Nuclear Agates in a Marbles World

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With one exception,
the hydrogen bomb is for show.

a nuclear bomb is the way to enter an exclusive club. It indicates
that a central government possesses power — not merely the power
to kill enemy civilians but power over its own citizens. It has
both the power to tax and the power to destroy. For a nation-state,
possessing a nuclear weapon is something like owning a Mercedes
in the Soviet Union in 1985.

In his 1999
book, The
Rise and Decline of the State
, military historian Martin
van Creveld argues that after 1945, the existence of the bomb made
its use an all-or-nothing gamble. No nation wanted to play the nuclear
card. This fundamentally changed military strategy, Creveld says.
It took away the military advantage of technological supremacy.
The ultimate ace in the hole for any nuclear-possessing nation has
become too risky to play.

With one exception.

Van Creveld
believes that this strategic standoff has undermined the legitimacy
of the modern nation-state, which has had to spend too much money
on conventional weapons, given the fact that an ultimate showdown
is unthinkable. He sees that a new form of warfare has passed the
strategic initiative to non-nuclear powers. The nuclear powers cannot
defeat and occupy non-nuclear states that adopt guerilla warfare.

William Lind
and the other post-1989 theorists of fourth-generation warfare
have taken this argument to the next level. The inability of any
nation to use the bomb has transferred the strategic initiative
to non-state military forces. They can undermine the legitimacy
of any invading state by inflicting the death of ten thousand cuts.
They can also undermine the legitimacy of any state that cannot
successfully resist the invading state and which makes peace with
the invader.

the more widespread that nuclear weaponry becomes, the higher the
risk of a nuclear exchange due to a tactical or strategic mistake.
Complexity increases the leverage of the unexpected. The classic
example is the outbreak of World War I. With nuclear weapons, this
threat also changed military strategy. The key strategy today is
to restrict the spread of these weapons. Complexity theory demands

The spread
of nuclear weapons is a threat to stability. It produces too many
unpredictable factors that could lead to a nuclear exchange. This
also increases the cost of pretending that the weapons will be used.
They might actually get used. The risk of a nuclear exchange rises
as the number of separate national arsenals grows.

Each nation
wants to hold down costs while staying in the game. The Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty is basically a tool of an oligopoly to restrict

Yet in a democratic
world, voters do not want their nations to be left out of the club.
They feel cheated. If the national rival enters the club (e.g.,
India), then the voters demand a response domestically (e.g., Pakistan).

the bomb is a matter of bragging rights today. Voters like their
leaders to brag on their behalf.


Consider North
Korea. The country is small. It has a million troops, yet it cannot
attack China. It could overrun Seoul in hours. But why would it
want to? It may soon be able to nuke Seoul. But why would it want

The bomb for
North Korea is clearly not a strategic weapon that it will actually
use. Then why has it been built? Bragging rights. Kim Jong-Il wants
to stand tall, which is not easy when you are five feet three. The
bomb is his version of lifts.

President Bush’s
response — “This is unacceptable” — is also a form of
posturing. Through diplomacy, he might be able to use tax money
to pay off Kim, but that would put him personally on eye level with
Kim. He is not about to do this. Going eye to eye with a shrimp
is not the President’s style. This is why he demands multi-nation
diplomacy. This is exactly what Kim-Lifts-Il is not going to accept.

Kim is like
a little kid in a school yard who wants into the marble game with
the big boys. To get in, you have to have at least one agate. A
million conventional marbles do not get you in.

So far, the
agate game has not started. Nobody wants it to start. But every
leader wants to be eligible. If you are not eligible, you are not
considered a big boy.

Kim says he
now has an agate, and the other boys are running around looking
for evidence. They have agate residue-sniffing planes. They have
agate bounce-detecting earphones. The boys are frantic. “Is he is?
Is he really in?”

They don’t
care about the low-budget agate as such. They care only about the
agate as a ticket into the club. They do not want a five-foot three-inch
kid in the club. But an agate gets you in.

the bomb is about bragging rights. It gets you into the big boys’


For one nation,
the bomb is not a bragging right. It has agates — a lot of agates
— but it says nothing. “Agates? What agates?” It does not demand
entry into the club.

There is a
possible reason for this. Here, I merely speculate. See if my speculation
makes strategic sense, in contrast to public relations success.

This nation
is concerned about another game of marbles, where the boys with
no agates challenge each other for supremacy.

In this game,
one boy has control over the most precious marble of all. But it
is vulnerable. It can be taken out of the game with a handful of
agates — or even one. The other boys will then go home.

The nation
with the agates isn’t interested in taking home the marbles. It
is interested in ending the game. Permanently.

That nation
is the State of Israel.

Israel does
not brag about its nuclear arsenal, because Israel really does have
a strategic use for its bombs. For Israel, and Israel alone, nuclear
weapons are part of an operational defensive strategy against any
strategically threatening attack across its borders.

I have known
about this strategy ever since a specialist in Islamic studies pointed
it out to me. This man has a network of informants inside the Middle
East. He knew that a major attack was imminent two weeks before
9/11, and said so publicly. He just did not know what it would be
or where it would be.

What I am about
to say here is never mentioned in public by any government official.
This is because it is obvious, once you are told about it. Whenever
you discover something that is obvious, but which no one ever discusses
in public, you are approaching a highly sensitive matter for all
concerned parties.

