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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Thursday, January 23, 2003
 
I had a very interesting exchange with a friend yesterday who is a conservative skeptic on Iraq. His basic take is that the Iraq campaign is a distraction from the war on al Qaeda, and is actually undermining the latter war: by raising the American profile in the region, the Iraq war is directly provoking additional terrorism and making it more difficult for our allies to help us fight terrorism. It may even undermine regimes - like Pakistan's - that we desperately need to keep out of the enemy camp. Rather than take on Iraq - much less take a stronger line on North Korea - he would pretty much ignore the "rogue state" problem and focus on wiping out al Qaeda.

It's a defensible position. It's pretty much the position of Brent Scowcroft, pretty much the position outlined by Al Gore in his famous speech on Iraq. I myself agree with certain parts of the argument. I worry enormously about the potential negative fallout from an Iraq campaign, particularly in Pakistan. I worry about American resources being stretched thin. I worry that nation-building in Iraq - which will be necessary, just as it is in Afghanistan, even if we find it distasteful - will be extraordinarily difficult, expensive, and possibly hopeless (as it appears to have been in Bosnia).

But what we've got to do is weigh costs against each other: the costs of action and the costs of inaction. And it seems to me that the anti-war position on Iraq seriously downplays the costs of inaction. It does so because it rests on three assumptions that I reject:

(1) Pessimism about the possibility of preventing nuclear proliferation. My interlocutor correctly points out that nuclear technology is not so hard to acquire and getting easier every day. Eventually, if a state wants the weapons badly enough, it will get them. He's probably right. But if he's right that states will inevitably go nuclear, it's probably also true that terrorist groups will inevitably go nuclear. I'm not prepared to resign myself to the inevitability of that world. Moreover, I am unconvinced that it is impossible to prevent nuclear proliferation. We have never tried very hard to prevent it, never raised the costs of acquisition of nuclear weapons to particularly high levels. Indeed, the coming war with Iraq is the first serious action ever taken to prevent nuclear proliferation; that's one of the most important reasons to support the war. Nonetheless, softer carrot-based diplomacy induced countries like Brazil, South Africa, Taiwan, Argentina, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to all credibly renounce (or never seriously contemplate) nuclear ambitions. Why give up without trying?

(2) Optimism about nuclear deterrence. Given that he feels nuclear proliferation is inevitable, my interlocutor falls back on a reliance on nuclear deterrence to deal with nuclear-armed rogue states that will inevitably arise. He comforts himself with the success of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about nuclear deterrence out there. Nuclear deterrence is no different from other deterrence. You deter someone from taking an action by credibly threatening a response that makes that action a losing proposition. The clearest-cut way of doing that is for the response to effectively deny the enemy victory; if the enemy cannot achieve his objectives by war, why launch, or threaten, war? But for the threat to be credible, the response must not be a losing proposition for the responder. Most nuclear threats fail this test. Specifically, threatening to destroy the world in response to a limited attack is never credible. If we ever had launched a full-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, for instance, they would have responded in kind and, to a first approximation, every American citizen would die. So we would never do that. And threatening to do that in response to, say, a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would never be credible. What we in fact threatened in response to a Soviet invasion was to destroy the invading army with nuclear weapons. This was far more credible; if, after all, the Soviets took the additional step of launching a massive nuclear retaliatory strike on American cities, we would respond in kind and everyone would die. Game over. Nuclear sabre-rattling is therefore a game of chicken: whoever is more willing to risk annihilation wins. If we go toe to toe with a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il, we will lose, because if the odds get high enough that Los Angeles gets nuked, we will simply fold. Even if we threaten total annihilation of the enemy, they can call our bluff. Why would we risk losing Los Angeles for limited objectives? I believe that this view of nuclear deterrence is born out by the history of the Cold War. We were losing the Cold War all through the 1960s and 1970s, which were the years of Mutually-Assured Destruction. Why? Because the Soviets were the more aggressive and radical power, more willing to risk annihiliation to win a small advantage. America was more effectively deterred than they were. Only in the 1980s did the tide begin to turn, and a major reason was a shift in American doctrine from deterrence to nuclear warfighting. We put the Pershings in Europe, put neutron bombs in Lancer missiles, built the MX and launched the effort to build a strategic missile defense. None of this was intended to insure a second-strike capability; sub-launched missiles already credibly provided that. It was intended to make it possible to fight and win a nuclear war. That, in turn, made threats of limited use of American force more credible, and allowed a generally more assertive foreign policy profile. Suddenly, they were more deterred than we. The Soviets, of course, were a relatively conservative power, for all their aggression. They had a lot to lose. Rogue states have much less to lose; they are risk-seeking, because instability is more likely to give them opportunities to increase their power, and they need to increase their power before their existing power drains away. (See here for a fuller discussion of risk-seeking and risk-averse powers. It's embedded in some other discussion, but scroll down; there's good stuff there, if I say so myself.) Because they are risk-seeking, nuclear deterrence will work even less well against them than against the Soviets. In any event, because I am very pessimistic about nuclear deterrence generally, and specifically about the application of nuclear deterrence to a standoff between America and a rogue state, I cannot accept the idea of a nuclear-armed Iraq. We've already got some rollback to accomplish on this front, dealing with North Korea and Pakistan. We certainly don't need more, worse problems.

(3) Optimism about the application of the Westphalian system of international relations to rogue states. Briefly, my interlocutor is very concerned that we are cavalierly violating the sovereignty of states we decide are dangerous, and betraying a willingness to "play God" with the nations of the world. I think two concerns get conflated here. One is the concern that our actions will inflame the hostility of the Arab world specifically because they already think we are terribly arrogant, and this impression will be massively confirmed by war with Iraq. This is a legitimate fear, but it's just as legitimate to suppose that what generates resentment is weakness coupled with assertiveness; if we carry our war through to completion, there may be less resentment, not more, and if we hesitate there may be more, not less. But be that as it may, the second concern is that we are shredding the structure of international relations by violating state sovereignty. And this I think is specious. The Westphalian system was designed for a world of kings, where legitimate power was clearly identifiable. The Barbary pirates were never considered sovereign, because their power was illegitimate. Today, guys like Saddam Hussein have all the trappings of legitimate authority. But they are not legitimate. A monarchy like Saudi Arabia's or Morocco's can plausibly claim to have the tacit consent of its people. Even a revolutionary regime like China's, Egypt's or, in earlier years, Iran's could plausibly claim this. But North Korea? Iraq? These prison states are in no sense sovereign nations. Their governments are illegitimate. And if they are illegitimate, they cannot claim the privileges and immunities of sovereignty. Ahmad Chalabi has a better claim to being the head of the legitimate government of Iraq than does Saddam Hussein. We could justify war on that grounds alone. Now, admittedly, the devil is in the details here. How a regime is deprived of legitimacy, in a way that is credible to the world at large, is a very important question. But it's a moral evasion, I think, not to grapple with the question at all and grant the enormous privileges of sovereignty to every armed gang that takes over a government.

If I'm right about these three points, then the case for war is clear, as I believe it has been for years. Iraq is testing the will of the international community, led by the United States, as usual, to collectively defend itself. If we fail this test, collective security is dead. If we pass it, we have a template for dealing with much thornier military/diplomatic problems - like North Korea. It's not a distraction from the war on al Qaeda. Just another front.