The political scientist John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Ohio State University, has written "Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda," and his thesis is that the world's magical thinking and alarmism about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons has significantly distorted policy making and threatens to leave the United States more vulnerable to more pressing threats. Mueller's opinions are not shared by most of his colleagues, but they are taken seriously -- he's not a provocateur. I asked Mueller this morning to put the news about Iran in the context of his theories. How much of a threat is Iran's proliferation? How much of a threat is the West's obsession with Iran's proliferation?
"No one has been killed by nuclear weapons in recent memory and lots of people have been killed by our obsession with proliferation, especially in Iraq," he says.
Ok. Lets assume that Iran gets the bomb. What happens?
bunch of other countries will run around in hysterics for a while, but
in the end, probably nothing. What China has done with the bomb has
been nothing. It's just been a huge waste of money. Basically, if Iran
gets the bomb, they may find that it's completely useless, except to
stoke their egos for a while.
that nuclear weapons are extremely destructive, but you say that our
obsession with them has led to a fear that is way out of proportion to
the actual threat. One thing you write in your book is that the notion
that the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever possessed enough nuclear
weapons to destroy the world several times over is just false.
It's false. It would take
like 90,000 huge thermonuclear bombs, and we don't have near that many.
That doesn't mean that nuclear weapons can't kill large numbers of
people. But if the weapon that North Korea has were dropped in Central
Park, it wouldn't bring down any buildings. If it were placed in Times
Square, it would be pretty bad, but there is a lot of exaggeration
about the difference [between that bomb and a large conventional
explosive]. Look, the bomb is a horrible thing. I don't want to sound
like I'm trivializing the bomb. But it makes sense to at least abandon
some of our conceptions that are [just as] dangerous.
You want to focus proliferation activities more on terrorists and technology and less on nation-states?
of. In the case of terrorism, I'm not too alarmed about it. Some things
make sense, like securing fissile materials. But I do have a problem
with carrying out policies that could kill tens of thousands of people.
Allison, the Obama administration official and former Harvard prof, has
estimated that there's a 50% chance that a nuclear weapon will explode
in a major city over the next ten years. I take it you disagree with
Well, he also said that in
2005. He's a smart guy, and he's been thinking about this for a while.
My disagreement is that he massively undersestimates the difficulty of
a terrorist getting a bomb. There aren't loose nukes out there, even
though he's been talking about it for years. There aren't fissile
materials. What tends to happen on analyses like this, including his,
is that it looks at the individual steps to build a bomb and concludes
that, it would be difficult but not impossible fo each step. But
overcoming [all] twenty difficult if not impossible [steps] to build a
bomb -- there is a vanishingly small likelihood of success. There's
been a considerable exaggeratoin by him and others that Al Qaeda is
even interested in obtaining the bomb.
to the current situation. Isn't the non-proliferation regime you
criticize preventing Israel from bombing Iran -- and therefore
preventing the escalation of the scenario?
it's quite possible than Iran will never try to get a bomb. But if they
are bombed by Israel, it will increase the likelihood of them getting
the bomb. It will escalate. I think a nuclear Iran could be well
contained and deterred.
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is a contributing editor at The Atlantic
. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One
, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week