation with Iran — officially attributed to Abdul Qadeer Khan and his network — came to an end a decade ago. This was followed by similar sales to Libya that continued till 2003 and the exposure of the network, leading to a public confession by AQ Khan in early 2004.

The danger of a nuclear conflict with the United States, and the west more broadly, comes not from Muslim states, but from radicalised individuals within these states. After 9/11, Pakistan's military government insisted that there was no danger of any of its nuclear weapons being taken for a ride by some radical Islamic group, but it didn't take any chances. Several weapons were reportedly airlifted to various safer, isolated, locations within the country, including the northern mountainous area of Gilgit.

This nervousness was not unjustified — two strongly Islamist generals of the Pakistan army, close associates of General Musharraf, had just been removed. Dissatisfaction within the army on Pakistan's betrayal of the Taliban was (and is) deep; almost overnight, under intense American pressure, the Pakistan government had disowned its progeny and agreed to wage a war of annihilation against it.

Fears about Pakistan's nukes were subsequently compounded by revelations that two highly placed nuclear engineers known to espouse radical Islamic views, Syed Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Majid, had journeyed several times into Afghanistan in 2000 and met with Osama bin Laden and discussed the possibilities of making nuclear weapons.

The path from doomsday

Today, the United States rightly lives in fear of the bomb it first brought into the world and tried to use to establish its dominance. The decision to use it — if and when it becomes available — may already have been made. Shadowy groups, propelled by fanatical hatreds, are believed to scour the globe for fissile materials. They are not in a hurry; time is on their side. They are doubtless confident they will one day breach fortress America.

The possibilities for nuclear attack are not limited to the so-called suitcase bomb stolen from the arsenal of a nuclear state. The making of atomic weapons — especially crude ones — has become vastly simpler than it was at the time of the Manhattan Project. Basic information on nuclear weapons is now freely available in technical libraries throughout the world; simply surfing the internet can bring to anyone a staggering amount of detail. Advanced textbooks and monographs contain details that can enable reasonably competent scientists and engineers to come up with "quick and dirty" designs for nuclear explosives. The physics of nuclear explosions can be readily taught to graduate students.

Also in openDemocracy on nuclear weapons and global politics:

Achilles Skordas, "A right to use nuclear weapons?"
(February 2003)

Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference" (June 2005)

Paul Rogers, "By any means necessary: the United States and Japan" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Joseph Rotblat's humanity" (September 2005)

Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
(January 2006)

Lisa Lynch, "The United States's nuclear fix" (January 2006)

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The material for making nuclear weapons is also more easily available than ever before. To build a simple bomb or two, it is no longer necessary to go through the complex processes for uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing. These fissile materials are already present in the thousands of ex-Soviet bombs marked for disassembly, and in research reactors and storage sites the world over.

It is easy to imagine an improvised nuclear device fabricated from highly enriched uranium, constructed in the very place where it will eventually be detonated. Even simpler may be an attack on a lightly-guarded nuclear reactor or spent-fuel storage site, releasing large amounts of radioactivity.

Some nuclear-weapon experts privately believe that it is not a question of if but when. This may be too pessimistic, but obviously tight policing and reduction of nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles are urgent, important steps. It is likely not to be sufficient if nuclear-weapon states insist on keeping their bombs and missiles as legitimate instruments of either deterrence or war. Continuing to rely on nuclear energy will only add to the risk.

Global nuclear proliferation – whether by other states or non-state actors – can only be slowed down at best. Non-proliferation by cooperation and consent cannot succeed as long as the US is insistent on retaining and improving its nuclear arsenal – by what argument can others be persuaded to give up, or not acquire, nuclear weapons? The use of force, coercive non-proliferation, will only serve to drive up demand.

If we accept that religious fanatics are planning nuclear attacks and that they may eventually succeed, then what? Who will the US retaliate against? Will the US nuke Mecca? This has been suggested already by some, as they seek to identify those things of value to Muslims that the United States can threaten. Or, will the US attack the capitals of Muslim states? How will it decide where to strike? What will the US and its allies do as their people fear more attacks? Will they expel Muslims from the US and Europe or like the Japanese-Americans in the second world war, herd them into internment camps? Any of these would further inflame the jihad. The world might plunge headlong into a bottomless abyss of reaction and counter-reaction.

Hiroshima signalled a failure of humankind, not just that of America. The growth of technology has far outstripped the capacities of the social institutions we have to govern our societies. Humanity's best chance of survival lies in creating taboos against nuclear weapons, much as already exist for chemical and biological weapons, and to work rapidly toward their global elimination.

We must dare to imagine and work urgently towards a future that is based on universal, compassionate, human, secular values. For this to happen, the civilised world, those who believe in an international community oriented towards peace, justice and freedom will have to subdue the twin ogres of American imperialism and Islamic radicalism.