American politics is about to undergo a sea change. Our lives are going to be transformed on a more personal level as well. Sometime between now and five-to-ten years from now we’re going to be forced to choose between preemptive war with Iran, and living in a post-proliferation world. War with Iran will probably mean casualties on American soil. Iran has likely placed terrorist agents in the United States, with instructions to retaliate against civilian targets in the event of war. We’ll also likely see attacks on Persian Gulf oil shipments, and therefore a huge spike in the price of gasoline, with major economic consequences.
But what if there is no preemptive strike? What if Iran gets the bomb? (I find it tough to credit the notion that a negotiated agreement with Iran can prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. At any rate, only an imminent American military strike would have any hope of generating a verifiable bargain.) An extraordinary new article by Stephen Peter Rosen, “After Proliferation: What to Do if More States Go Nuclear,” makes it obvious that our lives and our politics are going to change dramatically in a post-proliferation world. So either we go to war with Iran — likely a more costly war than any we’ve faced since 9/11 — or our lives will transform forever. To see what I mean, let’s take a tour of Rosen’s remarkable argument.
Who Hit Me?
Rosen begins by sidestepping (or seeming to sidestep) the controversy between hawkish proliferation pessimists and dovish proliferation optimists. Proliferation pessimists (like yours truly) see only a limited chance of averting disaster if states like Iran get the bomb. For hawkish proliferation pessimists, tough action in the present is our last, best chance to keep the dangerous nuclear genie corked-up in his bottle.
Proliferation optimists, on the other hand, see reasons for hope in the record of nuclear peace during the Cold War. While granting the risks, proliferation optimists point out that the very horror of the nuclear option tends, in practice, to keep the peace. Without choosing between hawkish proliferation pessimists and dovish proliferation optimists, Rosen simply asks how we ought to act in a post-proliferation world.
Rosen assumes (rightly I believe) that proliferation is unlikely to stop with Iran. Once Iran gets the bomb, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are likely to develop their own nuclear weapons, for self-protection, and so as not to allow Iran to take de facto cultural-political control of the Muslim world. (I think you’ve got to at least add Egypt to this list.) With three, four, or more nuclear states in the Muslim Middle East, what becomes of deterrence?
A key to deterrence during the Cold War was our ability to know who had hit whom. With a small number of geographically separated nuclear states, and with the big opponents training satellites and specialized advance-guard radar emplacements on each other, it was relatively easy to know where a missile had come from. But what if a nuclear missile is launched at the United States from somewhere in a fully nuclearized Middle East, in the middle of a war in which, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already lobbing conventional missiles at one another? Would we know who had attacked us? Could we actually drop a retaliatory nuclear bomb on someone without being absolutely certain? And as Rosen asks, What if the nuclear blow was delivered against us by an airplane or a cruise missile? It might be almost impossible to trace the attack back to its source with certainty, especially in the midst of an ongoing conventional conflict.
We’re familiar with the horror scenario of a Muslim state passing a nuclear bomb to terrorists for use against an American city. But imagine the same scenario in a multi-polar Muslim nuclear world. With several Muslim countries in possession of the bomb, it would be extremely difficult to trace the state source of a nuclear terror strike. In fact, this very difficulty would encourage states (or ill-controlled elements within nuclear states — like Pakistan’s intelligence services or Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) to pass nukes to terrorists. The tougher it is to trace the source of a weapon, the easier it is to give the weapon away. In short, nuclear proliferation to multiple Muslim states greatly increases the chances of a nuclear terror strike.
Right now, the Indians and Pakistanis “enjoy” an apparently stable nuclear stand-off. Both countries have established basic deterrence, channels of communication, and have also eschewed a potentially destabilizing nuclear arms race. Attacks by Kashmiri militants in 2001 may have pushed India and Pakistan close to the nuclear brink. Yet since then, precisely because of the danger, the two countries seem to have established a clear, deterrence-based understanding. The 2001 crisis gives fuel to proliferation pessimists, while the current stability encourages proliferation optimists. Rosen points out, however, that a multi-polar nuclear Middle East is unlikely to follow the South Asian model.
Deep mutual suspicion between an expansionist, apocalyptic, Shiite Iran, secular Turkey, and the Sunni Saudis and Egyptians (not to mention Israel) is likely to fuel a dangerous multi-pronged nuclear arms race. Larger arsenals mean more chance of a weapon being slipped to terrorists. The collapse of the world’s non-proliferation regime also raises the chances that nuclearization will spread to Asian powers like Taiwan and Japan.
And of course, possession of nuclear weapons is likely to embolden Iran, especially in the transitional period before the Saudis develop weapons of their own. Like Saddam, Iran may be tempted to take control of Kuwait’s oil wealth, on the assumption that the United States will not dare risk a nuclear confrontation by escalating the conflict. If the proliferation optimists are right, then once the Saudis get nukes, Iran would be far less likely to make a move on nearby Kuwait. On the other hand, to the extent that we do see conventional war in a nuclearized Middle East, the losers will be sorely tempted to cancel out their defeat with a nuclear strike. There may have been nuclear peace during the Cold War, but there were also many “hot” proxy wars. If conventional wars break out in a nuclearized Middle East, it may be very difficult to stop them from escalating into nuclear confrontations.
