My readers in The Jewish Press will already know that I write a great deal about Israeli nuclear issues. One of these inherently existential issues is the need for a coherent and codified Israeli nuclear doctrine. Moreover, this need was an integral part of Project Daniel – a private effort that reported to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (“Israel’s Strategic Future,” January 2003) and was most immediately concerned with Iranian nuclear weapons and the associated prospect of nuclear war in the Middle East.
Significantly, the absence of an adequate nuclear doctrine in Israel is paralleled by a comparable absence in our own country. With particular respect to terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction – recall, especially, the growing alliance between Hamas and al-Qaeda – neither Jerusalem nor Washington has yet been willing to fashion a strategic policy framework from which specific operational plans can be drawn. Left uncorrected, this unwillingness could have the most serious security consequences. Also worth noting, is that because of the obvious interdependence of Israeli security with American security, any weakness of U.S. strategic nuclear doctrine would inevitably impact the safety and physical survival of Israel.
What is the basic history of U.S. strategic policy-making? During the 1950s, the United States first began to codify various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was indisputably bipolar and the enemy was obviously the Soviet Union. Tempered by the terrible knowledge of what had happened during World War II, it was in one sense a far simpler world, and American national security was openly premised on a strategic policy called “massive retaliation.” Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, that stance was nuanced by “flexible response,” but the absolute clarity of “good guys” and “bad guys” was always self-evident.
Now there are almost four times as many countries as existed in 1945, and there are many more axes of violent conflict. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which had assumed diminished importance in American strategic calculations after the fall of the Soviet Union, is again a major problem. President Putin has issued belligerent declarations on the resumption of Russian long-range bomber flights and on corollary Russian plans to reinvigorate the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr. Putin’s incentive to build a whole new generation of ICBMs is certainly tied to U.S. President Bush’s plan to push ahead with ballistic missile defense.
There are other notable strategic hazards, mostly unrelated to what is happening in Russia and only indirectly connected to other states. Adding to the complexity of our fragmenting strategic environment, these dangers stem from the proliferation of virulently antagonistic sub-state guerrilla and/or terrorist organizations. Previously, these insurgent adversaries could already present difficulties for us in assorted theatres of conflict around the world, but they never really could pose an almost life or death threat to the American homeland. Now, with the expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly even well armed nuclear terrorists – we face a strategic situation that is both dire and sui generis. This is essentially the case irrespective of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Initially, from the policy beginnings of “massive retaliation” and “mutual assured destruction” (MAD), all U.S. strategic policy has been founded upon an assumption ofrationality. This means we have expected that our enemies, both state and terrorist, will always value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.
Today this absolutely key assumption can no longer be taken for granted. Confronted with Jihadist enemies, state and terrorist, we now understand that our core threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could sometimes fall on completely deaf ears. In such circumstances, where we would no longer be able to assume enemy rationality, the entire logic of deterrence could be immobilized. This holds true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD) or the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal known professionally as “nuclear utilization theory” (NUT).
What should we do? This is, in fact, the single most important question that needs to be asked, not only by the President of the United States and his senior advisors, but also by each and every thinking American who wants this nation to (literally) endure. In fact, unless we can answer this existential question satisfactorily, and soon, nothing else will matter at all.
There are answers. First, it is time to gather together this country’s best strategic thinkers and put them to work on a present-day equivalent of the Manhattan Project. This time the task will not be to develop a new form of super weapon, but rather to identify and fashion a viable and comprehensive strategic doctrine. My proposal here bears close resemblance to Project Daniel in the case of Israel.
Together with tiny Israel, we are an imperiled country in an imperiled world. This is undeniable. The only way we can begin to assure plausible survival for our whole world and hence ourselves is to approach strategic policy more systematically and expertly. This will never happen within the arenas of politics, especially in the hastily assembled campaign platforms of presidential aspirants. The job before us is a very difficult intellectual task. It will not submit to the humiliating banalities of candidate debates or to other distracting banter.
Once convened, our best strategic thinkers will have to recognize critical connections between law and strategy. From the standpoint of international law, which is always part of our own law via Article VI of the Constitution and relevant Supreme Court decisions, certain expressions of preemption are known as anticipatory self-defense. Knowing about probable enemy irrationality, when would such military actions be required to protect the American homeland from all forms of WMD attack? And how would these defensive movements be compatible with conventional and customary rules?
Both President Bush and his critics have already asked such hard questions, but – to date – the answers have been largely sketchy and narrowly adversarial. The timely issue of national sovereignty and U.S. right to anticipatory self-defense was actually brought up in a presidential debate (by Obama and Clinton, concerning al-Qaeda in Pakistan), but the unsurprisingly partisan analysis never rose to a sufficiently useful level.
Our urgently required American strategic brain trust will also need to consider controversial matters of nuclear targeting. The issues concern differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting) and targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting). Most Americans don’t realize that the essence of “massive retaliation” and MAD was distinctly countervalue, nor would they likely feel comfortable with any open countervalue reaffirmations in the future. Yet, in those relatively promising circumstances where enemy rationality can still be assumed, credible deterrence might well require countercity targeting.
To be sure, such doctrine may sound cruel and uncivilized, but if the only alternative were a distinctly less credible U.S. nuclear deterrent, explicit codifications might well be the best available way to prevent millions of American deaths from otherwise impending nuclear war or nuclear terrorism. Of course, neither preemption nor countervalue targeting would necessarily provide adequate security for the United States and its allies, but it is now time to put serious thinkers to work on these and related questions. As in the case of Israel, which I have already examined so often in this column, we Americans need a coherent strategic nuclear doctrine, and we need it quickly.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, November 2, 2007. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (PH.D, Princeton, 1971) is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including several of the first works on nuclear terrorism. Some of his early and current work has appeared in Special Warfare and Parameters, publications of the U.S. Department of Defense. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.