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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mutually Assured Destruction–A Good Policy for North Korea?

This article was written in 2012 about Iran-Israel nuclear issues.  It is reprinted to day as a reflection on current US-North Korea tensions

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No one wants a nuclear war between Israel and Iran, and yet the possibilities escalate with every day that passes.  The Iranians have themselves admitted to a nuclear enrichment program, and any but the most naïve believe Ahmadinejad when he says that is exclusively for peaceful purposes.  Israel has been the target of Iran’s most vitriolic attacks calling for its destruction; and there is no doubt that Iran would like to use nuclear weapons either to strike Israel or to blackmail the West (like North Korea) to gain political and economic concessions and to raise its standing in the Muslim world.

The essential question, however, is would Iran use nuclear weapons if they had them? It is doubtful that they would because of the massive destruction and havoc a retaliatory strike would entail. 

Suppose Israel and the United States were to allow Iran – like India, Pakistan and other states which have developed a nuclear capacity and then abandoned it – to develop a nuclear program.  With one or two weapons, it would be foolish for Iran to attack Israel, for the Jewish state is armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles and would retaliate in force.  Suppose, then, that the policy of Israel and the United States were to allow Iran to attain parity, not unlike the former Soviet Union and America in the Cold War or like India and Pakistan.  Iran would be equally unlikely to launch an attack because the retaliation would be even more devastating than before. 

If this is the case, then why attack Iran now, an action which would certainly provoke a retaliation and cause untold turmoil in the region?  The answer is because most people believe that Iranians are so crazed that they would in fact risk nuclear Armageddon for the holy sake of destroying The Great Satan, Israel.  

This scenario which worked during the Soviet era, would never work now argue many, including Alan Dershowitz writing in the Huffington Post Online (3.20.12).  Times have changed, and the rules of engagement have changed.  The high-stakes eyeball-to-eyeball nuclear threat are simply not realistic:
The first question is whether the United States would actually be willing to retaliate against a nuclear attack on Israel by dropping nuclear bombs on Tehran, killing millions of its civilian inhabitants. The second question is whether any civilized country--the United States or Israel--should be willing to kill millions of Iranian civilians because their leaders made a decision to use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States. The third question--and the one never asked by advocates of deterrence--is whether it would be legal, under the laws of war, to target millions of civilians in a retaliatory nuclear attack.
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Richard Nixon famously admitted that he wanted the Soviet Union to believe that he was a madman with an itchy finger on the nuclear trigger and would not hesitate to blow an implacable enemy off the face of the map without a second thought.  His anti-communist passions, his hatred of the Soviet Union as a demonic, evil society, would animate his rock-ribbed conservative political views.   Most Americans thought that the Soviets were just as mad; and apparently both sides believed the other mad enough to stave off war.

The calculus has changed. We may have dropped tons of bombs on Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and their civilian populations to end the war, but in our new sensitive age we would never think of doing so.  Islamic terrorists, however, have shown that suicide attacks on civilian populations are a legitimate and justifiable instrument of war.

Other critics do not agree with Dershowitz and say that the United States and especially Israel would unquestionably retaliate and retaliate hard.  Civilian lives are lost every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, they say.  More importantly, it would be unconscionable for any American president not to retaliate if Israel were attacked.  So the threat of deterrence may work after all.

What about a preemptive strike such as that which is being proposed by Israel? 
Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister who ordered the preventive attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, expressly renounced mutually assured destruction as a policy. He said that Israeli "morality" would never permit a retaliatory attack against an Iraqi city: "The children of Baghdad are not our enemy."
A preventive attack, on the other hand, is always directed against a military target. Only one person -- a nuclear technician -- was killed in the attack Begin authorized.
What would be the downside to a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?

First, it is unclear whether or not Israel could actually accomplish its mission.  They may not have the military hardware and software to destroy deep bunkers, neutralize all installations within Iran’s defensive perimeter, and all radar and communications.  This is not a question of one bomb in one place.  The nuclear facilities may remain intact and a conventional war begun.

Second, although in the ‘Arab Street’ things could hardly be worse, there is no doubt that a regional war would cause additional chaos and uncertainty in the Middle East. 

Third, although Europe would be extremely happy to have a nuclear Iran out of the way, whether that result was from a preemptive strike and/or a devastating retaliation by Israel if it were attacked, Russia and China would once again be our enemies – two countries much more important in today’s international politics. 

Both Republicans and Democrats would be happy with an Israeli strike in principle, but would be unhappy with the precipitous drop in the stock market, an enraged China which could, despite its economic self-interest, pull out its investments in the US.  The American military would be unhappy because they would have to contemplate land wars, increased active military support to Israel, and more soldiers dead.

This logical, strategic argument is unlikely to hold sway.  We have all been convinced that Iran is up to no good, is led by madmen, and would annihilate Israel at the price of its own destruction.  The situation is even more pessimistic in Israel for understandable and legitimate reasons.  Of course Iran, like all Muslims, want to destroy us, strategic diplomacy be damned.   

Addendum: Since the writing of this article a nuclear 'deal' was struck between Iran and the United States according to which Iran would cease its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for the dropping of sanctions.  The deal only deferred Iran's nuclear production and had nothing to say about curbing its more dangerous regional adventurism.  A nuclear standoff might well have been the better solution; and one between the US and North Korea equally valid. 

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