Monday, November 22, 2004

The nuclear option

The Indepundit has an essay discussing the chance – indeed the virtual certainty – that someone is going to get hold of a nuclear weapon and use it on US soil.

Assuming that the origin of the weapon can be determined, we will then have to answer the question of how to respond. Do we retaliate only against attacks on our homeland? What about our allies? Or "neutral" countries? Is the use of a nuclear weapon such a terrible crime against humanity that it must be answered in kind, regardless of who was the intended target? What form should that response take? Would nuclear retaliation be acceptable, or would it only compound the problem? How about a massive conventional military response? Do the accepted rules of warfare go out the window once someone goes nuclear? Should we continue to meticulously avoid civilian casualties, after the other side shows such contemptuous disregard for innocent life? What if we can't determine where the weapon originated? Is anyone in power pondering these questions, or are we just going to "wing it" when this happens?

Heinlein pointed out that there is only one defense against a nuclear bomb: Not be there when it goes off. The only other strategy is to decrease the probability that a bomb will be deployed.

Indepundit discusses the ways we can decrease this probability. These are making sure bad guys don't get nukes, or if they do get them, they can't sneak them in to this country to use them. The other way is deterrence.

Now deterrence is a problem. Firstly, we're not comfortable exercising deterrence. We want to be seen as nice people, which means we don't want to be feared. In order to be liked, we're tempted to place certain things off the table, which means they cease to be deterrents.

Deterrence is also a problem if we're dealing with people who don't appear to be subject to being deterred. Threatening to kill a suicide bomber doesn't work very well. The only things that work are finding a way to hit something the terrorist cares about, or threatening the support structure. The Ottoman Empire made a practice of exacting bloody revenge for any attacks against the Empire. Because of this hard line, anyone who knew the identity of anyone acting against the Empire was eager to rat him out to the authorities. The cost of keeping the secret was just too high.

Even though Afghanistan did not attack us on September 11, we took out its government. Even though Iraq did not attack us on September 11, we took out its government. Libya has decided it doesn't need to pursue nuclear weapons with nearly as much vigor as it had been. Other thugs are showing signs of having been deterred.

We probably won't need to "go nuclear" against anyone who is responsible for a nuclear attack against us, but it might be useful to keep people guessing about whether that option is on the table.

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