The Changing Stuff Of Nightmares

Of late, it appears that President Obama has “gone fission.” He’s making two very significant changes in regards to nuclear weapons.

First, he announced a change in our policy towards the use of nuclear weapons. For decades, the American policy was based on a very simple formula: “WMD=NBC.” Our stated position was that we would feel free to use Weapons of Mass Destruction if we were attacked with Weapons of Mass Destruction, and those were defined as Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical. In the eyes of the United States government, the three were essentially the same — or, as Tom Clancy once memorably put it, “a nuke is a bug is a gas.” And since we only had the nukes stockpiled, not bugs or gases, it meant that if we were attacked with any of the three, our attacker could expect to be reduced to a glowing glass parking lot.

Now, under Obama, the United States has set that aside. Instead, we’ve pared the N off from the NBC group. Now, if a nation is a participant in good faith in the non-proliferation treaty, we won’t nuke them. Period. Left unaddressed is those nations who might use the B or the C weapons — and that is quite troubling.

Biological and chemical weapons are often called “the poor man’s nukes,” as they give considerable “bang for the buck” without the huge costs and efforts involved in making nuclear weapons. The United States has found such weapons distasteful for a very long time, so we put more of our resources into nuclear weapons — relying on them to provide a deterrent to those who would be tempted to use them against us. And it seems to have worked.

Now we have no official declared deterrent against those who would use biological or chemical agents against us. Obviously, we would be free to retaliate with devastating conventional force, but we have arbitrarily taken nuclear weapons off the table.

Secondly, today President Obama signed a new treaty with the Russians that will reduce the number of nuclear weapons both sides maintain in their arsenals.

I’m of mixed feelings of these developments. I’m having a hard time either congratulating or condemning his moves in this area.

In the latter, I’m fully aware that the Russians (and before them, the Soviets) didn’t have the best of records in regards to keeping to arms agreements. And the ones they did sign generally were more to their advantage than ours. But there comes a point where we simply have enough nukes to achieve pretty much anything we could imagine needing to do with them.

In the former, I’m seeing it as another indicator that the historic nation-state is becoming obsolete in certain aspects.

When I was growing up (the late 1970’s and most of the 1980’s), the fear of nuclear war was a very real thing. And I’m not talking about one or two or five nuclear blasts — we were facing full-blown nuclear armageddon, with thousands and thousands of warheads flying back and forth, playing “bounce the rubble” until most of the world was a devastated wasteland and, to quote one of the more vivid observations, “the survivors will envy the dead.” Our hopes for avoiding such a fate was based upon the oh-so-honest MAD principle — Mutually Assured Destruction. We counted on our enemies caring more about saving their own people than destroying us. Our survival was based on our enemy being sane, being responsible, or — if all else fails — being incompetent.

That nightmare, thankfully, is long extinct. (Thank you, President Reagan. You, more than anyone, are responsible for saving us from that.) But now, we have a new nightmare to take its place.

(much more below the fold — man, am I long-winded this morning!)

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Nuclear weapons have become more widespread. More nations have nuclear weapons. But that’s not so bad; while officially off the US table, it’s still alive and well. In fact, it’s arguable that possessing nuclear weapons has actually helped the long-hostile relationship between India and Pakistan. Both nations now, essentially, hold each others’ populations hostage for their government’s good behavior — and it’s worked so far. Tensions between the two nations are at an all-time low.

But the threat of nuclear weapons being used is, ironically, enough, higher than ever.

The rise in power of non-governmental organizations is a disturbing trend. These groups — we might as well call them “terrorists,” as we really don’t have a catchy name for them just yet — amass power and influence that rivals nation-states, but lack the ties to a specific geographic area that adds responsibility and accountability to the power of a nation-state. Indeed, their ability to freely roam around and still maintain their power is one of their greatest strengths.

In Mexico, the narco-terrorists have free reign. They move into a region and utterly supplant the legal authorities for as long as is convenient for them, then move on.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has risen from a terrorist group to a terrorist group that is a key power player in the Lebanese government, exercising its own foreign policy and exerting veto power over pretty much anything the rest of the government might want to do.

In the Gaza Strip, the terrorist group Hezbollah IS the government, for a very loose definition of “government” (they only recognize the responsibilities that go with being a government when it’s convenient for them.

In several African nations, groups loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda are forming their own quasi-governments, not necessarily challenging the existing governments (such as they are) as supplanting them in large swaths of territory.

And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Taliban (a Venn diagram of the two would have a very hefty overlap, but they are officially separate) have repeatedly demonstrated that they aren’t so much interested in claiming either nation, but in controlling large swaths of the people in the name of a higher allegiance than to any nation-state.

For all its problems, nationalism has been a stabilizing force in the world. It has compelled people to hold an allegiance to and sense of duty to a larger structure, a single, unified, recognizable concept with tangible boundaries and clearly-defined rules about who is and who is not a part of that higher concept. We called those notions “nations,” and it allowed human civilization to make huge advances.

Of course, there is nothing sacred about the nation-state construct. Human civilization is, at its heart, a Darwinian process. We have always found new ways to organize ourselves, and new ideas compete with established forms.

But I do not believe these groups (we really need a snazzy new term for this phenomenon — any suggestions?) represent the next step in civilization. They represent the forms of organization that nation-states supplanted, but now possess the level of power that until recently only nation-states held. Sooner or later one of these groups will achieve their oft-stated goal of acquiring a weapon of mass destruction.

And have no doubt that they will use it. The only only proven deterrent to the use of a weapon of mass destruction has been the fear of retaliation, and those retaliatory threats are virtually meaningless to a group that has no civilian population it must protect, no territorial integrity it must preserve, no ties to keep them from either moving on or submerging into a civilian population while keeping their power intact.

In some respects, President Obama’s moves in regards to nuclear weapons does ease somewhat the dangers we face. Russia, to be honest, has long been seen as the likely source for any nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of these non-nation-states, as the collapse of the Soviet Union has made it very plausible for some of their weapons to quietly disappear, only to reappear with a most unpleasant bang. The treaty we have signed will compel the Russians to verify the location of nearly all their nuclear weapons, and dismantle (under tightly verified circumstances) some of them.

As for as the ending of the retaliatory principle of answering nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks with nuclear weapons, I don’t see that as a big deal. Whether or not the United States would answer such attacks in such a way has always been ambiguous — the declaration said we might do so, not that we would — and, should the all-too-thinkable occur and we do suffer an attack involving biological or chemical weapons from a clearly-identified nation-state, our conventional forces would be more than adequate to answer. And should the responsible party possess nuclear weapons, then the “Obama Doctrine” could be easily dispensed with by a wave of a presidential hand — it hardly has the force of law, after all, and even if it did, I don’t see China or Russia responding to a nuclear strike by filing a lawsuit.

It has been a long time since nuclear weapons posed an existential threat to the United States. But the tradeoff, it seems, was an increased chance of a much smaller attack involving WMDs.

It remains to be seen if that tradeoff was a good deal.

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