There is one
target with such enormous strategic importance that for it be taken
out is so unthinkable that literally everything hinges on it —
not just today but permanently. This target is ground zero of a
balance of power strategy that has been operational for 1400 years.
It is a granite cubicle called the Kaaba. Inside it is a black stone, which Muslims
believe was found by Abraham and Ishmael. For hundreds of millions
of Muslims, this is the holiest of relics. If these two religious
objects inside Mecca were ever obliterated, the survival of Islam
might be called into question. On the other hand, it might not —
which is the supreme strategic risk.

A nuclear hit
would be necessary to guarantee the destruction of the Kaaba. This
is today technically possible. It was not in 1948, 1967, and 1973.

Israel is believed
to possess several hundred nuclear weapons. But it only needs a
half dozen, plus ways to deliver them, in order to be certain that
one bomb will reach a specific target, after which the conflict
would end, permanently. Maybe.

Nuclear weapons
are all-or-nothing weapons. They invite retaliation. This retaliation
is strategically unthinkable for most nation-states. The stakes
are too high. But if one’s opponent does not possess a nuclear weapon,
and if there is a target — a single target — from which one’s
enemies derive the will to fight, then a nuclear strategy is militarily
rational in a world that does not honor the principle of civilian

Because of
the nature of the target, neither side dares mention publicly what
the strategists on both sides of a deeply religious conflict have
to take into consideration. The target is exclusively religious.
It is surrounded by 1.4 million civilians, plus visitors from all
over the world.

No Israeli
strategist would dare to mention that its generals have long targeted
a religious site. This is a religiously pluralistic world. There
would be too much political fallout. It would mean that a non-attacking
nation — Saudi Arabia — would suffer a pre-emptory strike
for an invasion of Israel that it officially had nothing to do with.

no Islamic leader would dare to mention that the Israelis possess
the technological ability to destroy God’s geographical contact
point with the faithful. That would make the bomb more powerful
than Allah. That would make the Israelis more powerful than Allah.
This is theologically inconceivable for Muslims, or at least ritually

The military
leaders of the regional enemies of the Israelis are not blind. They
understand the nature of Islamic society’s supreme vulnerability.

In only one
major world religion does geography have fundamental consequences.
This fact is the strategic ace in the hole for the nation of Israel.
But, for obvious reasons, both sides have adopted a policy: Don’t
ask, don’t tell

This ace in
the hole will become a deuce the day a regional Islamic state has
just one nuclear weapon and the ability to deliver it inside the
borders of the State of Israel. Again, this strategic reality is
never mentioned in public, precisely because everyone in power knows

The general
public knows none of this, any more than I did before it was pointed
out to me. Once it was pointed out, things became clearer almost

This is why
the State of Israel is determined to keep any regional Islamic power
from building a nuclear weapon. For the Israelis, this is not about
bragging rights. This is about a specific strategy of survival.


Hydrogen bombs
are horrible weapons. They are inherently anti-civilian weapons.
After the Thirty Years War (1618—48), the West decided to return
to its medieval concept of war’s limits. It concluded, once again,
that wars involving a tactic of targeting civilians are destructive
and immoral. Until Lincoln authorized Sheridan to burn civilian
properties in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, and also authorized
Sherman’s march to the sea, the West generally honored this conclusion.

Strategic bombing
in World War II put Lincoln’s strategy into the air. Civilians have
been in harm’s way ever since.

The United
States and the Soviet Union jointly adopted a Cold War policy called
MAD: mutually assured destruction. The military of each nation held
the rival civilian populations as captives. This was a technological
extension of the joint World War II strategy regarding biological
weapons. Chemical weapons got out of the bottle in World War I.
The fear was that biological weapons, with a far wider swath of
devastation, would get out in World War II. They didn’t.

If we take
the theory of fourth-generation warfare seriously — and I do —
then there remains a further level of its implementation: the adoption
by fourth-generation forces of the technology of biological weaponry.
World War II’s standoff was possible because only nation-states
were involved. Mutual assured destruction was believable. When a
non-state force gains the technology, “mutually” drops out.

What is to
prevent this from being done to Israel? I contend that there is
a strategy of response technically available to Israel’s generals
that could give the non-state aggressor pause, even though his forces
are not geographically identifiable and therefore vulnerable to
a direct nuclear response.

The strategic
problem with this response is the problem of the doomsday weapon
in Dr. Strangelove: It does the possessor no good if no one
else knows about it. Complexity theory indicates that unwanted genies
tend to get out of bottles.

The admitted
strategic reality today is the asymmetrical nature of nuclear weapons
in the Middle East. The nuclear genie is not yet out of the Islamic
bottle. This has led to Israel’s strategy of pre-emption, which
was used in 1981 against Iraq. This attack did not require nuclear
weapons. The question is: Will it be implemented again in Iran?

The widespread
assumption is that it will not. But this assumption is made in terms
of an analysis that does not consider the centrality of the Kaaba
in Islam. There is a supreme target for a supreme defensive strategy.


From the day
that Abraham Lincoln abandoned the strategic concept of the immunity
of civilians, the strategic genie was once again of the bottle.
That bottle and that genie are now back where they were in the stories
of the thousand and one nights.

are 130,000 American troops.

16, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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