Friday, July 22, 2005

My philosophically-inclined comrade and unwilling constituent of Representative Tom Tancredo(R-Col) jb at riting on the wall offered an in-depth analysis of my brief commentary on the mechanics of the credibility of nuclear deterrence. I will make remarks in regular text in response:

" the core critique (and there is a secondary critique below as well) here is that deterrence is, at root, a byproduct of rational actor theory. which is to say that all actors within a system will under all circumstances make rational decisions to maximize identified self-interests. these interests can be existential (which is the essential logic of mutually assured destruction) or they can fall to other categories: symbolic, tactical, strategic, etc. under normal circumstances, making a clear and credible existential threat to a defined action would deter such an action (in this case a nuclear strike on us soil) from taking place. all this is well and good under traditional understandings of rational actor theory, but i have to throw several wrenches in the works at this point."

In real-world nuclear deterrence logic as it played out in the era of brinksmanship through MAD, rational actor theory was not actually subscribed to by either superpower.

The Russians basically had one plan for all nuclear scenarios which was to launch everything they had in a strike that would be, they hoped, massive enough to wipe out much of the American capacity for a devastating retaliatory strike. MAD was the accepted doctrine of the Arms Control priesthood in the State Department and in academia but not of the Red Army general staff. The Reagan administration unofficially abandoned MAD as well when the
" decapitation" strategy was implemented circa 1982-83 to ensure that our first priority in a nuclear war would be the destruction of the Soviet political, security and military leadership and their command and control systems rather than the Soviet population.

" to start, there is an assumption under rational actor theory that actors have some degree of parity (if not equality) on the world stage. traditionally, this would imply that all defined actors are states, and that states on some level maximize expected outcomes. the problem with this situation, of course, is that non-state actors do not necessarily view maximal outcomes in the same way that state actors do. for instance, it is entirely unclear whether a non-state, transnational fundamentalist islamic organization with a millennial world view would view the elimination of mecca - per tancredo - as a deal-breaking outcome. while the vast majority of muslims may see things this way, millennial cults hold a certain expectation of apocalyptic circumstance and see this outcome as, if not inevitable, far from inconceivable. which is to say that such groups would make a perfectly rational calculation that such a threat is, in their world view, mitigated by other outcomes, notably the symbolic destruction of the perceived hegemon."

It is not that maximization of interests are categorically prevented so much that potential minimum costs of insisting on maximum gains are raised to politically unacceptable levels for the stronger party.

Asymmetry and not symmetry is the historical rule in nuclear deterrence. Soviet parity was not achieved until the early 1970's and all other nuclear powers chose to remain in wildly asymmetrical positions vis-avis the superpowers. The anxiety felt over North Korean, Iranian or non-state actor possession of crude and unwieldy fission bombs itself makes the point of the potent psychological value of asymmetric deterrence.

A status of equality or rough parity in nuclear capability is not required for deterrence purposes - a point aptly captured by Charles DeGaulle, who when asked how many nuclear weapons France would need to deter the Russians, candidly answered " Six". The British and French never built more than a modest number of warheads compared to the U.S.-Soviet combined total of almost 50,000 but the Soviet disarmament negotiators were always anxious that these small stockpiles be considered despite the Soviet arsenal hovering in the global overkill zone.

As for Bin Laden specifically, he seems to understand the concept of nuclear deterrence very well.

"but perhaps one can argue that the threat is not being made to such groups but rather, implicitly, to the wider muslim world. in this case, the threat reads something more like this to cynical ears: “if you do not stop islamist terror from delivering a nuclear weapons to united states soil, you will pay a commensurate price.” or at least that’s the idea behind it. the problem here is that, wisdom of crowds be damned, the message if perceived accurately is: “succumb to draconian security measures to prevent terrorism or you face an existential threat.” this message, received by fully rational actors, is not likely to win friends or support amongst the global ‘umma. in fact, i would guess that it wins just as many die-hard enemies who by their die-hard nature are not rational actors in the first place as it does allies. i’d be open to a counterargument here, but that’s my take."

Point taken and it is a good one. There are political costs to this stance. No argument.

Survival in a nuclear scenario is not a time for winning popularity contests, it is a time for concentrating minds like a hangman's noose. The Arab-Muslim world bears some responsibility for the cultural and financial cultivation of loose cannons that stand next to their state actors and the continued survival of their networks. Complicit parties range from wealthy members of Gulf royal families, leading business enterprises, certain Arab intelligence services as well as elements of ISI and the Pasdaran, leading figures in the Sunni religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to the " Arab street".

