ARE ISLAMISTS WITH NUCLEAR BOMBS DETERRABLE?
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.