Thinking through the unthinkable

Posted by Lex, on April 18, 2008


Krauthammer notes that the nuclear genie is out of the box in North Korea and will soon be in Iran. With preemption probably off the table, the only things left are defense and deterrence. But how do you deter the undeterrable?

With (Iran’s) current millenarian leadership, deterrence is indeed a feeble gamble, as I wrote in 2006 in making the case for considering preemption. But if preemption is off the table, deterrence is all you’ve got. Our task is to make deterrence in this context less feeble.

Two ways: Begin by making the retaliatory threat in response to Iranian nuclear aggression so unmistakable and so overwhelming that the non-millenarians in leadership would stay the hand or even remove those taking their country to the point of extinction.

But there is an adjunct to deterrence: missile defense. Against a huge Soviet arsenal, this was useless. Against small powers with small arsenals, i.e., North Korea and Iran, it becomes extremely effective in conjunction with deterrence…

Of course, one can get around missile defense by using terrorists. But anything short of a hermetically secret, perfectly executed, multiple-site attack would cause terrible, but not existential, destruction. The retaliatory destruction, on the other hand, would be existential.

Well, maybe. It’s one thing to launch a massively retaliatory strike when the other guy’s missiles are inbound. In the case of a terrorist strike, you’d have to first work your way through the nuclear forensics and then decide – in cool, deliberate way – that the other actor’s entire population is forfeit to the actions of an illegitimate regime.

I’m not sure I see it.

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