If an al Qaida nuclear weapon detonates in Kansas city or Manhattan, the supporters of terrorism bear the same responsibility that a lookout or getaway driver has when a bank robbery results in a murder. They bring what comes afterward on their own heads and can be allowed absolutely no illusions that a chance exists of executing a " free" or a " no return address" nuclear shot at an American city without suffering tenfold retaliation.

Again the whole point here is to set up a dynamic where everyone chooses to walk away from the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
This was rather eleptical, but it almost seemed to me you think a nuclear strike against Mecca would be a useful and rational response to a nuclear terror attack.
Hi Col

The only useful deterrence policy is one that actually deters a prospective opponent from making a first-strike. Your having to retaliate with nuclear weapons indicates that your deterrence policy was an abject failure.

The objective here is NOT to nuke Mecca or beat ones breast on cable TV about terrorism like Tancredo but to credibly deter a non-state actor who has made numerous WMD threats against the U.S.

A rational *response* - as in it gains our side something of tangible military value like taking out Moscow, no, none whatsoever. A rational *threat* that *might* deter an Islamist terrorist who is * genuinely* pious from taking the step of nuking an American city if his actions would in turn put at risk the Holiest of Holies, then perhaps yes.

I am of the opinion that Michael Scheuer's analysis about Bin Laden and Zawahiri is accurate - that they are, in their own minds, pious Muslims who put a high degree of value on the well-being of Islam in the collective and abstract sense ( if not on the lives of individual Muslims). In other words, despite being terrorists I think they are rational and discrminating in their assessment of risk and they have concrete objectives in their war with the U.S. and not a desire for provoking a complete apocalypse. They are guerilla leaders and not Islamist equivalents to Jim Jones or David Koresh.

Of Zaqawri I'm not sanguine that *any* such threat would deter him giving his propensity to rationalize killing his fellow Muslims. I don't have an answer for crafting a deterrence policy for actors showing signs of suicidal ideation because I don't think there is one.

The goal here Col is to prevent the nuking of an American city and that is my primary concern though in preventing that scenario also rebounds to the welfare of the rest of the planet. I'm sure you realize the escalation that would follow that kind of incident if a nuclear decapitation attack wiped out the executive branch and left SAC-NORAD on " automatic pilot", dusting off and implementing contingency plans.

The TRIAD system is designed *specifically* to keep running and mete out punishment in a worst case scenario of no civilian leadership. Even in a case where you have a surviving Chief Executive who retains command and control the political and military pressure for retaliation would be insurmountable regardless of personality or party affiliation.

Everything that can be reasonably done to prevent that eventuality from happening, must be done. To paraphrase Herman Kahn, we gain nothing by refusing to think about the unthinkable. It doesn't matter if the prospective nuclear oponent is Russian, Islamist,North Korean or Chinese - we have an obligation to attempt to find the levers of deterrence to keep conflicts out of the nuclear realm.

Inevitably with nuclear deterrence theory you find yourself in a logical paradox where only by credibly threatening to do what you do not want to do gives you hope that you won't actually have to follow through with it. What makes things dicier now than with the Russians is the Non-State Actor structure adding in higher degrees of uncertainty. Very, very, very destabilizing as a variable Col.

I'm open to better suggestions for dealing with this problem if you have some. There are other Non-state actors out there besides al Qaida so this problem isn't going to go away.
I read that as yes.

Then you are possibly a fool and certainly don't get the Salafistes.

Mecca, however holy, is only a place. In the minds of the purist Salafistes such as Zaouahiri, Bin Laden, holy places are not prime considerations. There is an aspect of "shirk" or pagan association of place and God in them that they don't like at all. The attack on Mecca some 20 odd years ago by Salafiste extremists, the degree to which Wahabites are quite fine with eradicating ancient holy places in KSA, attacks against Sufis and others at Mosques all underline this.

They are not deterable by threatening Mecca. Quite the contrary, such a threat plays to them. An act that would certainly provoke, and indeed the threat would possibly as well, an "ultimate" seperation of Muslims and Euro-Americans into warring camps, appropriately in their minds seperating the Islamic world in one fell act from the "contamination" of the West is a small price to pay.

Nothing good comes out of a threat against Mecca, except to insult and alienate the moderates and reinforce the concept of Muslim versus Non total war.

