Wednesday, November 17, 2004

This issue was raised the other day by Imperial Hubris author and former CIA Bin Laden Task Force chief Mike Scheuer in his post-resignation comments (which I blogged on here). It was further supported by media reports of a recenct al Qaida detainee who has informed his interrogators of the group's ambitions to smuggle a WMD, perhaps a nuclear bomb, through Mexico into the United States. I argued that if such an event occurred there would be catastrophic second-strike retaliation against the Muslim world by the United States in response.

Marc Shulman of The American Future has taken a look at the issue of nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis Islamist fanatics that you should read in full. An excerpt:

"Not withstanding these considerations, I believe that terrorists can and should be deterred. Terrorists do not exist in a stateless vacuum. In each state in which they have refuse, there are two other actors: the people, some of whom are sympathetic to the terrorists and some who are not; and the government, which may (1) actively support, (2) condone, (3) actively oppose, or (4) be unable to oppose the terrorists. While the terrorists may welcome death and have little or no physical assets, at least some of the general population prefers life to death and the government does have an infrastructure that it is responsible for protecting.

The objective of a deterrence policy -- more precisely, a warning that the U.S. will respond with a nuclear attack on targets of our choosing, including Islam's holy sites -- should be to cause ordinary people and governments to fear the consequences if terrorists explode one or more nuclear weapons on our soil. By making the nuclear second strike doctrine public, it would hopefully have enough credibility to alter the behavior of people and governments. The specter of devastation should be an incentive for both people and governments to stop supporting terrorists and for governments to root them out. The less fanatical of the terrorists, recognizing these changes, may decide to pursue other, less deadly, activities.

During the Cold War, a second strike would have had to be launched as soon as it was recognized that we were under attack. There would have been precious few minutes between recognition and devastation. Because the countries in which terrorists make their home lack the ability (for now) to attack our homeland, our response need not be immediate. Thus, our intelligence agencies would have time to establish which terrorist group was responsible and which country was unwilling or unable to reign them in."

I am in general agreement with Mr. Shulman's well-stated argument. U.S. nuclear doctrine, which has been a study in ambiguity since 1991 is overdue for a review in the age of non-state actors. My quibble is that our response window must remain in the immediate aftermath in order to retain the very deterrence credibility that Shulman seeks to establish by having the USG promulgate a new nuclear doctrine. Unless SAC-NORAD is flying on autopilot with an executive branch nuked out of existence, any period of cool, rational, reflection by our elite longer than a day would result in an inability of our side " to pull the trigger".

No "wise man" will want to accept the moral responsibility of nuking city X in Pakistan on the best prediction by the IC two weeks after a .5 megaton bomb destroyed downtown Chicago. They will quail, then bluster and then grope for some costly, inadequate, conventional alternative. Any normal, moral, rational mind would balk when faced with the uncertainty of launching a surgical nuclear attack on millions of people on possibly slender threads of evidence. Our response must be assumed by our enemies to be certain, irrationally disproportional and general in order to function as a serious deterrent. It must be perceived by our own elite as doctrine so their own moral sense of personal guilt does not lead them to evade responsibilities upon which all of our safety depends.

The leaders of our Islamist enemies do not value the lives of their followers or fellow Muslims a whit - though their perfect record of fleeing oportunities for martyrdom says something about their instinct for self-preservation. They do value certain pieces of real estate though, ostensibly having gone to war to protect them, invoking their authority to do on behalf of the Ummah from Quranic scripture.

Most polls show that the Muslim world is not composed of Islamists but they also show widespread partial support for the actions of al Qaida, a steady flow of financial donations and social tolerance for anti-American extremism. Unfortunately, in the event of a nuclear strike by al Qaida the Ummah will have to bear the cost of their popular tolerance and enablement of terror. Nuclear exchange is premised on collective punishment so if the Islamists begin the United States will finish it for all time. The costs of a nuclear terror attack on the United States must be perceived by al Qaida, Islamist clergy and their Arab world admirers as being so devastatingly high as to be unthinkable.

We need to communicate that clearly in the fervent hope that, like with the USSR, that such steps will never become necessary.
There are a number of topics in this post that are of significant interest. I've been working myself on a post on the subject of collective punishment. If you google “collective punishment”, you'll get links to a host of complaints mostly from Palestinians. But there's apparently a widespread misconception on this subject in the Arab world. It's collective punishment to destroy a town because townpeople collaborated with the enemy. It's not collective punishment when you bombard a town the enemy is using as a hiding place or fortification unless there's reckless disregard. Our advertising campaigns on smart bombs have raised expectations too high.

Secondly, there's a notion going around that we won't respond to a nuclear attack with a nuclear response nearly 50 years worth of U. S. nuclear doctrine on the subject notwithstanding. It's long past time that there be an official restatement of the doctrine along the lines you suggest. Failure to do so is terribly dangerous not merely because it emboldens terrorists and motivates them to acquire nukes but because it calls our willingness to use nuclear weapons in response to an attack by a state actor into question.
Hi Dave

Thanks. I think I need to follow up on this one with some more thought and some review of the literature - Kissinger's book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy comes to mind. The end of bipolarity eroded the world's perception of our willingness to use nuclear weapons.

