Jewish World Review March 19, 2002 / 6 Nisan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Good news, bad news: thinking the unthinkable

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The good news is that somebody at the Pentagon is thinking about this country's nuclear arsenal. Which is a lot better than waiting till New York and Washington have been vaporized to remember that, oh, yes, this country had a nuclear deterrent somewhere, but never thought to bring it up to date.

The bad news is that any mention of strategic thinking is going to stir up Strangelovian fears. That's why any public mention of using nuclear weapons has been taboo. Our intelligentsia wouldn't approve. We've had a nuclear policy in place for years -- No New Nuclear Weapons -- and any change is now treated as heresy. That goes no matter how much the world has changed, and how much the danger has changed since the Soviet Union imploded. Now the principal threat comes from a different source: the Islamic world's jihadists and the regimes that support them. And a different nuclear doctrine is overdue.

The good news is that the Pentagon isn't waiting till another surprise attack like Sept. 11, or worse, before considering how nuclear weapons could deter not just a nuclear attack but any massive attack -- chemical, biological or conventional.

The bad news is that some want even thinking such thoughts to remain beyond the pale -- lest we upset Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or Iran's ayatollahs, or North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Not to mention the rogue states that didn't make George W. Bush's axis of evil but have a record of sponsoring terrorism -- like Syria and Libya. We're told not to do or even think about doing anything that might inspire such characters to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- as if they needed any incentive beyond their own mad ambitions.

To quote someone identified as a senior research associate with something called the National Resources Defense Council, even mentioning such regimes -- in a report that was leaked out of the Pentagon -- could prove a "provocation." Our military planners, you see, shouldn't be planning. Because thinking about how to counter those most likely to threaten us would only rile them. Call it the pre-Pearl Harbor view of military strategy. It rests on the dubious assumption that dangers we don't plan to counter will never arise.

The good news is that our more supportive allies understand why America's defense planners need to think about nuclear strategy in new ways. So this country can deter attacks that, while not necessarily nuclear, could be devastating. (See Sept. 11, 2001.) Our friends understand that it is their interests, their values and their people we're defending, too. This isn't just a war against terror, it's a war for civilization.

Hence the eminently sensible reaction from Italy's defense minister when asked to comment on Americans' daring to consider different forms of nuclear defense after a decade or two without a new idea. "Military forces from time to time evaluate their long-term programs even when it's hypothetical," he calmly explained.

Thinking about hypothetical dangers may help keep them only hypothetical.

Herman Kahn, one of the first thinkers about the unthinkable, shocked tender sensibilities because he dared sketch end-of-the-world scenarios. Not to plan for crises, he realized, invites them. Waiting till a Nikita Khrushchev decides to sow Cuba with nuclear missiles before reacting brought the world to the nuclear brink. It's better to Plan Ahead -- even for attacks that may not be nuclear but could be devastating.

As the Herman Kahns well understood, deterrence isn't likely to deter unless a potential enemy knows we're willing to use awful weapons, not just keep them in storage somewhere. Which is why an irrational gleam in a president's eye is worth any amount of unusable weapons in underground bunkers.

Our sophisticated European friends, like our own pundits, may be shocked by an American president's willingness to use atomic weapons, but Harry Truman didn't lose any sleep over ending a world war with them. Nor did anyone doubt Ronald Reagan's willingness to confront the Soviets' missiles with our own Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe -- which was why the Soviets decided to withdraw theirs. It's called Peace Through Strength.

The bad news for national security is that this confidential report from the Pentagon's planners, complete with its secrets, was leaked. Our secrets ain't so secret. It's as if the leak had been timed to complicate Dick Cheney's trip to firm up our alliances abroad.

The good news is that whoever leaked the report may actually have done the world a favor by letting the terrorists and their friends know that the United States of America isn't going to forswear the use of nuclear weapons, including new and more usable models, against those who would like to repeat Sept. 11 on an even grander scale.

Listen to Joe Lieberman, who can make a lot of sense when he's not running for vice president and obliged to echo somebody else's thoughts: "I don't mind some of these renegade nations thinking twice about the willingness of the U.S. to take action to defend our people, our values and our allies."

The news that Washington might finally adapt its Cold War arsenal to post-Cold War dangers could have a calming effect in some world capitals. For example, if some hotheads in Beijing decide now would be a good time to invade Taiwan, or if Saddam Hussein should contemplate lobbing a nuke in Jerusalem's direction, or if North Korea's beloved leader and nutcase decided that this time South Korea could be overrun ... they all might think again in the face of a revised, updated and newly calibrated American nuclear arsenal.

H-bombs and A-bombs that we're not about to use against terrorists and their enablers won't deter them. But suppose this country had a supply of nuclear weapons that could be used against targets big, little and in-between. Think low-yield nukes that could blow up a mountain and all the terrorists in its tunnels without endangering our troops or the civilian population centers all around. That's a more credible threat. To deter, a weapon must not only be fearsome but its use plausible.

To put it in philosophical terms, why not nuke the bastards? Why should American lives be sacrificed in land battles if this terrorist cancer could be treated with a little radioactive therapy?

Let the word go forth that the United States has a commander-in-chief now, and that acts of terror against the United States, its cities and its people are no longer going to be treated as felonies and misdemeanors assigned to some district attorney's office in New York. Instead they will be considered acts of war. And they will be countered by whatever new weapons it takes. After Sept. 11, America has come awake, and the old, unexamined restraints on our power, and on our strategic imagination, need to be reconsidered.

The best news is that people in authority are thinking about the unthinkable. Which is the best way to avoid having to do the unthinkable.

The worst news is not that the Pentagon has conducted this Nuclear Posture Review, but that, like so many other studies of the need for a better defense in these changed times, this report, too, will be ignored, or even disavowed. There's nothing like thinking outside the nuclear box to offend some folks. They'd rather sleep while the danger grows.

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