The idea is utterly without proper foundation.
Come now Col, I'm sure you realize by now that I am not foolish nor do I think all Muslims = Terrorists. I'm interested in the correct lever to give extremists pause.
(Your own colleague at Aquol had a post up with warnings of contingency plans along these lines. These things exist whether discuss them or not. What we be most foolish is assuming that the U.S. would not respond. That's about as categorically incorrect an assumption as could possibly be made)

Good point on the reference to 1979. I may *not* understand the Salafist worldview as they actually see it and did not consider the implications of that attack in my previous response.

Nevertheless, a nuclear deterrence policy must ( actually *is* being) be calculated toward non-state actors. The US nuclear machine does not get " turned off" it's there running much like it did during the Cold War with some minor modifications in terms of detargeting.

So, I ask you again - what deterrence strategy would you propose ? Is there none in your view ?
i posted a more extensive and substantive reply, but i had a rather specific question with regards to the dynamics of deterrence, a topic you know way, way more about than i do. your reply implies that for mad to work under rational actor theory, the parties must subscribe to mad instead of merely being rational actors. i was always under the impression that mad was rather a system-level descriptive system that evaluated rational action under a total-destruction scenario and not a stated policy of either side. (although now that i think about it, it was in fact a stated us policy, wasn't it? but that doesn't negate the question - mad can act at both levels, the prior being the case in point at present.)

am i wrong here or are we just talking past one another?
Apologies if I implied you thought all Muslims are terrorists, etc. I know well you're too sharp for such simple minded idiocy.

Rather my issue is that this is simply not a "deterance" issue. The deterrance must come from intelligence and penetration. That's it. The nihilists that represent the extreme hard core are not 'deterable' in the manner which a State is. Certainly, of course one can deter State actors from helping them - a credible threat that if you're caught (in a credible way, although not up to legal proof) helping the al Qaeda types in executing an NBC attack you will be taken down is useful and I think works, since while a State actor may be tempted to 'wink and a nudge' help al Qaeda for purely State reasons (fuck with the enemy), the same actor doesn't want to get squashed.

That works for me. Right tool for the right problem.

A generic threat against Mecca however does nothing to deter the nihilistic extreme Salafine. They do not fit into this framework at all, and one is seriously fooling oneself if one thinks they operate in this conceptual framework.

If such "deterence" is being worked on in US Gov, it only tells me they are collectively more deluded than I previously suspected.

I note finally that a generic threat that if "you use nuclear against us, we use it against you" might be useful in detering the peripheral non-state collabos who have not descended into apocalyptic nihilism. I nevertheless reiterate that a stated threat to al-Qaeda to nuke Mecca if they hit us is not deterence, it's playing into their hands and is nothing short of utter idiocy.

Just read your new post. I'll have to reply in a post but to answer your question MAD was official American doctrine from mid-late Johnson administration through early Reagan. It was paired with the policy of no national strategic missile defense as enshrined in the ABM treaty.

Both doctrines ( or really two sides of MAD) were rooted in Robert McNamara's strategic worldview and the Soviets never really bought into either concept. They made dipomatic gestures in that direction but not the policy changes that counted.

Soviet nuclear war plans remained committed to " winning" though there was a faction in the General Staff/Defense Ministry favored by Ustinov who argued for " Flexible Response" on a conventional to nuclear continuum arc. This group did not change Soviet nuclear doctrine but they did successfully push for intervention in Czechoslovakia in '68 and Afghanistan in 1979.

The Soviets signed ABM, built the permitted Moscow defense site and proceeded to boldly cheat as fast as the development of technology allowed ( which wasn't very fast admittedly, tech has always been the sticking point in ballistic missile defense. If you don't hit missiles on their ascent it is an extremely difficult proposition to hit the warheads on their descent, even without decoys or countermeasures).

Ronald Reagan never liked MAD and his appointees at DoD worked to replace that with decapitation and later, the Clark NSC produced " Star Wars" which was an outright refutation. Ultimately, while Teller's concepts here were theoretically sound they were unworkable financially or in terms of engineering. As a bargaining chip Star Wars was excellent; the Soviets couldn't afford to even get into the race to find out why Star Wars wouldn't work.

NMD is a vastly scaled down version of Star Wars. Parking subs or ships with anti-missile missile platforms off say the coast of North Korea or Iran to hit initially slow moving ( relative), bright signature ICBM or intermediate range missiles is a good idea. Building something *here* is still a debatable prospect in terms of effectiveness though movement in high energy particle beam tech shows a lot of promise.
Hi Col,

Picked up Gilles Kepel's _Jihad_ yesterday after your comments. Scanning it didn't see anything on nuclear terrorism per se but perhaps it is buried in the text.

