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Deterrence Revisited
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Jim Henley has another post about weapons of mass destruction and deterrence over at the anti-war blog collective Stand Down.

I mostly took exception to the content in this paragraph, which was related to my earlier critique of Jim's assertion that deterrence is gonna work just fine in the 21st century:

Put it this way: neither "non-proliferation with teeth" nor "realist" laissez-faire attain the zero fault ideal. In either case, nuclear and biological weapons spread. But the former option pisses more people off, and so long as it is led by the United States, it's us they get pissed at. It's a recipe for making enemies and losing friends, in a world in which nukes and germs will be spreading anyway. (My case for the impossibility of non-proliferation is here, and even longer than this item. Sorry. Use Find on this page... to search for the phrase "we're fucked.")

I commented:

Good post. You're one of the few sane voices around these parts, Jim.

But in response to my critique you say: "All my critics argue that we can not have perfect certainty that deterrence will work, and they're right. But Derek especially leaps from that fact to a wholly unjustified faith that militant nonproliferation will work with perfect certainty."

Don't think I ever made that claim. Maybe you construed that from my assertion that every country needs to work toward real nonproliferation, aggressively if need be, or "we're fucked". It doesn't follow that I claim this course of action to be, as you put it, "zero fault".

When choosing a course of action, there are virtually never perfect choices. This is especially true when it comes to nuclear policy.

I just happen to think that nuclear disarmament is the better course of action, as opposed to deterrence, which is worse for the reasons I outlined.

You say there's behavioral evidence that Saddam has had a chance to give CBW to terrorist and has not.

But I missed the part where you refute the realistic probability of Iraq selling nuclear technology to countries such as Libya or Syria, or does a domino effect not matter? Or the realistic probability that such countries could invade neighbors with nukes in their hip pockets, gambling that no one would call their nuclear bluff.

Your answer seems to be that such behavior is deterrable, and that the best course of action is to kick back and let nukes spread. Would you dispute that the proliferation of nuclear weaponry increases the probability of their eventual use?

You're basically advocating an idea similar to an armed society. If everyone has a gun, we're all safer. Well, I think this basic premise, especially when applied to nuclear doctrine, is idiotic.


To which Jim replied:

Derek: 'Don't think I ever made that claim. Maybe you construed that from my assertion that every country needs to work toward real nonproliferation, aggressively if need be, or "we're fucked". It doesn't follow that I claim this course of action to be, as you put it, "zero fault".'

If you're not claiming the perfectibility of the "international community" approach then you haven't established the practical superiority of militant nonproliferation over the alternative. I have a put a thesis out there: Both approaches will fail. One approach, yours, will incline those failures in our direction - that is, will make it more likely that when nukes get used, they get used against us.

"But I missed the part where you refute the realistic probability of Iraq selling nuclear technology to countries such as Libya or Syria, or does a domino effect not matter? Or the realistic probability that such countries could invade neighbors with nukes in their hip pockets, gambling that no one would call their nuclear bluff."

I think it's far more realistic that Saddam shares nuclear technology with Libya than Syria. Syria is an on-again, off-again rival and near neighbor. Saddam takes a huge risk sharing nuclear technology with Syria As for invading neighbors knowing that nukes enhance the cost of stopping one's invasion, it's possible. However, Iraq has major regional rivals (Israel, Turkey and Iran), one of them nuclear already. Also, as hawks have pointed out, many of Iraq's neighbors suck. The less sucky, like Jordan, are the ones most likely to have local patrons that would not let them fall. (Israel in the case of Jordan.)It strikes me as unlikely that the Big Three in the area would even let Syria fall, nukes or no.

Libya too has regional rivals to constrain it - Egypt, Israel and, actually, France. Two of these powers are nuclear too. Libya has also been damned quiet for the last 15 years or so.

At bottom, this argument, which I've seen articulated by other hawks, amounts to "The US must intervene to make it safe for the US to intervene."

"You're basically advocating an idea similar to an armed society. If everyone has a gun, we're all safer. Well, I think this basic premise, especially when applied to nuclear doctrine, is idiotic."

And I think your notions about concerted nonproliferation are idiotic and naive besides, but once the namecalling is out of the way, you still haven't established how inevitably flawed attempts at "non-proliferation with teeth" will increase US security.

Lenny: I have little use for the "citizen of the world" meme. But as a libertarian I construe the concept of the "national interest" more narrowly than many. That militates against a lot of practical outcomes you fear.


To which I replied:

Jim writes: "I have a put a thesis out there: Both approaches will fail."

Fine. Then the benchmark of "perfectibility" isn't at issue. The important criteria of either course of action is which one has a smaller negative impact, right?

You don't deny that an additional danger to a nuclearized Iraq is the potential for that technology to spread (if I'm reading you right). You just seem to be saying that those additional nuclear powers are deterrable.

Then you say: "However, Iraq has major regional rivals (Israel, Turkey and Iran), one of them nuclear already."

Well, yeah. Why didn't that deter them from invading Kuwait the first time? Israel had nukes in 1990.

"And I think your notions about concerted nonproliferation are idiotic and naive besides, but once the namecalling is out of the way, you still haven't established how inevitably flawed attempts at "non-proliferation with teeth" will increase US security."

Is it "namecalling" when I denigrate an idea? Hmm...perhaps, but that's a side issue. I'm not hedging from the evaluation.

The reason its dumb is that it rests on the assumption that a small town where everyone has rocket launchers and land mines (from Grandma Johnson to the crazy guy under the bridge) is safter than a town where no one is armed (or perhaps some citizens own small arms). I've never understood the Libertarian premise underlying this mode of thought.

The reason aggressive nonproliferation is the superior course of action is because its aim is to *minimize* the sheer potential of destructive power. Your laissez-faire approach, on the other hand, allows for the unchecked growth of destructive potential, hoping that with all the weapons pointed at each other's heads the world will be a more stable place.

Unlike the Cold War, that destructive potential would be spread among dozens (perhaps eventually hundreds) of actors, with a greater spectrum of motivation.

Do you honestly think this is a safer scenario than nonproliferation, both diplomatic and aggressive when necessary?


Jim went on to specifically talk about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, not really addressing the core issue of whether or not deterrence is an inherently flawed doctrine in the 21st century environment (it is). Just thought I'd quote the most relevant bits in case you were interested.


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