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The Hazard of Nukes

The perils of proliferation in the post-Cold War world.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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How the End Begins

West German demonstrators against NATO Pershing missiles, 1983

West German demonstrators against NATO Pershing missiles, 1983

Alain Nogues / Sygma / Corbis

The Road to a Nuclear
World War III

by Ron Rosenbaum

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $28

This is, at once, a very bad good book, and a very good bad book. Its conversational writing style—full of fragments, run-ons, pop-culture references, and silly asides—is unworthy of its serious subject matter. There are typos everywhere, suggesting a rush job. Several long passages are given over to word-for-word transcripts of interviews that could have benefited from editing.

Ron Rosenbaum also makes some elementary errors. For instance, he asserts that North Korea is capable of producing nuclear weapons with yields of one megaton or more. In fact, both North Korean nuclear devices tested so far were in the low kiloton range and probably “fizzled”—that is, failed to produce their anticipated yields, which were unquestionably far lower than a megaton. Reaching the latter requires mastery of thermonuclear fusion, and we have no reason to believe the North Koreans can manage it. He also repeats the common misconception that Israel can be destroyed by “one” nuclear bomb. Not to minimize the horror of such an event, but even if one assumes megaton-scale weapons in the hands of, say, Iran (an unlikely prospect), it would take several to destroy all of the main Israeli population centers in the “T” from Haifa to Ashkelon, Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—still not quite the whole country.

Rosenbaum approaches the topic from the left side of the aisle, and sometimes his biases get the better of him. He is completely dismissive of missile defense. He takes at face value the Russian insistence that proposed American intercept and radar sites in Eastern Europe (which the Obama administration cancelled) threatened Russia’s ability to strike the United States. The truth, which the Russians well know, is that their vast arsenal could easily overwhelm any American system contemplated, much
less deployed. 

Rosenbaum claims to have read a vast number of articles and policy papers on nuclear strategy—and doubtless he is telling the truth—but he seems to have missed that, President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative notwithstanding, the United States gave up on pursuing all but the most limited defensive systems in the 1960s. And not because missile defense is technically unfeasible (which Rosenbaum takes for granted) but because nuclear theorists convinced policymakers that such systems destabilize the strategic balance by creating an incentive for nuclear peers to strike first. Bush administration officials were not being disingenuous when they said that Czech and Polish sites were intended to safeguard the United States and Europe against Iran. Moscow, having spent a great deal of money and political capital arming Iran, was just protecting
its investment.

Rosenbaum also occasionally lapses into caricature. He finds a villain in Keith Payne, a prolific writer on nuclear strategy whose views no doubt contrast sharply with Rosenbaum’s own. Yet ironically, Payne’s magnum opus, The Great American Gamble (2008), is a modern masterpiece of Thomistic Quaestiones Disputatae: Payne states the differing schools of nuclear strategy so clearly and fairly that the reader who picks up the book with an open mind will have a hard time deciding which approach to prefer.

Nonetheless, the virtues of How the End Begins are numerous and impressive. Beneath its surface superficiality, this is a deep meditation on the role, meaning, and possible consequences of nuclear weapons in our time. Rosenbaum is willing to discuss terrible things that nearly everyone else would prefer to ignore. An accomplished journalist, he manages to get access to an impressive list of sources. His longstanding liberal credentials open doors to fascinating discussions with disarmament icons such as Daniel Ellsberg and Bruce Blair. His journalistic chops gain him entrée into the highest levels of the Israeli defense establishment. Rosenbaum does not waste his chances.