It's unfortunate that there isn't a psychological deterrence mechanism to inhibit al Qaida apocalyptic terrorism( obviously,if losing Mecca wouldn't bother Bin Laden losing Peshwar or Jeddah wouldn't cut ice either). I may not know salafists sufficiently well but I do know the sentiments of my countrymen and the worldview of the USG national security bureaucracy and Bush administration appointees. A nuclear hit in the U.S. would be the start and not the finish of a nightmarish scenario. How large a nightmare would depend on who is left making decisions in the aftermath.

That pretty much leaves us two tactics to prevent that outcome:

a) Deterring state level actors from helping al Qaida by holding them accountable if we get hit.

b) Quite ruthlessly killing their entire network, including the financiers, mosque recruiters, high profile sympathizers heretofore left alone, while moving to politically isolate them from moderate Islamists willing to engage in peaceful, democratic politics.

Finally, in my opinion, while your friend Simon at Aquol 's cited ex-CIA source probably has the details wrong about current U.S. nuclear terrorism contingency planning but such planning ( in a serious sense, not hypothetical Pentagon wargaming exercises though these might have been drawn upon) goes back to executive orders issued by the late Clinton NSC. The Clinton people, notably Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke, were badly shaken by the embassy and Cole bombings - al Qaida secured their attention in that last year.

I would also suggest that Cheney's involvement here is also accurate, most likely at an unusually deep level of oversight. Cheney's involvement in doomsday scenario planning is a career-long record.
Before I respond to this thread, the whole point of the Bush foreign policy is to prevent any of this from happening. His administration believes that democracy and freedom are inherent to humanity and not just western civ. I hope he is correct. As to this post:
bin Laden and what we call al qaeda didn't drop out of the ether. They came from and are supported by relatively large numbers of people in the worldwide islamic community. These numbers vary from place to place and vary depending on what level of support you are talking about. In Saudi Arabia, what passes for polling, indicates that bin Laden would easily win an open election. A recent poll in Pakistan shows that 51% of the people support bin Laden as well as the 9/11 attacks; as an aside I find this fascinating since most also believe that those attacks were carried out by the CIA.
It is absurd to think we are going to sit back and watch American cities be vaporized one at a time without a military response. The Nazis got at most 38% of the parliamentary vote and we didn't worry about killing only Nazis.
As Mark points out, the question is how do you maximize deterence? If you read through the archives at MEMRI.org you get the hint that bin Laden is subject to deterence. Yes he wants and needs the US to attack muslims in order to make it easier for him to unify Sunnis and provide a rallying point. However, that is a far cry from wanting total devastation to be visited on the islamic world. Therefore, I think it does make sense to have a publicly stated policy on how we would respond.

Hi Barnabus,

I am and remain a supporter of spreading liberal democratic capitalism. Prior to the Iraq war, maybe 2002, I wrote in an op-ed piece that it would take 5 -10 years to bring democracy to Iraq and, assuming we succeed, that conservative estimate looks about right.

Closer to ten years unless the Iraqis themselves can cut enduring political deals with the Sunnis. Greater economic growth and liberalization in the Arab world would help speed things along but that is what elites there are most apt to resist ( we're asking them to get off the apex of the pyramid).

Frustrating as hell.
A public statement that the US would commit genocide means the US loses. It means the US becomes the Nazis. Period. I for one would fight agains the US under such moronic ham handed genocidal response. It's moronic and unnecessary. (never mind the vaporising of cities is an exagerated issue, watch the bloody ports for a conventional fertiliser bomb for fuck's sake, see the 1940s Texas instance)

As for MEMRI, no need to refer me to that, I have zero need for their ham handed spin mastered translations.

Mark's sketch supra is more than enough. Deter state level actors and kill those in the network who have "passed over" - however this also goes with creating positive choices.

I believe deeply that much of the nihilism in the region derives from the lack of opportunity (and spare me in advance the suiciders as middle class angle, it misreads what middle class is in the region and the issue of decling opportunities, as well as the selection bias in re ability to travel), much in the same way the excesses of quasi feudal markets in Russia and backwards Europe made Communism seem attractive to a motivated few.

Providing real opportunities via well balanced economies will go a long way. But of course, as those drooling morons in the CPA learned, there are no short cuts. Complex process, but small things can make large differences, as I note in Aqoul today in re a tiny change in a city level policy that I believe will boost job creation.
Col, I agree with the ideas in the second half of your post. However, I think you must have slept through the cold war. You may have just discovered that MAD yields genocide but that was/is the U.S. policy. The whole idea, and what we are discussing, is how best to deter, to the extent possible, both state and non-state actors.
Your fertilizer bomb comment makes no sense. Oh, and I never saw Paul Bremer drool once. Could he be a closet drooler (they are the worst kind).


