Friday, September 20, 2002
A short update on my earlier post on deterrence. It's been pointed out to me that you can't deter a nuclear terrorist, and that's what's different about the post-September-11 world versus the world of the Cold War. True enough. Terrorists do not have conventional objectives; the infliction of damage to a great extent is their objective. For a terrorist, New York is a much better target than the Sixth Fleet.
How does that change my argument? To the extent that terrorists need to get their nukes from states, it doesn't. States will only deliver those weapons if it serves their objectives. Now we're back in the world of warfighting. A terrorist is effectively a delivery mechanism, not fundamentally different from a bomb or a missile. A state can be deterred from dealing with terrorists if it thinks doing so will not achieve its objectives but bring down the full might of the United States on its head. That's, indeed, a major reason we need to destroy the Iraqi regime: to make that point clear. To the extent that terrorists can acquire or develop nuclear weapons without state sponsorship, however, we're in another universe, and the response has to be twofold: eliminating the terrorists and eliminating the security problems (such as in the former Soviet Union) that make acquisition by terrorists of nuclear weapons on the black market a realistic scenario. But this is also not a "new world" in that terrorists have never been subject to deterrence. They don't need a nuclear equalizer to do things that, if done by a state, would result in massive retaliation and a frustration of the state's aims - such as, for example, massacring civilians. Weapons of mass destruction will not change terrorist behavior; they will only change terrorist capabilities, and the elimination of terrorist organizations becomes much more imperative if they are capable of acquiring these new capabilities.
My point is still: if nuclear deterrence worked in, for example, the India/Pakistan standoff earlier this year, it's not because India was afraid Pakistan would destroy India physically if it attacked, but because nuclear weapons made it possible for Pakistan to deny India a military victory - among other things, Pakistan could vaporize an invading Indian army. That's nuclear warfighting, and nuclear warfighting is the proper framework, generally, for talking about deterrence, not the notion of mutually-assured destruction.