With his December 1, 2009 speech at West Point, U.S. President Barack Obama repeated his lofty goal of “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Although such an eloquent plea will surely resonate intuitively with all who would seek peace, it is, in fact, not only unattainable (something altogether obvious), but also undesirable. In the case of U.S. ally Israel, for example, worldwide denuclearization could open the doors to another Jewish genocide.
Mr. Obama misses the point. The underlying instability of all world politics is not due to any particular kind of weapon system – not by any means. Rather, this core instability is the enduring result of largely recalcitrant national leaders who offer repeated and pleasing promises of cooperation, but who secretly dream only of corpses. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in portions of the Islamic Middle East.
By themselves, nuclear weapons are not the problem. Intrinsically, they are neither good nor evil. Instead of seeking “a world free of nuclear weapons,” the president of the United States should now be seeking a world free of Jihadist expectations for war and terror. In this connection, he should be focusing specifically and energetically on fashioning a new and improved U.S. strategic doctrine. Without such a meaningful focus, this country can only expect further dramatic losses in Afghanistan, and even steadily increasing American vulnerabilities throughout the world.
Indisputably, America needs appropriate doctrine to deal effectively with genuine threats of chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. For the moment, blindsided by naïve nuclear hopes and elaborate diplomatic fictions, this president has yet to create a strategic policy framework from which indispensable operational plans can be suitably drawn. Left uncorrected, this failure could have grievous security consequences. Also worth noting is that because of the obvious interdependence of Israeli security with American security, any persisting weakness of US strategic nuclear doctrine would inevitably impact the survival of Israel.
History can provide meaning. What, exactly, is the relevant history of US strategic policy-making? During the 1950s, the United States first began to codify various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the enemy was the Soviet Union. Tempered by the illuminating knowledge of what had happened during World War II, it was, in one sense, a much simpler world. Then, 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 something called “flexible response.” But the recognizable clarity of “good guys” and “bad guys” was nonetheless self-evident.
Today, the world is far more complicated. Now, there are almost four times as many countries as existed in 1945, and there are many more critical axes of violent conflict. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which had once assumed diminished importance in American strategic calculations right after the fall of the Soviet Union, is again a major security problem.
Among other things, Russia’s leaders have issued belligerent declarations on the resumption of Russian long-range bomber flights, and also on corollary Russian plans to reinvigorate the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Originally, then President Putin’s incentive to build a whole new generation of ICBMs was tied to then US President Bush’s plans for an expanded ballistic missile defense. Presently, and this is significant, expanding Russian nuclearization proceeds with nary a nod of respect or serious regard for President Obama’s shallow plea for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”
There are other notable strategic hazards facing us, mostly unrelated to what is happening in Russia, and only indirectly connected to what is happening in 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 were already able to present difficulties for America in assorted theatres of conflict round the world, but they could never really pose a profoundly life or death threat to the American homeland. Now, with the growing prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly even well armed nuclear terrorists – we Americans face a strategic situation that is both dire and sui generis. Oddly and ironically, this is essentially the case whatever results in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the start, from the primal policy beginnings of “massive retaliation” and “mutual assured destruction” (MAD), all US strategic policy has been founded upon a necessary assumption of rationality. 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. Is this a reasonable expectation for the future?
This is not your father’s Cold War. From the point of view of rational decision-making, Iran may not be a mirror image of the former Soviet Union. With enemies that could conceivably become a suicide-bomber in macrocosm, the traditional rationality assumption of national security planning can no longer be taken for granted. Confronted with Jihadist enemies, both state and terrorist, we must now understand that our basic threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could sometimes fall on deaf ears. In such perplexing circumstances, where we would no longer be able to assume enemy rationality, the entire logic of deterrence could be immobilized. This would hold true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD) or the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal known professionally as “nuclear utilization theory” (NUT).
From the standpoint of strategy, 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, but also by each and every thinking American who wants this nation to 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, of course, the task would not be to develop a new form of super weapon, but rather to identify and construct a viable and comprehensive national strategic doctrine.
Together with Israel, we Americans exist in an imperiled country within an imperiled world. This is undeniable. The only way we can begin to assure plausible survival prospects for our entire civilization, and hence also for ourselves, is to approach strategic policy more systematically and expertly.
This will never truly happen within the narrowly bounded arenas of politics, especially in an administration that actually takes seriously “a world free of nuclear weapons.” The overwhelming job before us represents a very difficult intellectual task. It will not submit to the humiliating banalities of national politics, or to other equally 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 certain Supreme Court decisions, particular expressions of preemption are known as anticipatory self-defense. Acknowledging more or less probable enemy irrationality, when would such defensive military actions be required to safeguard the American homeland from all forms of WMD attack? How, too, would these protective movements be compatible with conventional and customary rules of law?
For now, the answers have been largely sketchy and plainly adversarial. The timely issues of national sovereignty and US right to anticipatory self-defense must soon be re-explored both strategically and jurisprudentially. In certain circumstances, for example, preemption may prove to be both legally permissible, and operationally infeasible.
An urgently required American brain trust will also need to consider enormously controversial matters of nuclear targeting. The issues here would concern critical differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting) and targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting). Most Americans still don’t realize that the essence of “massive retaliation” and MAD was distinctly countervalue, nor would they likely feel comfortable with any more openly countervalue reaffirmations in the future. Yet, in those relatively promising circumstances where enemy rationality could still be assumed, credible deterrence might simply require countercity targeting.
Such doctrine may sound cruel and uncivilized, but if the only alternative were a distinctly less credible US nuclear deterrent, explicit codifications of a countercity policy might well be the best available way to prevent millions of American deaths from an otherwise impending nuclear attack or act of nuclear terrorism. Neither preemption nor countercity targeting would necessarily provide adequate security for the United States and its allies, but it is now high time to put serious thinkers to work on these and related conceptual questions. At a time when our president draws his fundamental strategic policy options from distinctly improbable and wholly idealized visions of global nuclear disarmament, we Americans need a coherent, precise and realistic strategic nuclear doctrine, and we need it quickly.
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, and in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.