Bill Quick continues an interesting discussion that I missed over the Christmas break. Rosemary Esmay argued that, by way of deterrent, we should announce a list of cities in the Islamic world we would obliterate in the event of another 9/11 attack. Aside from any moral issues, the plan is unworkable and, indeed, rather bizarre, as the several commenters on the post explain nicely. Briefly, the random targeting of, say, Riyadh for an attack on Los Angeles makes little sense if the attackers are sponsored by Iran or Pakistan. Indeed, the policy might actually encourage attacks on the US in the “two birds with one stone” tradition. Still, what about the broader question: Is there a situation where the US should consider nuclear attacks in retaliation for a terrorist attack?
The proposal provoked a lengthy essay from Donald Sensing in which objects to the proposal on moral and strategic grounds and, more interestingly, seems to argue that the use of nuclear weapons, period, is now off the table.
For anyone who thinks that a nuclear attack by the US, even in response to one against us by terrorists, could possibly be sane, much less proper, I tell you bluntly: you aren’t thinking at all and I am profoundly grateful you aren’t setting national defense policy.
Do you think that nuking any Arab city would make al Qaeda stop attacking us with every destructive means at their disposal? How many millions of innocents are you prepared to immolate before you try something else? Except then there will be nothing else to try.
NO ONE anywhere in the world would take our side on this. No one would rationalize the destruction of a third-world city and its people as their getting just desserts. There is no act we could take that would isolate us more, enrage the entire world at us more, make more uncountable new enemies, and convince billions of ordinary people around the world, not just Muslims, that America must be destroyed.
I can’t begin to list the nations that would sever diplomatic relations with us and expel our diplomatic staff, even the UK. All the intelligence relationships with the UK and other European nations – the most valuable we have – painstakingly built up since World War I would be aborted instantly. Same with Asia-Pacific countries. China would begin militarizing faster than ever. Russia would re-target American cities because its people would demand it.
Not only is MAD today a “strategy” of failure, it would be the means of our self destruction.
Bill Quick responds with an argument literally as old as the nuclear debate itself:
Nuclear weapons are weapons. They are no more moral or immoral than any other weapons. There is no morality bugaboo about nuclear fission or fusion that does not apply equally to other weapons of mass destruction – which includes the US Military as a whole, a superb weapon of mass destruction no matter what individual weapons it chooses to deploy.
I don’t subscribe to the morality of religion. I subscribe to the morality of liberty. And included in that morality is an absolute right to self defense, using whatever weapons are best suited to guarantee my liberty and my life, and the survival of my nation. To reject out of hand – as Donald Sensing does – any use of nukes in defense of this nation against Islamist attacks of any kind is itself an immoral act, since it encourages religious madmen in their belief that they can successfully wage war against the US. And that false belief only leads in one inevitable direction: the utter destruction of the entire Islamic world.
I don’t want that. Which is why I take nothing off the table in advance. And why I would not wish to give Islamists the idea that if they can successfully ignite a nuclear fire in New York, they can expect a three month buildup before an attack of some kind on one Islamist country, and a blockade against an Asian country not one of the Islamists gives a damn about.
While I reject Rosemary’s plan out of hand, I believe Bill is essentially right here.
Nuclear weapons are simply a fact of the last sixty years. They can’t be uninvented. As Don well knows, the idea behind nuclear deterrence is that having your enemy believe that he might suffer absolute destruction if he dares to attack you will prevent such an attack. If our enemies don’t believe we’ll retaliate with nuclear weapons even in the event that they launch a nuclear strike on us, then we decrease our own security immeasurably. Indeed, renouncing the use of nuclear weapons under all circumstances–and really meaning it–puts us in a worse position than we’d be in if we simply abolished our arsenal. At least then we’d be able to reallocate the resources we spend safeguarding and maintaining the stockpile to other means of defense.
Don’s argument that al Qaeda and similar groups are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation against state capitols is almost certainly correct, one of many reasons why I reject Rosemary’s plan out of hand. Still, the fear that states that aid these terrorists might be targeted in the event of another attack on US soil might well augment our other policies to dissuade such sponsorship.
I also agree with Don’s broader point that the use of nuclear weapons by the US would have severe diplomatic and economic consequences, although I don’t believe they’d be quite as catastrophic as he suggests. We’re by far the most powerful military, economic, and cultural force on the planet; it would hardly be to the advantage of many countries to end their relationship with us. Further, the idea that Russia and China would become more likely to attack us is improbable. They didn’t do so during the height of the Cold War, presumably out of self-interest. Those same interests would continue to prevail. Indeed, in the case of a nuclear strike by a state actor, our use of nuclear weapons in the modern era would seem a wonderful deterrent: The “What would they do?” issue would move from the realm of probably to near certainly.
That said, the use of nuclear weapons by the US would certainly squander an enormous amount of good will and soft power. A decision to use them shouldn’t be made lightly. The option should not, however, be dismissed out of hand.