by Gary North
With one exception, the hydrogen bomb is for show.
Possessing 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.
Meanwhile, 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 this.
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 entry.
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).
Possessing 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 to?
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.
Possessing the bomb is about bragging rights. It gets you into the big boys' club.
THE ONE EXCEPTION
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 immunity.
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.
Similarly, 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 unmentionable.
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 this.
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 instantly.
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.
THE GENIE IS OUT OF THE BOTTLE
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.
So are 130,000 American troops.
October 16, 2006
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