More on Existential Threats

Have been out of internet-action for much of the past two weeks. Thus a number of threads to pick up again, from "whiny law professor" (yes, there's much more in store), to the nature of Islamophobia and moderate Islam, to the "narrow sliver" of American society with anything personally at stake in America's ongoing wars, to China events of all sorts from RMB to Nobel Prizes to daily life.

Let's start with this one: the nature of "existential threats." A week ago I contended that Israel's "existential" fears of a nuclear Iran were part of a broader modern problem, rather than being unique to Israel's situation (which is of course unique in other ways).

An Israeli writer had contended that Iran's mere possession of a nuclear weapon would forever eliminate Israelis' "sense of security," because they would know from that moment onward that if Iran decided to attack, they could not hope to prevent the deaths of "Jews by the tens of thousands." Retaliation, yes. Absolute protection, not. To avoid this impossibility, Israel would -- by this logic --  have no choice but to launch a preemptive attack.

Thumbnail image for ReaganGorby.jpgThe possible Israeli predicament is true. But it is a subset of the larger truth that as long as thousands of nuclear weapons exist in the world's arsenals, there is nothing any nation can do to prevent the deaths of "people by the tens of millions" if an accidental, crazed, or malicious attack began. This is the grimness of the nuclear age; it is why so many people have devoted their careers to the study of "deterrence" and "confidence building"; and it is why many world leaders, most dramatically Ronald Reagan, have rebelled against the unacceptability of a situation in which countless people might be killed at any time. (Reagan's rebellion took the form not only of his "Strategic Defense Initiative"/"Star Wars" proposals in 1983 but also his famous attempt, at Reykjavik in 1986, to strike a "let's get rid of all nukes" agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev, as shown above.)

Israel faces a problem, but it's a variant of an all-too-familiar problem -- even granting the hostility of Iranian rhetoric. And as the problem has arisen elsewhere, the solution is not assumed to be preemptive bombing of the country that might pose the threat - not by the US against the Soviet Union, not by China against India, not by India against Pakistan, not by the US or anyone else against North Korea. South Korea faces if anything a worse version of Israel's problem, being right next to its enemy in the north.

Readers respond:


1) A reminder, from a reader in Dubai, of something I should have included the first time around: William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1949, previously mentioned here, which was all about existential concerns. Eg: "Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?"

That families no longer build fallout shelters and schoolchildren no longer do "duck and cover" drills to (supposedly) protect themselves against nuclear blast, as my classmates and I did in grade school, is a step forward. But the nuclear weapons are still there. Thus the "Countdown to Zero" movement.

2) After the jump, a different line of challenge from another reader:

>>You say, "...I recognize the value of "strategic ambiguity" on this front -- ie, letting the Iranian leadership think an attack might possibly be coming, even if in the end the U.S. or even Israel would not carry it out."

Now I can understand the logic of maintaining a level of strategic ambiguity, but I would strongly question the methodology by which Israel and the US maintain that ambiguity. Specifically, by repeatedly threatening military attacks, sabotage, assassinations and regime change. Don't these threats actually COMPEL the Iranian leadership, if they take their duty to their nation and their constituency at all seriously, to develop the most effective deterrent they possibly can?

If the goal is to convince Iran NOT to build a nuclear deterrent capability, wouldn't it arguably be MORE effective to promise that, short of Iranian military aggression, the US and Israel guarantee they will NOT use overt or covert military force against Iran?

It just seems that the ongoing, repeated threats of attack effectively force the Iranians to work on a deterrent program, even if they otherwise would prefer not to... <<

Of course the reader's question assumes that the Iranian regime is finally "rational" -- thinking in a self-interested way about its survival and welfare, rather than acting in pure spasms of hatred or ideology. This is a surprisingly important distinction, because scenarios of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel necessarily assume  that Iran's leadership is finally irrational. Ie, that it is so set on its anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that it is willing to be anti-Persian in the process, sacrificing its own people as a small price to pay for destroying Israel. There cannot be an Iranian leader so naive as not to know that an attack on Israel would lead to complete, suicidal devastation for Iran in retaliatory strikes by Israel, with its own nuclear weapons, and probably the United States.

Would a regime act this way? Certainly suicide-bomber behavior is well known among individuals and some groups. But for an entire regime? Leaders have made decisions so foolish as to be tantamount to national suicide. (Hitler's unprompted declaration of war on the United States after Pearl Harbor; Hitler in general; the Japanese leadership's inability to surrender in early 1945; the "Great Leap Forward" under Mao; make your own list.) But it is hard to think of a plausible counterpart to the feared Iranian strike on Israel. In what other case has a regime decided, in cold blood, to launch an attack that it knows will kill millions of its own people within hours?

I assume that the Iranian leadership, while hostile and anti-Semitic, is finally rational, and self-interested rather than suicidal. If that's so, as the reader suggests, it is worth offering both carrots and sticks. Engagement and security if it behaves more cooperatively; increasing difficulty if it does not. Exactly what difficulty -- that is where the ambiguity comes in. In my view, the U.S. should neither explicitly threaten nor completely rule out a preemptive strike in its public comments. In all ways it should increase the cost to the Iranian leadership of not cooperative, and plus the potential benefits of changing course. Bluster about an attack could, as the reader points out, turn out to be self-defeating, in making the Iranians think they face their own "existential" threat.