Didn't sleep through the Cold War, rather lived through it mate, even studied in East Germany. Great experience that, one plumbs the depths of bad food.

However, the key issue is that it is a different fucking problem, of which the MAD doesn't make any bloody sense. The assymetrical threat of genocide against essentially unrelated actors (whether you think they are related or not doesn't fucking matter, because most of the world isn't going to see it your way) isn't Cold War at all. False bloody analogy, and a useless blind lashing out 'policy' which is what makes the genocide angle offensive and worse yet, stupid for you.

That aside, regarding my comments which made no sense, let me address your ignorance:

Make sense now?

Well, let me help you get over your childish obsession with the obvious for the non-obvious threat: sabotage-rigging of a volatile chemical transport vessal, blow up a US port. Hard? Yes. Easier than creating any kind of genuine nuclear advice? Oh fuck yes. Possible for a non-State actor? I should think so. Potential for vast damage? See the report.

I note in advance that it is obviously the case that saftey controls etc. have gotten better since 1947, I nevertheless would be personally far more paranoid about the utilisation of something unsexy, prosiac, yet potentially deeply deadly if done right, than the Sci Fi / action film worries about terrorist NBC weapon utilisation. Indeed, it would rather fit an al-Qaeda pattern.

I should suggest most uncharitably that you are probably lucky that Bin Laden shares your obession with nuclear, since frankly without State help I don't see any real possibility of them pulling it off, and I don't see much real possibility of a State risking helping them. An implicit threat of whacking the State leadership being a useful deterent.

In short, don't mistake my hostility to this cockamamie idea of nuking Mecca or the like for some namby pamby lefty pacifist rot. Quite the contrary, I am concerned with what actually bloody works given a context. Incentives, real ones, given what I know about the actors.

Finally as to Bremer, I refer you to the cock up that was CPA. An act of continual drooling idiocy - if only the metaphorical kind.
Follow on the Texas incident, a better link:

I frankly am far, far more worried that al-Qaeda will pull off something like wiring up a vessal transporting ammonia nitrates or similar potentially explosive chemicals, slip through controls and blow the fuck out of a major through-putting container port. The loss of life, property damage and disruption of an economy would, if maximised, render World Trade Center trivial.

Thankfully they have not. But it is a far, far more realistic threat than the sexy movie threat of nukes.
You still don't get the point. First, I am well aware of the dangers of fertilizer and what happened in Texas. However, we aren't talking about any of that in this particular post. In the end it is still a conventional attack and would not have the devastation of a nuclear attack. The psychological considerations are also totally different; they may be able to blow up a ship somewhere but it is relatively easy to counter that threat just like we have for airlines (which your recent trip confirms). However, we wake up one morning and Manhattan is half gone or D.C. is completely gone, we have no idea how many more they have or what the future holds. The time to consider it is NOW, however low the risk may be.
I also agree with you that Homeland Security would be wise to spend most of it's time worrying about the type of attack you describe. That is still not the point of ZP's post. You still haven't addressed the question of whether you believe bin Laden could be detered from using nuclear weapons. I gather from your comments that you think it is irrelevant since any such declaration by the US would cause more harm(?)
As to the "childish" obsession concerning nukes...I didn't raise the issue and it would be foolish not to consider it.
As for East German food, couldn't agree more...as to why the heck you would want to study there...?

I bloody well get your point, and I bloody well reject it.

A "conventional" attack that wipes out Long Beach container facility is non-trivial from a number of points of view, economic and pyschological, and about as easy to counter as 11 Sep. Hindsight says all. Even countering would be draining, as the inefficient, uneconomic and absurd security in US airports demonstrates

That aside, returning to the Nuclear issue, it being vanishingly unlikely that a terror group will be able to get its hands on an actual nuclear device, it is not worth a "policy" that does more harm than good, but to be clearer for you - no I already said supra the nihilistic Salafiste takfiris are not going to be deterered by a threat to Mecca, indeed they might be even more motivated - I described why supra if you read for understanding rather than merely reacting.

As for studying in East Germany, I thought it would be sporting and amusing. Know the enemy and all that. They then had the poor form of collapsing, which was lucky as I decided they were not as fun as the Cubans.
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