The core of How the End Begins is an assertion, followed by moral argument, culminating in a plea. The assertion is that the world is closer today to nuclear Armageddon than it was during the Cold War. But not from nuclear terrorism. Rosenbaum does not exactly dismiss that prospect out of hand, but he does treat it as a sideshow. The real threat, he contends, is Russia and America’s “hair trigger” alert posture that keeps thousands of warheads ready to fly on a moment’s notice. Though he would be the first to admit that his discussion is highly derivative of others’ work, Rosenbaum sheds real light here. Few nonexperts have any idea how the command and control apparatus for America’s nuclear arsenal works. Even those favoring a robust nuclear deterrent (a position Rosenbaum does not share) should be disturbed by what he reports. There is a use-it-or-lose-it imperative built into the system that encourages button-pushers (of whom there are more, and at lower levels down the chain of command, than you think) to push their buttons at the first ambiguous sign of danger.

Yet it’s hard to see how the easing of Cold War tensions has made nuclear attack based on a false warning or rogue officer more likely rather than less. Rosenbaum refers a few times to the fall of 1983, probably the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Three hair-raising events in rapid succession—the shooting down of KAL Flight 007, a false positive in the Soviet early warning system, and the Russian misinterpretation of NATO training exercise as preparation for a surprise attack—at a time when East-West tensions were at a quarter-century high did not produce a cataclysm. Poor as U.S.-Russian relations are today, experience shows that they could be a lot worse. Rosenbaum believes we simply were lucky in 1983 (and before, and after) and that our luck will soon run out.

Perhaps. The deeper reason why our time probably is more dangerous than the Cold War is that more—and more unstable—nations than ever possess nuclear weapons. The complex web of alliances, overt and otherwise, that link nuclear powers great and small is not sufficiently understood. If, say, Iran gets the bomb and decides to use it as a shield behind which to become more belligerent—or worse, decides to explode one in anger—the fight won’t necessarily be solely between Iran and its intended victim. Others may step in. Once a conflict goes nuclear, or threatens to do so, suddenly each of the world’s nuclear powers might consider itself a central player. Rather than a classic cinematic Mexican standoff with only two shooters, the situation will look more like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs with three or four or more. This is a point that How the End Begins raises but does not adequately explore.

Rosenbaum’s moral argument is that nuclear retaliation is never justified. Threats may be useful to deter nuclear attacks, but once the damage is done, following through is always immoral. His case is strong. To his credit, it is also not sugarcoated. He dwells at length on the situation facing Israel and is forthright about what it entails. Yet his realism does not overcome his essential pacifism. Neither is his pacifism, however, nor his liberalism nor his evident sympathy for the nuclear zero movement enough to get him to sign on to that cause. He recognizes the usefulness, or at least the inevitability, of our nation retaining at least a small arsenal for the foreseeable future.

Rosenbaum is also unflinching about the central paradox of his morally acceptable deterrence: Introducing any doubt about the certainty of retaliation can raise the chances of having one’s bluff called. He nonetheless concludes with a plea to button-pushers everywhere: If you receive a launch order, don’t follow it. Rosenbaum absolves himself from any moral culpability on the grounds that he has no ability to influence policy and no enemy could possibly take his words as expressions of the will of the American government.

He may sell himself short. Deterrence depends on credibility, which in turn depends on an adversary’s assessment of a nation’s character, which can be divined in part by considering its internal debates. When spokesmen from the commanding heights of our intellectual culture make impassioned, erudite pleas against retaliation, it doesn’t reinforce the credibility of our deterrent.

What may save us—and what may have saved us up to now—is simple uncertainty. Thomas Schelling, a founder of American nuclear strategy, argued more than a half-century ago that our mere possession of nuclear weapons induces a fear that, once a conflict got out of control, anything might happen next. Uncertainty—not only in the minds of our enemies but even amongst ourselves—about what we might do if pushed to the wall stays adventurous and maleficent hands. 

Twice Rosenbaum mentions the “Samson Option,” an alleged Israeli plan for widespread retaliation should that nation’s survival seem mortally threatened. It’s uncertain why Rosenbaum brings it up, but perhaps that very uncertainty will itself help induce a little uncertainly in the right chanceries—and caves.

Michael Anton is policy director at Keep America Safe.


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