Thursday, November 18, 2004

The question raised by Marc Shulman on the prospect of nuclear terrorism by Islamist radicals brought out many fruitful comments and concerns. A common point of agreement seemed to be the need for national discussion of the issue which hopefully the blogosphere can spark.

In 2002 the Bush administration submitted a still partially classified Nuclear Posture Review to the Congress that presaged if not radical, at least some very significant changes in nuclear war doctrine. In essence, the Bush administration widened and deepened the parameters of the Flexible Response Doctrine of the Kennedy administration that was shelved by Robert McNamara in favor of MAD during the Johnson Administration when the U.S. was pushing arms control proposals at Kosygin and Brezhnev.

The Bush administration NPR had the virtue of looking creatively at developing new technological improvements to nuclear weapons that might promise to make them less destructive in terms of collateral damage and more effective against hardened targets. Unfortunately,there are two flaws in the NPR from a strategic standpoint.

First, the NPR is dominated by state-based thinking, albeit a multipolarity system designed to target rogue states in particular - naming specifically Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya along with traditional targets Russia and China - and non-state actors like al Qaida are not addressed except as " ...surprising military developments". Secondly, the flexibility of moving away doctrinally from pre-set missile coordinate targeting tp an emphasis on " capabilities" to respond to events leaves far too much room for megalomaniacal actors to gamble on surviving a politically constrained second-strike. To my mind if their analytical prowess determined that detonating a nuke inside the U.S. was a good idea, subtlety is wasted on them.

The problematic situation with the nuclear terrorism situation is that the Gap is filled with states that are at best rickety, dysfunctional, entities that barely qualify as nation-states or they are tribes with flags. Our Westphalian rule-set mentality has led us astray into granting rights of sovereignty to de facto non-sovereigns which is a diplomatic charade that the Core can maintain only by divorcing all the normal expectations of responsibity from them that sovereigns are supposed to exercise. Responsibilities that we hold other Core states accountable - a bizarre double-standard that works against our own interests and security.

Now failed and failing states are truly unable to control non-state actors but there are many states that simply choose not to expend resources doing so, at least to the degree where such an effort is truly effective. Their inaction as sovereigns have created situations of salutory neglect where you have " State Tolerated Terrorism". Or these authorities encourage radicals and fellow-travellers with a wink and a nod, benignly admiring the support their citizens give to terrorists- " Socially Sponsored Terrorism " while claiming plausible deniability for the regime. Finally, like Iran, they may be up to their elbows in the terrorism business as state sponsors but also eschew actions that would provoke massive retaliation.

Frankly, I'm not certain deterrence will work with the radicals already inside bin Laden's inner circle. I think it might but ultimately I'm hazarding a guess. Nor am I opposed to ruhlessly taking direct and sustained action to crush al Qaida. What deterrence policy based on counterforce and countervalue will do to the Ummah is make the negligent authorities and the religious enablers of terror starkly aware that they share with the United States the dangers of nuclear terrorism and perhaps raise the costs for pursuing such a hostile policy of co-belligerency.

UPDATE I: Dave Schuyler of the Glittering Eye is also examining the state of American nuclear deterrence policy and neatly deconstructs the objections to a more robust form of deterrence .

UPDATE II: Marc Shulman of The American Future has two related posts up this morning on this debate, where he evidently tangled elsewhere in the blogosphere with the advocates of strategic helplessness from the Denial of Reality Based Community. The first is a commentary on my post above and his second addresses the same cockeyed logic of the oponents that Dave tackled at Glittering eye. I have to highlight this psychological observation by Marc on the deterrence opponents he encountered:

"There are three things to notice about these criticisms. First, they don't seem to take the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously. Second, they express concern for the fate of those who would be killed by our second strike, but not about the Americans who would be killed by the first strike. Third, they offer no alternative."

A thanks to both gentlemen for pushing a vital debate hopefully further into the public eye.

UPDATE III. Having read Wretchard's well-considered 2003 post on Nuclear weapons and Islamist terrorism the advice of Dave Schuyler, I heartily recommend it for your perusal.

There was alot of information in the links you provided, thanks. I just finished going through them all and I don't see how deterrence works in our current situation. How is bin Laden deterred from carrying out a WMD attack against the U.S.? He lived in the caves of Afghanistan and was content with the suffering of the average Afghani. Our threatening to reduce a muslim city to rubble does not seem to be much of a concern for him. Fortunately he probably doesn't have such a weapon and as one of the posts pointed out, they probably would never have the technical capability to acquire such weapons. However there is a second part. The islamic states may be behind technically but our society developed atomic weapons 60 years ago. When a state makes this a priority, it will be done. Pakistan has developed nuclear weapons and the Iranians seem to be very close. The crucial question is can we deter islamic states that go nuclear from disseminating these weapons. Right now my impression is that the mullahs in Iran would gladly slip a few weapons to non-state actors. How would we be able to determine that the government of Iran had given it to them? How do you know bin Laden didn't buy it from N. Korea, or Pakistan or even the Russian mafia? One important technical question then becomes, once a weapon has been used, is it possible to determine it's source? In other words, are there tests that could be carried out that would allow us to say, yes these residues match the exact composition of an Iranian bomb, etc.? If so, I suggest we make it perfectly clear that we have the technology to determine where the bomb came from.
Much to think about, thanks for the post.

This has been a excellent debate on an issue that is really undervalued right now. Thinking more generally about this, I came up with a few questions. I may try to address these later, but feel free to offer your insights.

1. What are our goals in the GWOT? What are the goals of the extreme Islamists?

2. Does a stated policy of deterrence on our part inhibit the goals of the extreme Islamists so as to prevent a nuclear attack within the US?

3. If a nuclear terrorist attack ouccurs within the US, what kind of respnse would serve our goals? Would our goals remain the same in such an event?

Thank you for the kind remarks, the feedback is much appreciated !

Basically I'm positing a thesis that to some degree bin Laden and his cohorts are not merely brilliant psychopaths but sincere Muslims, albeit in a twisted, Qutbist fashion. If that is true - which I concede I could be wrong here being neither an Arabist nor an expert on Islam - then the sure destruction of their holiest of holies in retaliation for detonating a nuclear weapon inside the United States may be enough to give them the pause to not detonate a nuclear device in the first place.

Our stated *intention* to not be particularly careful or precise in our nuclear retaliation in terms of finding the exact culprits would be intended to deter those rulers who might play the proxy game with non-state actors. If you put a loaded pistol in the hands of a madman and then send him on his way you bear the responsibility for the consequences.

During the Cold War, the Soviets and the US maintained a certain pretense of the independence of our respective proxies - the Cubans, UNITA, the Sandinistas, the Contras, the FMLN, the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Libyans, the Greek Colonels, Pinochet etc. etc. We did this for the very good reason to avoid a direct superpower confrontation and after decades this sensible posture became a habit.

Well, the USSR is gone and that habit is no longer sensible. We don't need to maintain the pretense anymore. Even if Iran gets a nuke it cannot win a nuclear exchange so to prevent them from handing the weapons off to terrorists we simply need to inform them that we consider terrorists to be another delivery system like an ICBM and they are the return address along with the Syrians and anyone else who seems likely parties in the 15 minutes after we have been hit ourselves.

The emphasis and extremity of the position I'm arguing for is to make the costs of a one-shot attack on the United States unimaginably high - even for the Islamist lunatics.


Excellent questions. So much so that I will address them in a post on Sunday.
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Today’s tidbit…

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Enjoy your day – And have a GREAT one!
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