Thinking the unthinkable
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."
Many elements of a deterrent policy against terrorists are in place already. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that, implicitly, an expanded deterrence policy already exists. It is taken as a matter of course that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah are the object of a deterrent strategy by the United States. The U.S. government’s response to al Qaeda’s attacks, while stymied by insufficient focus and resources, exhibits the marks of a latter-stage deterrent strategy: They attacked us, thus they will be destroyed. Operation Enduring Freedom and elements of the Administration’s National Security Strategy moved towards a deterrent framework. The U.S. has already expanded notions of culpability in terrorism with its campaigns against material supporters of terror, financial backers, direct action, threats against state sponsors of terror, and so forth. Among Democrats, Senator Barack Obama endorsed a deterrence approach against terrorists in his August 1, 2007 speech, threatening to strike terrorists within Pakistan to retaliate for or prevent attacks. More recently, in a little noticed speech on February 8, 2008 that represented a major step forward for U.S. counterterrorism policy, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley announced that the U.S. had recently adopted “a new declaratory policy to help deter terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States, our friends, and allies.” This policy would threaten with retaliation “those states, organizations, or individuals who might enable or facilitate terrorists in obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.” But the policy, while deserving of applause, remains inchoate and unpublicized. The argument presented here attempts to develop further Hadley’s commendable but incomplete proposal.
Here I should interject that Barack Obama's deterrence approach is less than categorical. The Washington Post reported this exchange between Hillary Clinton and Obama on August 3, 2007 at around the same time Obama was enunciating his policy of deterrence.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew another distinction between herself and Sen. Barack Obama yesterday, refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden or other terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Clinton's comments came in response to Obama's remarks earlier in the day that nuclear weapons are "not on the table" in dealing with ungoverned territories in the two countries, and they continued a steady tug of war among the Democratic presidential candidates over foreign policy.
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance" in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Obama said. He then added that he would not use such weapons in situations "involving civilians."
"Let me scratch that," he said. "There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table."
Obama (Ill.) was responding to a question by the Associated Press about whether there was any circumstance in which he would be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat terrorism and bin Laden.
"There's been no discussion of using nuclear weapons, and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss," Obama said. When asked whether his answer also applied to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, he said it did.
By the afternoon, Clinton (N.Y.) had responded with an implicit rebuke. "Presidents should be careful at all times in discussing the use and nonuse of nuclear weapons," she said, adding that she would not answer hypothetical questions about the use of nuclear force.
But whether the Obama policy ball eventually stops on black or on red upon the spinning wheel of political fortune, Colby's point about an emerging doctrine of expanded deterrence is probably a valid one. Here is the bluntest and most direct expression of the concept. The words are from the Hoover paper, the emphasis is mine.
Reports suggest that al Qaeda is plotting WMD attacks against the West from its hideouts in the northwestern regions of Pakistan. The Pakistani Army has made halting, ineffective efforts to track them down. Many in the area are likely hiding or at least complicit in hiding members of al Qaeda. Yet, perversely, these individuals most likely either fear or sympathize more with al Qaeda than the faraway Americans and our apparently unintimidating sometime-allies in the Pakistani Army. How does it make sense that it is the American people rather than the relevant inhabitants of the frontier provinces of Pakistan who must bear the risk of an attack launched by al Qaeda elements sheltered in this very region?
Expanding deterrence would redress this imbalance. Instead of permitting individuals and entities engaged in protecting or abetting terrorists to be bystanders, this policy would force them to bear the risk of retaliation in the event of a catastrophic attack. This would strongly incentivize those potentially implicated either to take action on our behalf or at least not cooperate in hostile activities. The same logic would apply to those in the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency and other elements in Pakistan who have protected and fostered al Qaeda.
In the event of a catastrophic al Qaeda attack against the U.S. homeland, the United States would, having set out this policy, therefore have the moral and strategic rationale to retaliate not only against al Qaeda members themselves, but also against those whose cooperation, material support, complicity, or gross negligence made the killing of thousands of Americans possible. Legitimate targets of American retaliation would now include supporters, facilitators, moneymen, back office workers, and onwards, as well as infrastructure, housing, food and other supplies, land, political control over territory, marks of prestige, and so forth. Depending upon need and the degree of culpability, American options would include detention, capture, confiscation, disabling, humiliation, pressuring, all the way up to (but not necessarily emphasizing or even including) military operations.
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 have long argued that the advent of the terrorist nuclear weapon would present the policymakers with an unpalatable and almost noxious set of options. The menu is so unappetizing that I argued, in Three Conjectures, that it was time to pull out all the conventional stops to prevent being trapped in a dilemma where the only choices were watching one city after the other go up in nuclear car bombs or exercising "expanded deterrence". But if there is no stable stopping point; if the muftis or imams can't slam on the brakes, then "expanded deterrence" will proceed until it is maximally expanded. We don't want to go there. So while we have the chance to alter the destination, let's not go there.
But proliferation, I later realized, will change the nature of deterrence itself. If al-Qaeda can get nukes, why should it stop there? Why not Neo-Nazis? Why not small countries who are vulnerable to extortion? I have argued that once terrorists acquire the ability to engineer repeatable nuclear explosions then every country which can beg, borrow or steal a nuke will acquire them. For example, if Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Taiwan were persuaded a terrorist could attack them, they would not rely on an American umbrella to visit "expanded retaliation" on the usual suspects. No head of state could accept a reliance on actions which an ally might not even be able to carry out on its own behalf. They would therefore get their own nukes and use them accordingly.
I don't think expanded deterrence will actually be seriously considered until after an actual nuclear attack on some country. However, Elbridge A. Colby's discussion at Hoover is a useful first step in escaping from the prison of obsolete strategic concepts and thinking through the problems of maintaining the peace in the 21st century. Even if the clarity comes after the fact, a well considered framework developed now will be useful in restraining the panicked survivors of the Washington policy establishment as they peel the charred skin from their limbs and pick the glass shards from their eyes. Maybe the act of thinking about the unthinkable now will motivate them into conventional action now rather than wait for the very uncertain later.
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