Certainly the transnational progressive idiots argue that a second-strike on our part would be " illegal" - sort of the Doctrine of Take a Free Shot - but these ppl have a civilizational death wish anyway.
It would be possible to announce that a target is to be destroyed and allow sufficient time for the city to be evacuated. So for instance if an Iranian-sponsored group set off a nuclear device that destroyed Melbourne, the Allied nations could announce that the holy city of Qom is to be destroyed in retaliation and allow a week for evacuation. Of course, militant extremists might then rush to Qom as a "human shield" defying the West to press "Go"...
I've mentioned before on my own blog and I'll repeat here, Islamist terrorists are deterrable but not conventionally deterrable. They are deterrable by fatwas condemning them to hell from highly respectable clerics if they go nuclear. Deterrence is heightened by the execution of clerics for apostasy who issue fatwas supporting nuclear weapons use in terrorist operations. There's a saudi cleric who should not be alive right now and clerics in Cairo, Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Qom, and Najaf who should be busy writing on the subject.
This whole concept needs to be debated at a national level by all Americans. This is not an academic arguement but one that I believe we will face in the next 10-20 years. This is one reason why I was not in favor or the "invasion" of Afghanistan. This city of Kandahar (the spiritual center of the Taliban) should have been vaporized withing hours of the WTC attacks. This would have sent the clear message that if you attack our population centers then you can expect 10-fold in return. This was our last best chance for deterrence. Until we communicate clearly, through actions, that we are willing to use all our power then we will continue to be attacked.
Now consider our current situation. Our efforts to "democratize" the middle east sends the message that we value their lives and that we want to improve them. This may be a very "Christian" thing to do but it will not have the desired effect. It tells them we value them and at the same time it is a message of imperialism. This is an invitation for them to attack us further. From my perspective, they need to sort out their own civilization. All we can hope to do is make it clear that if they want to mess with us they will cease to exist.
To those suggesting a large scale U.S. nuclear attack, forget it. I don't see any American military or civilian leadership ordering such an attack. Nuke whom? For what reason? At this point, I see our only hope of avoiding a world wide catastrophe is to carry out a conventional attack against all Saudi and Iranian oil installations. Complete devastation of their economies. They think that they can do whatever they want since we are dependent on their oil. Such an attack on our part would shatter their world view and force them to rethink their approach to the west. In addtion, it would force us to change our energy infrastructure.

P.S. yes I know this would cause us great hardship. However, that is part of the point, they don't think we could handle it. Lastly, you'd be surprised how adaptive capitalism can be when it really has to. Alternative energy sources would pop up all over the place.

a from l: with all due respect I don't think you get this "mass death" thing. You don't set off a 10 mega-ton air burst AFTER giving an evacuation notice. What the heck is the point?
TM Lutas: yes, when Ataturk came to power he publicly hanged all the imams that didn't agree with him. Short term it worked. Turkey today, however, is alot less secular than we would like to believe. The other problem with your approach is that there always seems to be an imam somewhere who can issue any fatwa he likes. And if you want to "control" an imam, are you will to kidnap his wife and kids and throw one of them off a building. If you are not willing to use Saddam-level brutality then that approach won't work either.

Very interesting commentary gentlemen. I am going to address this further, but first:

a from l: I'm kind of thinking that Ansar Hezbollah thugs and the Pasdaran would be herding human shields in to Qom at gunpoint but there would probably be no lack of volunteers if the Grand Ayatollahs were promising paradise. In the end we have to accept that we will be inflicting mass casualties in response to a nuclear attack. The Ummah is at least as responsible for the antics of the Islamist radicals as the hapless Russian people were for the actions of the Soviet Government

TM Lutas: Agreed on the Saudi "nuclear Fatwa" scholar. He should have been made an example of by now.

You're certainly correct that such a " War of Fatwas" would put a dent in al Qaida's ability to recruit and their image in the public opinion of the Muslim world. Unfortunately it would not be as restraining for the Salafist extremists as a Grand Ayatollah's Fatwa would be for their radical shiite counterparts due to Sunni Islam's " horizontal" nature but this would certainly help. As of yet we have not provided these scholars with the proper motivation to issue such proclamations.

Barnabus: More or less I postulate a massive response if the United States is without normal executive leadership (DC is nuked) and our nuclear contingency plans are implemented by our strategic nuclear forces. For doctrinal purposes I do not believe the promise of a surgical nuclear strike will cut it in terms of effective deterrence. The costs are just not high enough to impress and daunt Islamist zealots
Barnabus - Turkey may be less secular than generally thought but look at the calendar, it's a temporary patch that's held almost a century. That's long term enough for me. Unlike Ataturk, the result we should strive for is not secularism, but the ability to argue for peace without death hanging over your head and for those who argue for war to be treated seriously. Over time, such a policy is very likely to change Islam to something much more livable.
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