Article published in The Wall Street Journal
Someone tuned in to the breathless media coverage of the Bush administration’s nuclear report last week could be excused for assuming that Dr. Strangelove had taken control of the Pentagon. According to the scribes at The New York Times, America is behaving as a “Nuclear Rogue.” “If Pentagon proposals become American policy. . . .countries could conclude they have no motive to stay non-nuclear,” an editorial complained.
>From the sounds of it, President Bush is pushing dangerous policies that would move the world closer to nuclear war. The countries named in the Nuclear Posture Review quickly got their backs up. China said it was shocked, “deeply shocked” at its inclusion on the target list and wants a “clear explanation.” Axis of Evil member Iran explained that the report itself was equivalent to terrorism.
Let’s stop and take a deep breath. Are we actually going to nuke countries ranging from Russia to Libya to North Korea? No. What the government says it will do with nuclear weapons, and what it actually intends to do, are seldom the same thing. The public posture on nuclear use is called “declaratory strategy.” The secret war plans are “operational” strategy.
That’s a difference worth bearing in mind as you consider much of the recent reporting on proposed changes to U.S. nuclear strategy. The Bush Administration wants to reduce the size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal by about two-thirds while expanding the range of options for selectively applying such weapons. Some journalists have interpreted the changes as evidence that Bush’s advisors are lowering the barriers to employing weapons of mass destruction.
In reality, the opposite is true: they are trying to maximize the incentives other countries have to avoid using such weapons — not just nuclear weapons, but also chemical or biological weapons suitable for committing mass murder. The envisioned changes are an overdue response to shifts in the global security environment that make devastating attacks on the American homeland more likely.
But because the core of U.S. nuclear strategy is an elusive psychological concept called deterrence, the proposed changes are easily misunderstood. In fact, every effort to adjust nuclear strategy to changing circumstances has elicited the same fearful responses from the media, whether it was Eisenhower’s policy of massive retaliation, Kennedy’s assured destruction, Nixon’s flexible selective targeting, or Reagan’s defensive initiatives.
In order to understand why the press is almost always wrong in imputing dangerous motives to nuclear planners, it is necessary to revisit the logic of strategic deterrence. That’s a disappointing task to be undertaking a decade after the Cold War ended, because many people hoped that the specter of nuclear holocaust would gradually slip into history. But the atrocities of September 11 have demonstrated such aspirations are premature, and forced the administration to bolster the nation’s deterrent posture.
The Logic of Deterrence
Deterrence is the practice of preventing aggression by threatening unacceptable consequences. It has been used to channel conflict throughout the history. For example, many historians believe that the reason Hitler did not use poison gas in World War Two was his fear of retaliation in kind (he had been temporarily blinded by a gas attack in World War One).
After the advent of atomic weapons, the theoretical underpinnings of deterrence were elaborately systematized by western scholars such as Albert Wohlstetter and Henry Kissinger. The basic dilemma posed by such weapons was that their destructiveness made effective defense very difficult. If even a handful of bombs managed to get by defenders, they would cause vast carnage. In fact, a surprise attack could be so devastating that the victim might lose the ability to retaliate.
Nuclear deterrence was conceived to stabilize this precarious balance. In essence, it sought to guarantee that no nuclear aggressor could escape destruction, and thus minimize the incentives to attack. The concept had major limitations, especially when dealing with irrational or accident-prone adversaries, but once the Soviets achieved nuclear parity it was widely seen as the only viable option for assuring national survival.
The main problem with deterrence (other than being defenseless) is that it is a psychological construct. It won’t work unless the enemy believes you have the capability and will to make good on the threat of retaliation. During the late Cold War period, a great deal of thought went into designing nuclear forces that not only could retaliate, but could do so credibly. That meant not threatening nuclear armageddon in response to limited provocations, because such behavior was unbelievable and hence a poor deterrent.
Like the Soviets, President Reagan believed that the most potent deterrent was a credible capacity to fight and win nuclear wars. All of his strategic initiatives — better offensive forces, effective nuclear defenses, government continuity — were designed to support that goal. Much of the academic and policy community came to share Reagan’s view, not because it wanted to wage such a conflict, but because it wanted to prevent one.
This all seemed like ancient history before September 11. U.S. nuclear strategy during the Cold War years was focused almost exclusively on the Soviets, so once communism collapsed nuclear forces were seen to be much less important. Although the Bush administration began reviewing the nation’s nuclear posture within weeks after taking office, the main thrust of its efforts was to slash the size of the strategic arsenal by finding other means of deterring adversaries.
September 11 didn’t so much change this impulse as temper it, by reinforcing the administration’s awareness that not all mechanisms of mass destruction were nuclear, and not all potential aggressors were Russians. Bush’s advisors still want to cut the nuclear arsenal, but they want to use what weapons remain to strengthen deterrence in a new world of more diverse threats.
One way the congressionally-mandated nuclear posture review would do that is by signaling potential perpetrators of mass murder — such as Iraq and North Korea — that evil behavior may elicit the ultimate punishment. Another way is to develop new weapons that can credibly address emerging threats such as deeply buried command bunkers or biolabs.
Most of those new weapons will be non-nuclear. Some will be nuclear, maintained as a last resort to deal with hypothetical threats that defy other remedies. But the basic goal remains the same as in past nuclear reviews: to bolster deterrence by signaling credible retribution to the widest range of potential adversaries.
The core of the nation’s deterrent posture will continue to be sea-based and land-based ballistic missiles, backed up by highly capable conventional and special forces. The modest refinements Bush proposes would simply seek to dissuade new classes of aggressors from attacking America and its allies. If deterrence fails, the posture would then seek to defeat those enemies at the lowest feasible level of violence.
Mr. Bush and his advisors have few illusions about their ability to bargain with the kind of people who make up al Qaeda. But even the most deluded aggressor usually has some fear that can
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