What would life be like in such a world? Rosen argues that we must lose no time in constructing a specialized radar and satellite warning network trained on the Middle East. Without knowing who’s sending missiles against us, we cannot strike back or deter. Rosen also argues that even a somewhat leaky anti-missile defense system is going to be a must. A star-wars-type missile-defense system may have seemed powerless against the massive might of the old Soviet nuclear force. But against a growing nuclear power with a small arsenal, or against Islamic radicals who manage to commandeer an isolated nuclear-armed missile, an anti-missile defense could make a real difference.
This leads us to what may be Rosen’s most striking recommendation. “Duck and cover” is back! In a post-proliferation world, we are going to be raising another generation of children (probably several generations of children) marked by nerve-wracking “retention drills.” And get ready…the fallout shelter is coming back, too. Given the Soviets’ overwhelmingly large nuclear arsenal — capable of turning the entire United States to dust in the event of a major nuclear exchange — fallout shelters came to seem like a joke. But when dealing with a possible strike from a single weapon, or at most a mere handful of weapons, the logic of the fallout shelter is compelling. We’re going to need to be able to evacuate our cities in the event of a direct attack,
or to avoid radiation plumes from cities that have already been struck. Tens or hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by such measures.
But what about the problem of retaliation? Is there a middle way between the seemingly intolerable option of doing nothing to respond to a nuclear strike on New York or Washington, and indiscriminate nuclear retaliation against a country that may not even have attacked us? Rosen says the answer is a massive conventional campaign to take over and transform the countries that have struck us. That may seem intolerable now, but the public will demand no less in the wake of a nuclear attack on American soil.
So this is the upshot of Rosen’s remarkable article. Now let’s think through the implications.
For starters, the dovish Democrats are doomed. In “Hawkish Gloom,” I pointed in broad terms to the imminent hawkification of the United States. Well, Rosen’s detailed account of a post-proliferation world makes it clear that the revitalized George McGovern-Howard Dean wing of the Democratic party cannot survive much past the moment when Iran gets the bomb. As soon as that happens, we’re going to plunged into a proliferation crisis and a new Cold War, at least as dangerous as the first Cold War (arguably more so). At that point, the Democrats are going to beg Joe Lieberman to come back and give them his blessing. It turns out that we really are going to see a purge of the Democratic doves, and the accession of a Truman-like party, although it will probably take quite a few election cycles before the Democrats finally manage to remove taint of their Ned Lamont wing.
Funny how the very thing the doves don’t want — a preemptive strike on Iran, is the only thing that can save them. A nuclear Iran, followed by cascading proliferation throughout the Middle East and beyond, means the death of the dove. Even a negotiated and verifiable agreement to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program is inconceivable without the sort of credible threat of force the doves have made impossible to sustain.
A fully nuclearized, multi-polar Middle East will put us onto a permanent war footing. With Americans building fallout shelters, running evacuation drills, and otherwise preparing for a terrorist nuclear strike, dovishness won’t even be an option. Our political choices will probably be of two types. Exactly how hawkish shall we be, and how shall we shape our alliances?
After Iran gets the bomb, the fantasy that we can handle the post-9/11 world with our tiny military is going to disappear. As Rosen points out, the only middle way between helpless acceptance of nuclear terror and massive nuclear retaliation against countries that may not even have attacked us, is going to be through conventional invasions. Before, and certainly after a nuclear attack (even a terrorist and/or Iranian nuclear strike on Israel or Saudi Arabia), Americans will be forced to raise a large army capable of transforming the Middle East before final Armageddon strikes.
What’s that you say? We tried that in Iraq and it didn’t work. Well, after the bomb goes off, I assure you we’re going to try it again. In fact, you’ll demand that we try it. And with your patience and political support, at that point, who knows, it just may work.
Over and above our political arguments over precisely how much to expand our military (really a lot, or a whole heck of a lot), we’re also going to argue about our alliance strategies. With multiple nuclear powers, there will probably be a lot of shifting coalitions. True, the initial alliances are already evident. In a nuclear Middle East, we will be allied with Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia against Iran. But who knows whether Iran may try to strike a deal with one of the other Muslim states at some point, perhaps cozying up to Saudi Arabia if America puts too much pressure on the House of Saud. Just as America (very imperfectly) peeled Pakistan away from the informal rogue-state coalition after 9/11, shifting alliances between multiple nuclear camps will become a real possibility. American power will no longer command a fully nuclearized world. Instead, we’ll be the first among nuclear equals, jockeying for position against coalitions of powers who collectively may be able to stand us down. In this new world, Ned Lamont and the Daily Kos will be a distant memory.
The most egregious American doves don’t even bother to think out a position on the prospects for deterrence in a post-proliferation world. Implicitly, however, like their realist counterparts, the Howard Dean doves are proliferation optimists. Whether they’ve thought it through or not, their policy preferences require them to believe that a nuclear Iran can be deterred on the model of the Cold War.
Rosen claims to be neutral between the dovish proliferation optimists and the hawkish proliferation pessimists. But the truth is, everything Rosen says inclines us toward pessimism. One after another, Rosen knocks down the pillars of the Cold War deterrence analogy, showing that in a post-proliferation world, the balance of forces will tend toward instability. The lesson is that we face two choices: preemptive war with Iran, or a nightmare world on the brink of nuclear war and nuclear terror for the foreseeable future. Anyway you slice it, the doves are doomed. Unfortunately, so may we be all. Ready or not…duck and cover!
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.