Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, September 18, 2002 takes a walk down memory lane to discuss deterrence. (Thanks to Joe Katzman for the link.) Specifically: why it won't work against Iraq, will work against us, and therefore why we can't let regimes like Iraq exist.

So why did it work against the Ruskies (who played the game of brinksmanship with consummate skill, as did we)? Why did it work against Hitler (he used gas against innocent civilians, but not against British troops)? Why does it appear to have worked against India (ten years ago, they would probably have invaded Pakistan in reponse to terrorist provocation)?

It's time to take a trip down the rougher tracks of memory lane, the parts of the road we don't like to remember. Mutually-assured-destruction was an after-the-fact doctrine, only embraced in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not what deterrence is about. We only started to think of MAD as a normal way to think about war after President Reagan proposed to abolish it through the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which sent liberals scurrying to defend a doctrine they had previously found abhorrent. Which it is: threatening to destroy the world is horribly immoral. When we first built the bomb, we built it to be used, and used for clear, limited objectives. We had nuclear mines laid in Germany and nuclear artillery shells for use against Soviet armor. We invented the neutron bomb to do the latter job even better. The point was not to say: if you invade we will destroy the world, so don't invade. The point was to say: if you invade we will vaporize your army, and as a consequence you will LOSE THE WAR. And if you're going to lose the war, it's better not to start one.

Nuclear weapons are just weapons. Big, powerful, horrible weapons, but just weapons. The money line from the movie Wargames - "strange game: the only way to win is not to play" - is wrong, and when we act like it is right what we are doing is preemptively deterring ourselves. If India and Pakistan lobbed a few nukes at each other, life on earth would go on. Millions would die, but millions died in World War II before the use of nuclear weapons. Britain thought it was worth losing a whole generation of its youth in World War I to achieve the objective of preventing German domination of Europe. Britain was not fighting because the Germans wanted to murder all British people; they were not fighting because they had "nothing left to lose." They were fighting for concrete and limited, though considerable, geopolitical objectives. They paid a price measured in millions. That's the same calculation we will bring to future wars with enemies armed with weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence is about raising the cost of war so high that it is not worth it for the enemy to challenge you. It is not about threatening to destroy the world so that the enemy does your bidding.

So let's come back to Iraq. Is Iraq deterrable? We'd better hope so. The odds are that they already have significant weapons of mass destruction. They certainly have nerve gas and other potent chemical weapons, and almost certainly biological weapons like anthrax and possibly smallpox. There's a very good chance they already have nuclear weapons; in 1998, we thought they were only a couple of years away, maybe less. Will they use them against us? They will if it achieves their objectives. And if we know that that is the case, then we will likely be deterred. But it is not at all impossible that they will be deterred. Even if Saddam Hussein personally has nothing to lose, it is not at all true that everyone in Iraq has nothing to lose. If they are clearly going to lose the war, they will surrender. And if they are going to surrender, they are not going to murder millions of Americans first, because it would achieve absolutely no objective. The Soviet Union collapsed in a heap, and never fired a nuclear missile at anyone. Milosevic surrendered to a war-crimes tribunal; he did not fight to the last Serb. And again: even Hitler was deterred from using gas against allied troops, reserving it for Jewish civilians.

So if Iraq isn't going to destroy the world, why do we need to conquer it? Because there are legitimate and vital interests short of the survival of the planet. Because if we let Iraq survive, it will know WE were deterred from attacking it. And it will challenge us further, until we reach a point where we cannot afford not to fight back, even at much higher cost. Iraq has already tried to assassinate an American President, conspired with terrorists who have killed thousands of Americans, and proclaimed its intentions to defeat the United States, a country with which it remains at war by its own admission. We will have to defeat it eventually. The correlation of forces will not get more favorable. So we should defeat it now.

Let's take a deep breath and realize that this generation is going to live through at least one nuclear war. Yes: live through. I live in New York, so my odds are a little lower; if I lived in New Delhi or Tel Aviv, my odds would be lower still, but even there the odds aren't bad. Nuclear munitions are more likely to be used against American aircraft carriers than American cities. And when they are used, we will not respond by destroying the world. That's the reality of ordinary warfare in the future. And we've got to be able to talk about it before we'll be ready to fight it. And we've got to be ready to fight it if we're going to have a prayer of not having to.