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April 19, 2015 / 30 Nisan, 5775
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A Policy in Search of Doctrine

The next time we have to face another North Korean-type nuclear crisis, our national response should flow seamlessly from a broader and more calibrated U.S. strategic doctrine.

Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

In the past, certain insurgent enemies were able to confront the United States with serious threats in assorted theatres of conflict, but they were never really capable of posing a catastrophic hazard to the American homeland. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, in the future, even well-armed nuclear terrorists – we could at some point have to face a strategic situation that is prospectively dire and historically sui generis. How shall we do this in the absence of coherent doctrine?

From the start, all U.S. strategic policy has been firmly founded upon an underlying assumption of rationality. We have always presumed that our enemies, both states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. But this core assumption can no longer simply be taken for granted.

Confronted with jihadist enemies, both states and terrorists, Obama must now understand that our primary threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could fall on deaf ears. This holds true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD) or the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal included in nuclear utilization theory (NUT).

Ultimately, U.S. nuclear doctrine must also recognize critical connections between law and strategy. From the standpoint of international law, for example, certain expressions of preemption or defensive first strikes are known formally as anticipatory self-defense. Anticipating possible enemy irrationality, when would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the American homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack?

Recalling, also, that international law is part of the law of the United States, most notably at Article 6 of the Constitution (the Supremacy Clause), and in a 1900 Supreme Court case (the Pacquete Habana), how could these military actions be rendered compatible with both conventional and customary jurisprudence?

Any proposed American strategic doctrine will need to consider and reconsider key issues of nuclear targeting. The relevant issues here would concern differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (so-called counter value targeting), and targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (so-called counterforce targeting). Most Americans still don’t realize that the actual essence of massive retaliation and MAD was always an unhidden plan for counter value targeting.

At first glance, any such partially resurrected targeting doctrine could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the alternative were a less credible U.S. nuclear deterrence, certain explicit codifications of counter value might still become the best way to prevent millions of American deaths, from nuclear war and/or nuclear terrorism.

Of course, neither preemption nor counter value targeting could ever guarantee absolute security for the U.S. and its allies, but it is nonetheless imperative that Obama finally put serious strategic thinkers to work on these and other critically related nuclear issues. The next time we have to face another North Korean-type nuclear crisis, our national response should flow seamlessly from a broader and more calibrated U.S. strategic doctrine.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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