[First published February 10, 2005] Why, it is asked, should we be so afraid of terrorists having nuclear weapons when during most of the Cold War the Soviets had enough nuclear weapons to utterly destroy every major American city, and then some? Surely, the terrorist could not develop such a vast number of nukes. Yes, may be one or two, maybe in the long run even three of four, and certainly they will be a threat, but nothing like the Soviets were, it seems. And since we handled the Soviets, we should be able to deal with terrorist’s nukes. Right?
Wrong. What protected us from a Soviet first strike with their nuclear weapons was the American defense policy of deterrence. That is, if the Soviet’s attacked us, we would massively retaliate with our own nuclear weapons. In the early years of the Cold War, this meant attacking Soviet cities and major military targets. In the waning years of the Cold War, this policy was redefined to mean targets of value to the Soviet rulers, which were not only the most important military targets, but also the Communist Party, the rulers themselves, and their means of control over the nation.
Now, if the terrorists get nukes, how do we deter them? They operate in diffuse gangs, often with the secret help of sympathetic nations or groups within nations (such as a Muslim sub-community). And they are willing to die for their cause, which is often simply killing Americans. If the terrorists are able to hide a small nuclear bomb in a container unloaded in New York, and set it off, the result would be a city destroyed and perhaps half-a million murdered. Now, whom do we retaliate against?
Of course, we will try to track the source of the nuclear bomb, and perhaps find that it was constructed with the secret help of rogue scientists from Russia and Pakistan, with ingredients and parts from N. Korea, France, and China, much of it commercial. You can be sure that if such a bomb is exploded in the U.S., there will not be a clear relationship between the terrorists and any nations, as there was between El Quida and the Taliban of Afghanistan.
In other words, an anti-terrorist-use-of-nukes policy of deterrence will not work. For this reason alone, their getting nukes are more dangerous than when the Soviets had them.
This understood, then what is to be done? What we are doing now. Imprison or kill the terrorists, destroy their infrastructure, warn states that are supporting them about the consequences and apply pressure and sanctions, and prevent supporting states such as Iran from getting nukes themselves. And work at the underlying cause by working to democratize possibly supportive tyrannies. Democracies will never be a danger to us, or support terrorism. Above all, treat global terrorism as the war it is. There is too much at stake not to.
Oh, yes, let “nukes” stand for all weapons of mass destruction, and not a word of the above need be changed.
Link of Note
”N. Korea Announces It Has Nuclear Weapon” (2/10/05) By Sang-Hun Choe
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea on Thursday announced for the first time that it has nuclear arms and rejected moves to restart disarmament talks anytime soon, saying it needs the weapons as protection against an increasingly hostile United States.
N. Korea was helping Libya develop nuclear weapons, and is reportedly helping Iran. How long before Kim Il-jong decides the way to hit at its greatest enemy, the United States, is by helping the terrorists go nuclear. As for N. Korea itself, too much is made of its lack of reliable and long-range nuclear tipped missiles. Come now, there are many ways to deliver nuclear weapons without a missile (beside which the source of a missile is easy to track). How about exploding one hidden in a freighter off the port of New York?