Saturday, May 26, 2007

Deterring the Unthinkable

Back on May 8th the New York Times ran an interesting and frightening article titled "U.S. Debates Deterrence for Nuclear Terrorism." (You can read a summary of the article, or buy a copy, at Upsetting as this topic is, it's worth thinking hard about.

We live in a world in which the nuclear genie is out of the bottle for good. Once the property only of major nation states like the United States, Russia, and the U.K., nuclear weapons have proliferated to unstable and dangerous regimes like Pakistan and North Korea, leading to a deadly question: will traditional theories of deterrence (which imply a conventionally rational opponent) work against a foe motivated by religious passions (Iran, Pakistan, or Al Qaeda) or desperation for regime survival (North Korea)?

This is a question of much more than academic interest. The president of Iran has spoken of his desire to "wipe Israel off the map," and it has long been known that Al Qaeda is seeking the technology and materials to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, the belief - right or wrong - that Saddam Hussein was acquiring nuclear weapons was the professed reason for the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of individuals and groups motivated by belief in a paradise beyond this world are a horrifying do you deter the employment of a weapon by someone who believes he is doing God's will by employing it against you, and will be rewarded for it in the next life?

The Times article didn't offer any recommendations for how to achieve this simply teed up the issue and noted that "government experts" are meeting weekly to discuss it. This in itself is frightening, as very few groups representing agencies from across the government ever achieve anything worthwhile. As it happens, I have some ideas on this topic - none of which would probably ever be considered for implementation because they would represent a radically different approach to the problem from the standard government-selected options, which generally fall into two categories: 1 - bomb them; or 2 - create huge programs to throw money at the problem until it recedes into obscurity and can be safely ignored until the next crisis.

In a few months time (assuming we're all still here) I'll share my ideas with you. Until then, rest assured that your government has it's best minds hard at work on the problem.

You may want to practice the old duck-and-cover now.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


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