Here at Gates of Vienna we’re in the habit of thinking about various forms of the unthinkable. Sometimes it gets us into trouble, because there are certain topics that may not be broached without releasing an atavistic rage in sensitive people. Forget the possibility that some of the awful scenarios under discussion here might become a reality in the not-so-distant future: we must not discuss them; it’s bad juju.
But we discuss them anyway. El Inglés’ recent essays have been the most controversial, with Paul Weston’s gloomy prognostications running a close second. Virtually any Fjordman essay invites the same kind of reaction — look down our sidebar for links to his most recent posts.
Yesterday our regular commenter Zenster drew my attention to a recent essay at the Belmont Club. Wretchard, too, is thinking the unthinkable, in this case about the possibility of deterring a terrorist WMD attack by methods that are similar to those used during the Cold War:
One of the more embarrassing aspects of the Cold War, which we can acknowledge without undue shame in retrospect, was that the safety of both superpowers depended on collective punishment. The vast arsenals of nuclear warheads on both sides, especially in the early days of missile guidance, were aimed not at military bases or government centers. They were not aimed at the White House, the Capitol or the Kremlin. They were aimed at the cities in which millions of civilians lived. Another word for the sonorous term of “deterrence” was holding the enemy nation’s population accountable for the actions of the leaders.
Elbridge A. Colby at the Hoover Institution Public Policy review revisits collective responsibility in the age of possible nuclear terror in his article, “Expanded Deterrence: Broadening the threat of retaliation”. His thesis, as you might have guessed, is that to prevent deniable nuclear attacks it is necessary not to listen to denials.
The problem is arises from the fact that we cannot deter terrorists directly. Colby writes, “as many have pointed out, terrorists are hard — and sometimes impossible — to deter directly. Clearly, people willing to kill themselves in order to conduct terrorist attacks are unlikely to be deterred by direct threats.”
Consequently he argues that there is no alternative but to hold terrorism’s parent societies or cultures responsible for any acts they may fail to prevent. “This posture would strongly incentivize those with the capability to act to do so, since gross negligence or complicity would incur retaliation (not necessarily, it should be emphasized, violent in nature). And our demands would be reasonable, because all we would be asking for is active assistance in preventing catastrophic attacks from those who, despite their own involvement — active or passive — in such attacks, benefit from the restraint of our current, excessively narrow posture.”
– – – – – – – – –
Wretchard quotes at length from Mr. Colby’s article, and discusses it in its current political context, namely an American election campaign in which one of the two major contenders shows extraordinary tendencies towards pacifism and appeasement.
And the larger question, regardless of whether or not Barack Obama becomes president, is this: does any Western nation possessing the capability of deterring Islamic terrorists actually have the political will to use that capability?
The suicidal zealots who long for death in the cause of Allah cannot possibly be deterred. For deterrence to be effective, the comfortable elites in the countries that harbor terrorists are the ones who must believe that they will suffer greatly in the event of a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies.
Given the current craven behavior of our civil and military authorities, why would any reasonably intelligent Pakistani or Saudi official believe that his comfort and perks are put at risk by the terrorists on his soil? What likelihood is there that we would do more than ask him to cooperate with the FBI, request the extradition of suspects, send delegations to engage in talks, or propose resolutions at the United Nations?
Wretchard goes on:
Colby argues, on classical grounds, that for such a deterrent to be effective it has to be credible. There has to be no doubt among allies (who may shelter under the American nuclear umbrella) and the enemy that America will carry out the threatened response. But leaving Obama aside, can anybody, in this politically correct world, really believe it will be carried out? Colby himself has doubts. “The credibility of a deterrent threat is vital to its success. Yet the threat to expand our retaliation beyond those directly responsible might strike our opponents and others as incredible.”
The Hoover paper categorically rejects this policy as the threat of collective punishment, describing it instead as “a policy that carefully and reasonably expands the definition of guilt — it is not a policy that targets the innocent.”
Readers of the Belmont Club will be familiar with posts which have dealt with the concepts discussed in the Hoover paper, such as The Ghost of AQ Khan, the Return of Danger and of course, the granddaddy of them all, the Three Conjectures. There are two problems in particular which are not closely examined by the Hoover paper. The first, which was raised by the Three Conjectures, is whether there is any stable stopping point if a WMD exchange is initiated. Implicit in the Hoover paper is the idea that terror — and let’s be frank here, Islamic terror — can be restrained by its larger social milieu. That somehow threatening “supporters” and “marks of prestige” can put the damper on Osama Bin Laden and his ilk; or at least “incentivize” the grand muftis of whatever mosque to cool their hotheads. I hope that control exists, but I will argue that it is far from clear that it does.
The second problem is what course small, non-nuclear states should follow in a world of deniable nuclear weapons. Singapore for example, and Germany according to some, would be examples of countries which could be subjected to nuclear blackmail. If “expanded deterrence” is good for America, why should it not be good for Singapore, which the regional enemy of Islamic terrorism? And if America will have difficulty credibly threatening “expanded deterrence” in the event a US city is destroyed, how can any country credibly threaten that America would retaliate on its behalf against “supporters” and “marks of prestige” (in other words Muslim populations and Mecca) in the event Singapore or Berlin is reduced to ash? If the Vatican were destroyed, for example, who could be counted on to carry out the threat of “expanded deterrence”?
I agree with Wretchard: America will not take severe punitive action against any terror-supporting state until after some new horrific attack has occurred. But such a response will be too late for the act to have any deterrent value, since by then weapons of mass destruction will have been democratized, and there will be plenty of suitcase nukes, dirty bombs, and chemical weapons in the hands of small disconnected groups of fanatics who cannot be deterred.
As Wretchard points out, at the same time that proliferation carries WMDs into the hands of the terrorists, so will the means of retaliation be democratized. When governments no longer protect their own people, and suitcase nukes can be bought on the black market, what is to stop the Aryan Nations or the Nordic Front or [fill in your most loathed right-wing racist hate group here] from privatizing cultural defense?
Once the social contract has been broken, the task of protecting home, family, community, and culture will devolve to smaller and more local groups, some of which will not feel themselves bound by the oh-so-fastidious orthodoxies of our own time. Survival tends to trump everything else.
It’s easy to envision a descent into a truly Hobbesian situation. It doesn’t have to come to that, but our leaders will need to make some hard choices very soon to prevent it, and I don’t hold out much hope of that happening.
There will come a time when the unthinkable will make itself known, and none of us will be able to avoid thinking about it.