Nuclear Strategy 101
The other day Chris Matthew of MSNBC interviewed former US presidential national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel. When Engel said, in response to a question about what the Iranians might be thinking, that they were concerned with Israel’s nuclear weapons, Matthews abruptly changed the subject, saying, “We all know that.” My question is: Why is the nonexistence of Iranian nuclear weapons a topic of consuming significance, while the existence of Israel’s perhaps 400 nuclear weapons is not worthy of comment? Apparently, the answer is that Israel is fundamentally peaceful and would never use its weapons, while Iran is fundamentally aggressive and eager to use nuclear weapons even if it means the destruction of its 4,000-year-old civilization. The absurdity of this proposition is too obvious for comment. Let us consider a more reasonable answer. If everyone knows about Israel’s nuclear capacity, then why is there need to discuss it? The answer is simple: There is an enormous difference between an open secret and an officially acknowledged statement of fact, and no more so than in the diplomatic world. The reason goes to the heart of nuclear strategy and its cardinal principle: Mutually assured destruction. If the US officially said “Israel has nuclear weapons,” then the US would have a major problem with its official position of “No nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” The US would have to overturn its 60-year-old policy of nuclear deterrence, which, for all of its risks, has worked, notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union -- “The evil empire.” The strategy is simple: So long as one state can absorb the full capacity of another’s nuclear strike and can still retaliate with destruction deemed unacceptable by the aggressor, deterrence works. This is what mutually assured destruction means.
Regarding the Middle East, this question becomes: “Why is deterrence, which has been proven to be an effective policy globally, not applicable in the Middle East?” Perhaps it has to do with deserts or camels? Another good question -- too good perhaps -- is why the US does not acknowledge the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons? If it did, the US would have to confront three policy choices: (1) Cover the region with the US nuclear umbrella, as it did with Europe and the Far East. In the interview mentioned above, Brzezinski made this point, but only -- and with fatal results -- partially, saying the US should protect Israel from attack, leaving out all other Middle Eastern states. The absurdity of this one-sided approach is unworthy of a distinguished analyst. (2) The US could mandate the disarmament of Israel. The grounds of this option are clear and compelling. One nation with nuclear capabilities located in a hostile environment makes the region inherently unstable. Stability in the nuclear age requires mutually assured destruction. The logical implication is undeniable: More than one nation in a region must have nuclear weapons or the region will be unstable -- that is, at the beck and call of the one nuclear power which is, in this case, Israel. (3) This option derives from the first two. If the US will not protect all the states in the Middle East against the one nuclear power, Israel, and will not disarm Israel, then nuclear stability requires that another nation in the region should possess nuclear weapons. Only then will the doctrine of mutually assured destruction apply. Of all the governments of the Middle East, if I were forced to make a choice, I would prefer Turkey.
US President Barack Obama’s latest response to a question on the supposed nuclear threat from Iran was that “the US will continue to work ‘in lockstep’ with Israel in managing it.” What “being in lockstep with Israel” really implies is this: By ignoring all the rational options, a benefit of not officially recognizing Israel’s nuclear capability, the US allows an irrational approach to the Middle East to determine its policies, including its decisions to engage in war.
The consequences of this irrational approach are catastrophic: (1) Israel will continue to have a free hand in Palestine, because any power who could curtail their oppression of the Palestinians will be under nuclear threat. (2) The US influence in the region will continue to decline, which is not a disaster for the world, but clearly counters American interests in the region. (3) The Iranian people will have to support a regime they might otherwise wish to replace; in essence, moderates being forced to support radicals. (4) Instability in the region will increase for two reasons: The US will not have a rational policy and will, in effect, give Israel a free hand to bully the region. (5) The global economy will suffer due to the unpredictability of the region and the possible increase in the price of oil. Imagine the effects of $5 for a gallon of gasoline in the US, or $10, or more elsewhere? Imagine the effects on the developing world. The list goes on. (6) Israeli security might be improved in the short run, but not in the medium term. Israel cannot prevent the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, but only delay the process. Does anyone believe that a thwarted and devastated Iran will be more reasonable towards Israel?
Allow me to close with two points. I am not in favor of nations having nuclear weapons. I wish they could be abolished. As this does not seem likely, the next best policy centers on deterrence, which requires mutually assured destruction. This is a fact of life in the nuclear age. America’s unwillingness to accept this fact endangers the survival of the world. And for what?
* Christopher Vasillopulos, PhD, is a professor of international relations at Eastern Connecticut State University.